History: An inconvenient truth

Publishers are plain scared. No that’s unfair. They are terrified. In our bizarre age of disrupters and those who prefer to ‘repurpose’ inconvenient truths like history, some readers might think that burning books or garnishing our histories with falsehoods is cool. History as taught in books doesn’t matter, right? In the United States, rewriting history is taking place on an unprecedented scale from the left and right. Be it Spielberg’s edit of the twentieth anniversary edition of E.T., which is not “history” although it is his film’s history, or “restricting” previous book publications, we are rapidly losing our collective pasts. Libraries are poorer and so are we. The novelist and screenwriter Sidney Sheldon called libraries the storehouse that “fuels the imagination. They open up windows to the world and inspire us to explore and achieve and contribute to improving our quality of life.” 

So, how can we understand human development if we erase its past? Rewriting, oh pardon me, repurposing Roald Dahl’s books is just the thin edge of the wedge. Last year, according to the American Library Association some 2,571 books have been listed as “objectionable” compared with 223 books two years earlier. Another 1,586 books have bans or restrictions already in place according to PEN America which focuses its activities on free speech and literature. Top ranking States banning or restricting books in schools (in order of bans or restrictions) are Texas, Pennsylvania, Florida, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Tennessee. Still, Tennessee has put forward legislation to make it a criminal offense for publishers to provide books to schools that the state wants banned. Among the restricted or banned books in these states are biographies of Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. No wonder fear saturates publishing. Do people really want their children to attend a school where these pivotal figures who stood up against the excesses of racism and bigotry are not taught in the context of their times? Pandering to book banning or restrictions infringes on the education system’s ability to teach appropriate material for each age group. That includes material that underlines the history of how we became more civilized.

And that’s my gripe. As a historian and biographer, I know the past matters. History matters. But most significantly context matters. E.T. was one of the greatest films ever made for family viewing. Tell me please why the police pointing guns at Elliot and E.T. is scarier than the gun violence over 300,000 American school children have endured since Columbine? Oh, silly me, that’s an inconvenient truth. Why should we know the fact that more Americans have died of gun violence from 1968 to 2015 (1.53 million) than in all U.S. wars from 1775 to 2017 (1.2 million) according to NBC News? And what does that fact say? Context matters. History matters.

How can we understand human development if we erase its past?

None of us recalls the furor caused by Darwin’s Origin of the Species. The 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial is infamous for the state of Tennessee suing high school teacher John Thomas Scopes for teaching the theory of evolution against Tennessee’s Butler Act, which prohibited teaching any theory contrary to the Bible’s book of Genesis. Back then, the trial was considered an argument between fundamentalists and modernists — but there was debate. Scopes had his day in court and although he was found guilty and fined $100, Tennessee did not come out of the trial unscathed. Today, there is no day in court, just a treacherous cancellation in social media and special interest groups.

If Nazi Germany had succeeded in obliterating all the “un-German” books, ideas, and people it had wanted to, we’d be ignorant of all that Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Steven Spielberg, Bob Dylan, Joseph Heller, J.D. Salinger, Noam Chomsky, Philip Roth, Herman Wouk, Franz Kafka, Gary Kasparov, Saul Bellow, George Gershwin, Gustav Mahler, Felix Mendelsohn, the Marx Brothers, Moses, Jesus, and so many others have given to the world. 

Some might think, so what? No loss. That is precisely what the enablers and influencers of Hitler believed when they rallied to his Beerhall Putsch 100 years ago on November 9, 1923. The Nazis didn’t like inconvenient truths either. Hitler blamed all Germany’s woes on political enemies, the church, freemasons, and especially the Jews. He was able to draw on mythic lies and label them the “truth.” It is one thing for a leader — any leader — to declare himself above the rule of law, it is quite another for a free press, educators, and business leaders to bow to it and promote uniform and dangerous ideas that lead to demagoguery and suppression of free speech. Yet it continues everywhere.

Changing history and facts as Vladimir Putin has done regarding Ukraine is the latest example of why history matters. I am thankful I can still disagree without fear about Putin’s disruptive worldview and fabricated history. (My own Ukrainian grandfather was enslaved by the Romanov Russian Czar Nicholas II.) Putin has become our problem. Undemocratically-minded world leaders have decided that they can change the past by denying it. Others believe they can simply cancel opposing views to their own. Since when has America given up on the right to free speech for all? Canceling voices that disagree with our own as writers or leaders of thought and opinion is a weaponization of the fears and even the hopes of those who listen. It works a deceitful magic on the minds of individuals and enablers that kills informed debate and creates an unfair and unbalanced society. It promotes ignorance, too.

Democracy matters. Facts matter. History matters. Let us learn to respect knowledge.

Let’s learn from our past mistakes and triumphs and not color them with some wicked paintbrush to convince others we’re right, ignoring the facts. Let’s not reinvent definitions for existing words that are diametrically opposed, calling the “truth” a “lie” or we shall never become better people and live healthier, happier lives, and leave a less fractious and safer planet behind us for our children and grandchildren. 


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