My new Huffington Post piece talks about how we forget history in many fashions, not just through the kind of destruction we are seeing in Iraq and Syria. The direct link to the column is here.
“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it,” said Winston Churchill — a great quote and just like him.
But what of those who seek to destroy history altogether, who endeavor to wipe the words from a page already written? The sight of historic relics preserved from humankind’s earliest era being purposefully destroyed forever by determined ISIS forces is jarring to our sensibilities and a sacrilege on almost every level
It’s happened many times in other centuries. The destruction of the Epang Palace great library in China in 206 B. C., or the massive Alexandria library torched five centuries later, left sizeable holes in the narrative of history that can never be recovered, even through modern technology.
But this is the modern era, where our understanding of the importance of history is virtually absolute. The pictures coming across our screens of statues being pushed over, stone carvings being hammered to oblivion, or symbols being spirited away to who knows where run the danger of imposing a form of cultural Alzheimer’s on the arc of recorded history. Some of these artifacts, and their significance to the human story, are likely gone forever and we’ll forget about them soon enough.
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history,” wrote George Orwell. That applies not only to the troubled people of Iraq and Syria, but to us as well as these vital “connectors” to our beginnings lie in ruins. As one Iraqi archaeologist put it: “No history, no culture, no past.”
Nothing else quite compares to this in the modern era. Groups that can sever heads would give little thought to severing our connection to the past. They are like cancer cells — disconnected, dangerous and clearly deadly. Something sinister awaits those who become better known for what they destroy than what they create.
History doesn’t exclusively disappear through a sword, a bomb, or a mallet. It can as easily be brought about through a lack of attention to detail as it can through explosives. The affluent countries of the West are showing disturbing signs of neglect for values that once were sacred to how they worked. We were once on a path for pay equity for women until we lost our way and the fight went out of us. Twenty-five years ago, every member of the House of Commons in the Canadian parliament voted to end child poverty by the year 2000 — a promise that has not only been forgotten but exacerbated as well. Social programs that were once so essential to the equilibrium and productivity of Canada are slowly being dismantled as citizens pay little heed. The great problem of climate change is a world of ecological decline where entire species disappear. Lakes have vanished, wells have run dry, the rains don’t come anymore in some areas, and our love of oil has overtaken our reverence for Nature.
Politically we have lost the art of respect and compromise, as rank partisanship severs every society it touches. Citizens are leaving the voting booth at the same time as politicians forego their commitment to authenticity. Even entire portions of government itself are disappearing through political gamesmanship and a destructive willingness to prefer the present over the future.
One only wishes we could be as horrified over such incremental obliteration as we are over the travesty of the actions of ISIS. Around the world, history is under assault, through brutality, greed, or neglect. It will be tougher to correct our present course if we can’t remember the road we took in the first place.
Shakespeare once noted: “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” What happens when we can no longer remember who we were?