The name “Winston Smith” probably doesn’t immediately bring someone to mind. Good -- that’s what author George Orwell wanted. He deliberately made Smith, the central character in Orwell’s most famous novel, 1984, an unassuming, ordinary, fade-into-the-wallpaper civil servant.
Winston Smith did a very ordinary, unassuming, kind of job.
He rewrote history.
Every day, the Ministry of Truth had him amend news reports that had appeared in the pages of London’s most prestigious newspaper, The Times, to make them match to the government’s latest policies.
The originals were then destroyed.
When 1984 first came out, everyone assumed that Orwell’s target was Stalinist Russia. Which was, indeed, rewriting both history and culture to glorify communism.
Knocking down statues
If Winston Smith were alive today, he wouldn’t be working in a musty back room. He’d be out on the streets toppling statues.
Popular movements have taken over Winston Smith’s job. They’re rewriting history to what they think it should be by knocking down the icons of the past. Because the values those old icons represent are no longer looked up to.
The city council of Charlottesville – site of that infamous white-supremacist rally – voted to remove statues of both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. A statue of Lee was taken down in New Orleans. Silent Sam was silenced at the University of North Carolina.. Philadelphia deposed former mayor Frank Rizzo for his opposition to desegregation and gay rights.
In Britain, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and dumped into Bristol harbour. Authorities removed Robert Milligan’s statue in front of London’s famed Canary Wharf, built on the site of Milligan’s infamous West India Docks.
In Belgium, King Leopold II’s statue was set on fire, then removed. Leopold turned the Belgian Congo into a brutal labour camp for producing rubber. Some 10 million Congolese died under his rule.
And in Canada too
Halifax took down a statue of Lord Cornwallis, a British naval officer who once served as governor of Nova Scotia, for his (mis)treatment of indigenous communities.
Out west, Victoria removed from its City Hall a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, honoured as Canada’s first prime minister, but denounced as an architect of the residential school system for indigenous children. Montreal is under pressure to do the same to its statue of Macdonald. And schools named for Macdonald all across the country are considering name changes.
Ditto for Catholic schools named after Jean Vanier.
The problem is, once you de-throne one icon, what do you replace it with?
Just change the name?
The city of Kitchener was once Berlin, a regional centre for German-speaking immigrants. Until June 1916, in the middle of the First World War.
After indigenous leaders implicated Hector Langevin in the residential school system, Ottawa renamed the Langevin Building -- to Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council. Oh, whoopee!
In the U.S., dozens of cities and states have replaced Columbus Day with National Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The change at least recognizes that Columbus treated Caribbean peoples as brutally as King Leopold II treated Africans.
The Township of Russell, slightly southeast of Ottawa, came up with an ingenious solution. It was named Russell to honour a man that mayor Pierre Leroux now calls “a corrupt politician who owned slaves and actively fought against the abolition of slavery in Canada.”
Rather than change its name, though, the township seeks a more suitable Russell to adopt as its namesake. (Disclosure: this story was drawn to my attention by my friend, coincidentally named James Russell.)
I have no objection to identifying the clay feet of figures we once venerated. I worry about who, or what, we will put up onto those empty pedestals.
Because every one of those iconic figures who have been pulled down was, at one time, admired. Respected. Even idolized.
Who can you find today who will not be equally subject to being de-throned in the future, as societal valueschange continue to evolve?
Besides, if they are simply “disappeared” -- like so many in Brazil and Argentina – how will future generations learn from their mistakes?
What we need to remember is that Sir John A was both right, and wrong. At the same time. So was Winston Churchill. And Mahatma Gandhi.
Everyone has flaws that critics, present or future, can and will exploit. Those flaws do not cancel whatever good that person accomplishes.
There is no such thing as wholly wrong, or wholly right.
Maybe the best representative to put up on all those empty pedestals would be Winston Smith himself.
Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups encouraged; links from other blogs welcomed; all other rights reserved.
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Last week, I wrote about how a dog named Pippin h changed my life. That evoked a lot of letters, of which I can print only a small selection. Because of the sheer volume of mail, I’m not including any letters debating my column on systemic racism among police, and particularly on the letters about that issue last week. Thanks to Steve Roney, Ted Wilson, and David Gilchrist , and others for taking the time and effort to explain their disagreement. But I’m not continuing that discussion.
Many of you wanted to know more about Pippin. She’s a New Zealand Heading Dog, which is related to an Australian Shepherd, which is of course related to a Scottish Border Collie. I’m told she’s four years old, used to be a breeding female. She has some herding instincts, but I don’t herd well, so she just keeps checking to make sure I’m following her. So far, she has not wandered or tried herding my neighbour’s chickens. I’ll try including a photo. It may or may not come through to you, depending on the vagaries of email systems.
Now, about last week’s column, on the theme of relationships. Isabel Gibson wrote, “I agree: Dr. Henry IS somebody. And I agree: We need relationships -- from the casual to the deeply intimate -- to survive as humans.
“I'm delighted you have a new friend to share your life with.”
Nenke Jongkind also commented on the incident about Dr. Bonnie Henry: “I had not known the Dr. Bonnie Henry story. What a woman! I’m not sure I would or could have responded that way. You’re right of course, Zoom offers no hugs or intimacy. It is a reminder of everything absent: breathing the same air, scent, aura, feeling the mood in the room, etc.”
Bob Rollwagen: “I believe humans need to love, to share, to be respected. I believe pets and especially dogs do this in many ways with their owners, or should I say, providers. They do not judge. They can be all things to everyone if they are raised well, trained well.
“Relationships make us who we are. This is where we learn to love, share and respect. Can you imagine a world where everyone, regardless of circumstance learned to build relationships on love, sharing, and respecting? With everyone else? What would racism look like then?
Lois Hollstedt’s letter covered a variety of issues, but I particularly liked this sentence: “Being close to people relies on trust; in this new world of social distancing and the negative side of social media – how do we build trust while keeping our distance?”
The rest of the letters selected for inclusion here shared your own relationships with pets.
Merle Waite: “I can so relate! On March 20 my rotti/shepherd, 14, passed. With the isolation situation and my age I did not even go for a walk for 18 days. But my granddaughter in Calgary found me a 5-yr-old dachshund and a way to get her to Penticton. So on Apr 07 my life improved 100%. She is so precious and has made my days so enjoyable.”
Stephanie McClellan: “What a difference a dog makes, indeed! My girl, Roxie, is a complete blessing to me and helps me stay positive and connected even now when so much of life is disconnected.
“She and I serve as Pet Therapists. During CoVid some of the folks we serve at the Senior’s home missed her so badly that they requested virtual visits. A dear friend of Roxie’s (most folks know and connect so deeply with her that I am simply the person at the other end of the leash!) received a bad oncology report. Her first request, as she told the Recreational Therapist about it, was a visit from “Pup” who is always able to calm her spirit and help her cope as she cuddles in her bed and they talk to each other and share a nap!
“May Pippin offer the peace and companionship of another one of God’s beautiful created beings!”
Cony Stamhuis: “In your place, I do not know what I would have done without my beloved cat Diesel, who also now since Covid-19 has kept me laughing, forever close while others kept their distance.”
Betty Hunt: “If you have a dog everyone stops and talks. This has been the best for me under the isolation from this virus . The walks and the play times have been the greatest and kept me busy.”
Jean Gregson: “My most memorable companion was a Chihuahua/Terrier cross who lived to be 11-years-old. I got her as a pup and named her Scampy. She was my best friend and constant companion. Before I arrived home from school, she would stand on the back of the couch so she could look out the window to watch for me. My mother said that Scampy knew almost exactly when I should be coming into view and would be at the door to greet me with jumps and little cries of pleasure. There is nothing like coming home and being greeted by a dog.”
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Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” is an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca. He set up my webpage, and he doesn’t charge enough.
I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also runs beautiful pictures. Her Thanksgiving presentation on the old hymn, For the Beauty of the Earth, Is, well, beautiful -- https://www.traditionaliconoclast.com/2019/10/13/for/
Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)
ALVA WOOD ARCHIVE
The late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures now have an archive (don’t ask how this happened) on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. Feel free to browse all 550 columns.