A Piece of Work
What do Robert E. Lee, John A. Macdonald, Edward Cornwallis and Jeffrey Amherst have in common? Stay with me and you’ll find out.
In my undergraduate days, I studied History and we had a whole course on methods whose focus was “What is history?”
The two critical problems we wrestled with were “What is the appropriate interaction between current-day values/attitudes with the historical record?” and “What is a fact?”
This second problem is a thorny one, for what constitutes a fact varies widely depending on the area of knowledge concerned. To a jurist, the testimony of a witness can be the basis of a fact.
To a scientist, it’s not; scientists want replicable observation in their facts, a quality which historians cannot have in theirs.
Historians use records as the basis of their facts and the closer the record’s origin to the events described, the better.
Theology uses Divine Revelation as the bedrock of facts. Historians, scientists and jurists do not. And as for what constitutes a fact to politicians, that is largely a function of what they think makes them more electable.
For example, since Hurricane Harvey, Texas Senator Cruz has become not-so-strangely silent in his previously unrelenting criticism of a bloated, intrusive U.S. federal government!
It is the first problem, however, which is the may throw some light on the connection among these four notable people.
My late sixties/early seventies university instructors in history and political studies constantly warned us about the dangers of injecting our own values and prejudices into our subject-matter.
“Above all, no zeal!” was the watchword of venerated Canadian political scientist M.S. Donnelly. The professors of that day believed that ideology distorted one’s perception of what is real and what is true. Historians and political scientists were to imitate the supposed objectivity of the natural scientists.
In today’s academe and among the educated elite, the struggle is more over which set of current-day values will provide the lens to “clarify” truth in history, politics, literature, even sometimes in science (think about global warming).
Hence, the culture wars and the conflict over “political correctness.” Hence the turmoil over “fake news” and “alternative facts.”
Of course, the supposed value-less academics of the seventies were self-deluding. But at least they were able to talk to each other, to debate, refine and refute.
Today so much of our supposed search for truth consists of yelling at those with whom we disagree.
But I wonder: just how much do people really want to discover truth? In previous contributions to this blog I’ve written about confirmation bias, people’s tendency to filter evidence and to accept only what confirms what they think they already know.
So many of us prefer the comfort of our ignorance rather than the discomfort of truth. Socrates profoundly stated, “The only thing I know is that I know nothing,” by which I believe he meant that the only way we can learn is to have the humility to know we don’t know since the one who knows need not learn.
An even greater moral teacher than Socrates, Jesus of Nazareth, promised, “The Truth will set you free.” But how many people prefer the comfortable chains of their preconceptions and biases to the bracing and discomforting freedom of a Truth that might shatter our smug certainties?
Recently, I met with a high school classmate who now lives in Chicago. My old friend loathes Donald Trump. (I suspect he is not alone in that sentiment.) When I suggested to him that there might well be many Trump detractors who would prefer nuclear war to ever giving Mr. Trump credit for anything good, my friend’s face froze.
With a wry look, he said, “You know, when Harvey was wreaking havoc in Texas, part of me wished it would destroy Texas and Trump would be blamed. But I recognized that as horrible and choked it off.”
My friend, who is Christian, recognized his own bloody-mindedness. My friend has the humility to face his imperfection. He also seeks the freedom accept his own status as a redeemed sinner loved by God, a quality which is at the core of St. Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises.
But so many of us prefer our certainties and refuse to be challenged, refuse to be humble, refuse to be free.
And now we come to those four notables with whom I began. All of these people are currently controversial because their lives and actions are not withstanding the scrutiny and opprobrium of modern values injected into their histories.
Lee’s and Cornwallis’s statues are seen to glorify racism; Macdonald is seen as one who promoted the extinction of indigenous culture and so schools should not be in his name. General Amherst is of the same ilk and so a street in Montreal named after him must go.
My point here is not to defend these people’s actions. Rather, it is that these people are being shown not to be the purely heroic and noble figures they were once thought to be. They are being shown to have feet of clay.
And so many of us can’t stand this because we desperately want heroes to look up to and villains to look down upon. That way, we don’t have to discern, we don’t have to have compassion. White hats and black hats make things so much easier.
To acknowledge that Lee could be a slaveholder and still be a valiant soldier, that Macdonald could be a drunk and be ignorant and biased about indigenous people but still have been a molder of our country and that effective generals could be racist means that we have to accept our fallen nature, our imperfection and our status a loved sinners dependant upon God’s grace and mercy.
Of course, doing so does not mean whitewashing their misdeeds. But if Pope Francis can say, “Who am I to judge?” all the more should I say it…and act upon it.
American satirist and social critic H.L. Mencken famously wrote, “For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.” We might amend that slightly to “We can put every complex human into a simple category and be wrong.” For the study of history is not about judging people but understanding them. And so is life.