Sunday March 14, 2021
My newspaper runs a daily feature, Today in History. It lists significant events that have happened on this particular day, long ago.
It makes me feel very old. Because I was there for at least half of every day’s listings. No, I wasn’t there when Charlemagne declared himself Holy Roman Emperor. Or when Nero fiddled while Rome went up in flames.
But you’d be surprised how much has happened since 1936.
I had just had my third birthday when Hitler invaded Poland, in September 1939, starting World War II
I was in London when Chamberlain returned from his visit to Hitler, declaring “Peace in our time.”
On our way back to India, in 1940, the rear deck of our ship was piled high with depth charges, in preparation for the Japanese attack that everyone knew was coming. Even if it didn’t happen until December 7, 1941.
My school in North India was just 40 miles – everything was measured in miles, in those days – from the farthest advance of Japanese forces pushing through China. I clambered out of the way of the first jeep ever to travel along the narrow, winding mountain track towards the line of fire.
By the time India gained independence from the British Empire, in August 1947, I had left for Canada. But I had watched from the sidelines – as a 10-year-old, I couldn’t comprehend the appeal of independence – as thousands of Indians shouted “Jai Hind!” (long live India) at rallies.
On the scene
You don’t have to be central to historic events to be part of them.
I wasn’t there when a chicken-livered government bowed to racist pressures and deported everyone of Japanese origin from the B.C. coast. But I did live in the constituency of its primary advocate, MP Howard Green.
And I helped vote John Diefenbaker into office. I supported his Bill of Rights, which Pierre Trudeau later slid into the Canadian Constitution. I turned against Diefenbaker when he cancelled the Avro Arrow project
I’ve lived through, let me see, 11 prime ministers; 15 U.S. presidents; 5 popes.
I was living on the B.C. coast when the 1964 earthquake near Anchorage sent a tsunami surging down the B.C. coast.
I had a summer job as a customs officer in B.C. Kootenay region, where we stripped any car that might be owned by a Doukhobor, for explosives that might be used to blow up a school, a railway station, or a power line.
High school history teacher David Jones had lunch with my father in the 1990s. He listened, fascinated, as my father described his personal encounters with Mahatma Gandhi. On our way out, Jones blurted, “I teach history. That man IS history!”
There’s a popular saying that everyone in the world is connected by no more than six degrees of separation. On that basis, my uncle, Dr. Andrew Taylor, would be one degree away from me.
Uncle Andy was the last British officer out of Burma, the tail-ender of the British retreat, as Japanese forces advanced. After he crossed a bridge, the sappers blew it up behind him.
Following WWII, he became Surgeon General to the last Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten. Who was uncle of Prince Philip. Who married Queen Elizabeth.
There – that makes me only four degrees of separation from the Queen herself!
Just being there
I didn’t change any history. At least, not that I know of. But it’s all part of my memory, in my lifetime. To paraphrase David Jones’ words, “I am history.”
And so is everyone my age.
Some did heroic things. They lived through the liberation of Holland in the final days of World War II. They marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. They stuck daffodils into gun barrels at Kent State University. They chanted “Hell, no! We won’t go!” to the Vietnam war.
Maybe you didn’t do any of those newsworthy things. But did you sing along with Peter Paul and Mary, or go to Woodstock? Did you thumb through an Eaton’s catalogue? Did you travel through Europe in an air-cooled Volkswagen van? Did you watch Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights? Did you see Neil Armstrong plant the first human boot on the moon?
If so, you did something current generations can only read about. Or hear about, second hand.
They weren’t there at the time. And they never can be.
History is not a text written by professors and professional researchers. History is happening every day. You are history. I am history. We are history.
We are living history.
Copyright © 2021 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’s column, in which I explored some dimensions of “revisionism,” seems to have prompted some of you into deep reflection.
Clare Neufeld, for example, focussed on my sentence, “Once we establish that standard, we must equally expect to be judged by future generations.”
He wrote, “It brought to mind the biblical text which tell us ‘do not judge,’ [and] how undesirable (for a plethora or reasons) it is to be called upon to serve as a judge -- such that (paraphrased) ‘no one’ (I presume that to mean ‘no one in their right mind’) deigns to take on the task or role of judge, unless one is first called to the task,’ (presumably by some higher authority).
“Certain traditions, within Christian history, have long maintained an aversion to the personal and corporate function of judging -- albeit imperfectly.
It would seem to be of such significance to them, to avoid judging, that the process of establishing the need for judgement to be applied by a community, and the process of selecting said judge, becomes onerous in and of itself.
“To be placed in a position of judging, whether formally or informally, is understood to have a boomerang effect. The judge becomes judged, by the very standard(s) applied by the judge.
“In my ‘better’ moments in life, I have wondered, therefore, whether there might be merit for communities to shift to learning the art of exercising good judgement, first in regard to self, secondly in regard to our world/environs, etc., generally.
“As I contemplate such a shift, it seems to me to be possible, (idealistically, and possibly ideally), to imagine that we humans might alter the course(s) of our shared and individual lives toward healing and wholeness.”
On a lighter note, Hanny Kooyman suggested I “take that bottle of Aunt J. out of the recycling bin – it might become a collector’s item!”
Steve Roney objected to the “revisionism” label: “If Aunt Jemima or Uncle Ben imply slavery, even though they were invented long after slavery ended, I think it is safe to assert that nobody bought the syrup or the rice thinking this was endorsing the institution of slavery. A more accurate term would be ‘iconoclasm’; or, better yet, ‘memory holing,’ a reference from 1984.This is a matter of erasing history, not changing our interpretation of it.
“Erasing history is a far more sinister endeavor than revisionism. It makes it easier to justify slavery or colonialism or Nazism in the present or future; the comparison, and the counter argument, has been deleted.”
Tom Watson drew on ancient wisdom: “In ancient Greece, Plato argued that we should always honour, and publish for educational purposes, the good that someone did, but should not even examine the bad that same person did. Plato's approach was that if the goal was to improve the society and culture around us, we learned from positive examples but learned nothing from negative examples.
Plato's approach is the same as two of your sub-headings: overlook the flaws and celebrate the good. Does that mean that even though John A. Macdonald's residential schools left succeeding generations scarred by its processes, Macdonald's motives were well-intentioned and therefore we should overlook the fact that what he fostered, aided and abetted by the churches, was a terrible approach to begin with? I trust not, but until recently we were quite willing to take the Platonic approach and celebrate Macdonald's successes and bury his failings.
“Now the pendulum has swung to the point where we bury Macdonald's successes and deride his flaws. If the goal is moral progress, how then do we get it right?”
Isabel Gibson noted an incongruity: “After the estate of Dr. Seuss decided to stop publishing those six books, eBay moved to prevent copies of them from being resold, while continuing to offer platforms for Mein Kampf, Lenin's writing, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and so on.
“Somewhere between erasing difficult history and celebrating/endorsing/continuing it, lies the path forward.”
Cliff Boldt: “The GOP call this ‘cancel culture’ and are using it against Biden -- they even accuse Biden of cancelling Dr. Seuss. I shudder to think of my past being judged by the values of today.
“The more things change, the more they remain the same -- a familiar saw, but unless we take to heart the true issues in our past, nothing will change. We have to dig deep and look at the true issues and change how we approach life.”
James Russell had a similar reaction: “Yes, we should be trying to be better. But ‘better’ measures the past against the present on a line towards an imagined future.
“Problems arise when our imagined future is a return to an idealized past -- more ideal for some than others. If we want a different future, the ‘ideal’ stands in our way, and we need to clear it away. The question is how we obscure it until it’s useful again – when we can see (taste, smell, feel) it differently. Put it into dark storage? Highlight its blemishes? Transitions are seldom easy, especially when times are harder. And we’re living in interesting times, as the Chinese curse goes.”
Laura Spurrell wrote, “Part of an apology is changing behavior. No one is saying Dr. Seuss is bad, just 6 books are being dropped that have been deemed inappropriate. There are many more. Maybe Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben could have been recast as heroes?”
But yes, some ARE saying Dr. Seuss is bad. Janis Thompson referred me to a New York Times article, Six Seuss Books Bore a Bias: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/03/opinion/suess-books-race-bias.html?referringSource=articleShare
Incidentally, a few readers thought I wanted to rewrite the biblical story of David, editing out the “bad” parts. Far from it – I consider it essential to keep the “bad” parts, but to see them within the total context. Ditto, I guess, for the “bad” parts of our histories.
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