The Hubris of Revision

I read an article yesterday picking on Valentine’s Day. It took down the card companies, the forced and scheduled love, and even the Single’s Awareness Day which it has fostered.

The article said it was fine to celebrate. But somehow it was necessary to find things wrong with that, which is akin to saying “You are free to do that, but you’re an insensitive and ignorant idiot.” At least that’s what I heard.

It didn’t really go into history, and I think that’s because the writer may have found himself attacking something really beautiful. But historical and cultural revision is all the rage.

And I’ll say it – it’s predominantly by the millennial generation.

Now getting history right is good. Let me talk a little about a popular-to-malign figure, Christopher Columbus:

I do think Columbus has been over-lionized, and mostly by a distinct group – my ethnic Italian friends. But the attack on old Chris has presented him without any good qualities. He was, at the very least, a daring explorer. And on the bad side, at the very least, a horrible governor. So now if you celebrate his day – which was always a good day to take off from work – you are a heretic and one espousing pillage and rape.

Not so!! I have no particular connection with things Columbus and I’ve known since 15 years old or so that the Norwegians were the first Europeans to set foot on North America.

So what? Columbus set sail across an ocean not knowing what he would find. His modern critics have the courage to post entries on the internet.

His crew was a collection of tough, morally compromised men who believed they answered to no one, not even Columbus.

I don’t know the details and context of the abuse his crew and people heaped on Native Americans. Neither do his detractors, though they love to find and spit disconnected writings as if they prove their points. We can probably say he at least didn’t stop it. But we don’t know what would happen if he did. There are other explorers who treated the indigenous people they encountered with kindness and dignity. Bartolome de la Casas is such a person.

Columbus had weaknesses – in particular he was a poor leader and governor. His men ran rampant and did their brutal best to ruin the good country and people they had found.

I’m not making excuses for Christopher Columbus. I’m saying he wasn’t as good as the holiday says and not as bad as his modern critics say.

The more troubling phenomenon is the need to revise. To make some points:

1. Snobs revise. C.S. Lewis coined the phrase “chronological snobbery” to describe the phenomenon of a generation declaring its superiority to past generations by applying its enlightened perspective to those living in past centuries. Note that he wrote that in the 1940s – so there’s nothing new about revisionism.  But “snobbery” is an accurate description of the practice.  One thing is certain – that same practice will be exercised by one’s children.  The snobs will be vilified by future snobs.

2. Context and progress matter. In the American south during the slave era, racism was rife. Believing that Africans were subhuman was required to live in a society where they were treated that way. It was wrong, horribly unjust and we live with the wounds of that society to this day. But expecting someone who lived in that society to have the values of 21st century America ignores the economic system in force and the struggle it would take to bring justice. So, reading the words of a white slave owner – like Thomas Jefferson – and coloring them all with a single fact is willfully ignorant and unfair.

3. Injection is fallacy. Like Walter Mitty, those who insert themselves as heroes, retroactively into systems and times of injustice and abuse are day dreaming. It’s so easy to write critically and spew ad hominem vitriol on one’s forebears. It’s an entirely different matter to live under such systems and stay alive to make change. Nazis killed detractors; and the fear that spawned helped poison the minds and actions of an entire generation of German people.  There were heroic ones who resisted, but they did so risking it all.

4. Do revisionists really care? If those writing so critically applied the same energy to the known injustices of today; they would get a taste of the roadblocks and realities of the good fight. That way they would understand better that, for instance, misogyny was once a sea in which entire cultures swam (indeed still swim) and its practice, assumptions and language permeated everything.

Please, let’s revise US. And let’s practice mercy – finding the good and virtue amidst whatever else we might find wrong – with our historical past.

We will then find that mercy triumphs over judgment. Period. And when we need mercy, we will also receive it. There was someone really important who said:

Matthew 5:7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.