Thursday , August 31, 2017 - 5:00 AM8 comments
I returned from an extended stay in London two weeks ago to a nation seething over a protest gone awry. In this land of supposed free speech, one protesting group offended another group to the point of a tragic death. It didn’t stop there. Statues that offend one of the sides came down faster than autumn leaves, some pulled down by angry protesters, others tapped for removal by university presidents, and government and corporate leaders falling over one another in a rush to be the most politically correct of the fray, lest they themselves come under condemnation and some symbol of their own existence is targeted for removal.
I don’t condone the beliefs of white supremacists. I also don’t condone the actions of their opponents to silence them. Regarding the knee-jerk removal of statues, I share a thought.
In London, a retired BBC friend took me on a personal guided tour of England’s heart, the Parliament building. Steeped in history, the ancient structure holds stories and treasures unmatched by most nations, including ours. In the midst of the tapestries, giant portraits, massive art pieces, unique antiques, ornate furniture, and luxurious rugs we approached the entrance to the House of Commons chamber. To my utter surprise, the large, stone-arch entrance to that chamber was blackened, burnt stone, with rough, broken edges and holes.
Puzzled, I turned to my British host. He explained that during World War II, the Germans did their best to obliterate England, especially its core. So the timeless Parliament building would have been a crowning triumph, had they destroyed it. The enemy came close enough that they actually bombed the House of Commons end of the building. The chamber my friend and I entered was a rebuild of the original. But in that rebuild, Prime Minister Winston Churchill ordered that the bombed arch should remain. His reasoning? “Lest we forget.” He and other British leaders chose to leave a visible reminder of that dark part of their history.
In a later visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum, one of London’s largest, most cherished buildings, I saw giant pockmarks and craters along the west side of the otherwise beautifully ornate edifice. A marble slab inset amongst the craters reads, “The damage to these walls is the result of enemy bombing during the blitz of the Second World War 1939-45 and is left as a memorial to the enduring values of this great museum in a time of conflict.”
There are two ways to deal with visual reminders of difficult times in a nation’s history. One is to obliterate them. In doing so, the next generation will never be bothered with having to ponder the past, and commit to a stronger future. It’s easier to pretend there were no dark times in a nation’s history if the evidence is removed. (This is the reasoning behind those who purport the Holocaust never happened.) Destroying evidence of the past also offers a quick way to pacify an offended group — an unfortunate trend that weakens this country.
Or, relying on its “enduring values,” a nation can choose to acknowledge its difficult past, learn all they can from it, and commit to never repeat it.
Destruction of evidence of a dark past reflects an admission of fear. Perhaps we fear we’re not strong enough to guarantee it doesn’t repeat. Or we decide we don’t like that part of our history and wish it never happened. So we pull the evidence down, or shroud it, and supposedly that makes everything right again.
But the absence of reminders of a difficult past robs us. The British people who walk through that arch in Parliament, or run a hand along the rough surfaces of those craters on the museum’s walls can never doubt that their beloved city was once under attack. And that tangible evidence puts iron into their spines, and “never again” resolve into their hearts.
Churchill knew what he was doing. And I’m confident he never once considered pandering to people who might be offended by it.
Small wonder he’s still considered a hero.
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