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October 19 2017

Why Devaluing Our Past Doesn't Help Us Make a Better Future

by Charlotte Hays

We seem to be turning on our past--we pull down statues of historical figures who don't measure up to our supposedly enlightened standards, we regard several of our Founders primarily as slave holders.

Francis O'Gorman has written a new book Forgetfulness: Making the Modern Culture of Amnesia that warns against the wholesale devaluation of our past. I haven't read O'Gorman's book, but a review in (of all places) the lefty New Statesman convinces me that it has great relevance for the disparagers of the past who reign in cultural institutions.

The New Statesman's John Gray writes:

 O’Gorman believes that the systematic devaluation of the past began in earnest in the 19th century, though it goes much further back. Today, disparaging the past is a mark of intellectual respectability. Anyone who believes that history involves loss as well as gain is reactionary: “The preference among liberal intellectuals is for a new kind of Whig history – one where the past is to be surveyed primarily to expose its failings…”

In this by now thoroughly conventional perspective, the values and structures of the past are seen as “always categories of power, where anything that is dominant is, by definition, oppressive. The only exception is the dominance of liberal ideas themselves, which can, it is assumed, never be oppressive.” In the 18th and 19th centuries, Whig history meant history written as a story of continuing improvement. Today, it means history written as an exercise in reproach and accusation in which universal human evils are represented as being exclusively the products of Western power.

Giving voice to oppressed and marginalised groups – ethnic and sexual minorities, subalterns of empire – may be a necessary part of historical inquiry. Yet as practised today by many historians, retrieving these occluded identities seems to require that other identities – local, national and religious, for example – be critically demolished and then consigned to the memory hole. Forgetfulness of the past must be actively cultivated, so that a future may emerge in which human beings can shape their lives as they please. As David Rieff argues in his powerful critique of commemoration, In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies (2016), there may be times when laying the past aside is necessary for human beings to be able to live peaceably with themselves.

The end result of a systematic devaluation of the past, however, is a condition of confusion not unlike that experienced by those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. . . .

Unfortunately (and strangely), O'Gorman identifies early Christianity, with its emphasis on the redemption of past crimes and starting again, as the source of this devaluation of the past. But the contempt for the past that reigns today seems to me a far newer phenomenon based at least in part on the notion that history is built on oppression and crimes.

Still, this review indicates that O'Gorman's book will shed light on the damaging emphasis on identity politics that threatens to drive out other forms of the study of history and refuses to recognize and celebrate the achievements of those who have gone before us.   

Independent Women’s Forum’s mission is to improve the lives of Americans by increasing the number of women who value free markets and personal liberty. Sister organization of Independent Women’s Voice.
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