Better to teach the past than to try and sanitise it

Goodness me those people in the nineteenth century were racists weren’t they? Well yes when seen from today’s enlightened times they were. (I didn’t put quotes around “enlightened” – I genuinely believe that is a fair descriptor of how we approach race today). Some will say that to criticise Dickens, or Marx (or Enid Blyton of Agatha Christie for that matter) for their racist views or racist expressions is wrong because they were simply products of the mores of their times.

I cannot even write the original title of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little…” book here because The Times automatic word checker would reject the whole post if I did. The use of the same word in Fawlty Towers has led to some rapid post hoc editing of the archive. Twenty-first century enlightened standards being applied retrospectively to the 1930s and the 1970s – let alone to the late 1800s.

The root cause of what some would see as a preposterous application of political correctness to the past is a contempt for the perceptiveness of the people today. It assumes that people aren’t smart enough to see what John Cleese and Connie Booth were doing when they put those words into the Major’s mouth. The Major was an old bigot not untypical of his age and times – I know this because there were a few similar in my own family. Surely most people can see and understand this – and learn from it?

When listening to David Starkey I wasn’t seeing archive footage of an old racist spouting offensive views. I was watching a old racist spout them today in real time. His pathetic little interviewer failed to challenge him which seemed to encourage the fool to be more outrageous. Why the hell he did it I’ve no idea – because he was allowed to I think.

Cecil Rhodes statue in Cape Town

If we remove all the statues and edit all the books (and maybe throw some on the fire) how will we learn about the past? If you throw some slaver’s statue in the Harbour it doesn’t make what he did not to have happened. It just means that fewer people will know about it. Are we likely to be able to know more about Cecil Rhodes if his statue is hidden away out of view or if it’s somewhere we can see it – with a suitable plaque explaining who he was and what he did and the times in which he did it? Do we really need to be protected from the past? Or might it not be preferable that that past was better explained to us?

2 thoughts on “Better to teach the past than to try and sanitise it

  1. Henry Ford once said “History is more or less bunk. It’s a tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history that we make today.” (Chicago Tribune, 1916).
    In a sense he was right and his point is just as relevant today. However, most of us accept that the value of knowledge of the past is principally the only tool we have in avoiding the mistakes our ancestors made.
    That does not in my view mean we should allow history’s influence to seep into the consciousness of the young. Prejudice and racism do that very easily, insidiously, sublimely and even sometimes without malice.
    It can be countered with education and I agree in a perfect world it’s always better to educate than sanitise… Assuming, of course, everyone has the benefit of a good education. That is where this argument falls down. Sadly not everyone does. The evidence for that is all too apparent in the far-right counter-culture, UKIP the aristocracy within the Conservative Party and sadly among the Labour Party rife with antisemitism. We assume many received a good education some a very expensive private education. Many attended a good university. Yet sadly racist attitudes persist and flourish in every generation.
    So until education improves drastically and eradicates racialism for good, some form of sanitation it seems to me is desirable, necessary, essential even. Who or what decides the level of quality of that is another debate. However old TV comedy programmes seem to be as good a place to begin with as any.


    1. Yes well said. Too much education these days seems vocational and not broader. When I was in the Sixth form in the 1960s our “A” Level English master said “The set book is Anthony and Cleopatra” but this term we’re going to read “Caesar and Cleopatra” by Shaw. It’s much better. We’ll get round to the Shakespeare next term” !


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