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History and Political Correctness

11/07/07 5:55PM By Olin Robison
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Olin Robison, commentator
(HOST) On a recent trip to England, commentator Olin Robison encountered a debate in which history and polical correctness are at odds - in a conflict that isn't likely to be easily resolved.

(ROBISON) There has been a dust-up in London over the last few days -- all over a new statue. The statue in question was unveiled by Prince Charles on Parliament Square, and it is a figure in the likeness of the late David Lloyd George, Prime Minister of the UK during World War I.

Now, for those whose grasp of the details of British history is less than comprehensive, here are a few relevant facts:

Davis Lloyd George was, as far as I know, the only Welsh prime minister in the history of the UK. He ascended to the Prime Ministership in 1916 at a time when the war was well under way. He is generally thought to have been quite strong and successful and was much honored by ordinary people in his day. He was, in fact, a kind of FDR figure in Britain. He was quite progressive in a great many ways, and, reflecting his protestant evangelical upbringing in Wales, he always identified with the poor, a trait for which he was subsequently much praised.

Now, at long last - almost a hundred years later - he is being honored by a statue in his likeness in a central spot in London.

The dust-up is being led by Harold Pinter, the playwright, who, along with others, is saying that the statue is inappropriate because the late Prime Minister is said to have used language which today would be considered racist and completely inappropriate.

All of this is a bit like the highly public push in the US a few years back which espoused the view that we should not celebrate or honor Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves.

I personally come down on the other side of this issue. It strikes me that we should acknowledge and honor the good done by men and women of previous times, not because they were what we might today want them to be but because, in their day, they did good things.

We seem to have an unending need to rewrite history - which is of course sometimes entirely warranted.

Some years ago a group of Native Americans set about to change the name of the General Custer Battlefield to the Little Bighorn National Monument. It required a vote of Congress. During the discussion - it is hard to call it a debate - one Senator who knew what he had to do but didn't want to do it rose on the Senate floor to say, "Why can't they leave history alone the way it was originally written."

Even so, the bill passed and the name was changed.

One wag has noted that it only the present that we know; the future is unknown and, said he, the past is negotiable.

And so it is. History is constantly being rewritten. It has to be, really. For one thing, much of what has been written represents a single view - usually, it has been observed, from the vantage point of the winners; almost never the losers. The result is to celebrate the strong and the determined, whether they were right or wrong.

So, it strikes me that the British are completely right to celebrate the late Prime Minister; even if he did, a hundred years ago, use language that would today understandably get him in a heap of trouble.

Olin Robison is past president of both the Salzburg Seminar and Middlebury College. He now lives in Shelburne.
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