Entry from April 5, 2011

In his article in yesterday’s New York Times on the National Museum of China in Beijing, Ian Johnson could not refrain from pointing to the ideological tinge given to the history on display there. There is hardly any mention of the Cultural Revolution, for instance, which convulsed China for a decade, wrecked its economy and its education system, destroyed much of its social capital and took millions of lives. “‘The party wants to determine historical truth,’ said Yang Jisheng, a historian whose landmark book on the Great Leap Forward famine was banned in China. ‘It worries that if competing versions are allowed, then its legitimacy will be called into question.’” Imagine that! Who could have guessed it?

Historical erasures of embarrassments like the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution are inevitable among revolutionary regimes and a natural consequence of the cranking up of rhetoric required to produce the revolution in the first place. Things as they were had to be portrayed in the blackest terms; things as they would be after the revolution in the brightest and sunniest. If the change was not as advertised, if what came before is not degraded to worthlessness in comparison to what came after, then why was the change and its inevitable cost in human life and suffering necessary? If the omelette was not of the tastiest and fluffiest, then why did they have to break all those eggs? And yet, Mr Johnson notes, the Chinese are hardly unique in their desire to tell only those parts of their national story that are convenient for the preservation of the status quo.

Many countries do not present their history in terms independent historians consider fully credible. American museums have been under pressure to account more fully for slavery. American Indians won a long battle to open their own museum on the Mall in Washington; other museums celebrate the westward expansion of the United States but give short shrift to the displacement and killing of American Indians.

So I guess we’re not basically different from the Chinese in distorting our own history. True, it may be that, as John Sutherland writes in today’s Guardian, “a whitewash can be right” if it ignores, say, charges of plagiarism and infidelity against Dr. Martin Luther King.

It might have been disastrously distracting if, during the Cuban missile crisis, it had been known the Kennedy brothers were passing Marilyn Monroe round between them. The great affairs of the world are more important than such trivia. MLK’s vision has not yet been entirely fulfilled. Until it is his legacy must be protected, as was the Kennedys’ public reputation. If that requires a bucketful of whitewash, so be it. The continuing struggle for civil rights is non-trivial.

Marilyn was, of course, dead by the time of the Cuban missile crisis, but we get the point. Such little historical reticences aside, however, the favorite narrative of the officially sponsored historians in the US — those whom Mr Johnson humorously calls “independent” — is one of the evils of this country’s post-revolutionary leadership on account of slavery and its treatment of the Indians while the narrative of the officially sponsored historians in China is of the leadership’s faultlessness, or of its necessity in light of the evils that came before.

Think about that for a moment. If there is no mystery as to why the Chinese historians emphasize only the best in Chinese history and leave the bad stuff out entirely, there certainly is one as to why American historians mostly do the opposite. As Mr Sutherland’s wishful whitewash suggests, both narratives are alike in their rigid adherence to the progressive assumption that what serves the utopian project is all the truth you need to know. The past must always be supposed to have been less good than the present and must therefore only be of interest insofar as it explains how the superior present has come — or the superior future will come — into being. Beyond that, both are in the business of trashing the past for fear that people dissatisfied with the present might want to return to it.

Or, as Maureen Dowd put it in Mr Johnson’s paper only the day before he wrote, Republicans wish “they had the power to repeal the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ and get back to the repressed ‘Mad Men’ world they crave.” In America, it’s not just the historians but even the popular entertainments which continually assure us that, unlike those crazy Republicans, we really, really don’t want to go back to the bad old days.

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