- The Washington Times - Friday, March 11, 2005

At France’s National Library in Paris, caretakers have airbrushed a cigarette out of a poster of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre in preparation for an exhibition to commemorate his life, reports the London Telegraph. Rarely seen in public without a cigarette, Sartre once said, “Smoking is the symbolic equivalent of destructively appropriating the entire world.” So, it’s clear that smoking was a big part of Sartre’s life and work.

To be fair, the National Library is supposedly following a French law that bans cigarette advertisements. There are similar bans here, though one doubts the Smithsonian would airbrush a cigarette out of FDR’s mouth. The Telegraph story, however, reminded us of something George Orwell wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future: Who controls the present controls the past.”

Attempts to control the past by no means are unique to France. Indeed, examples of similar manipulation abound in the United States, where most universities are dedicated to it. At Vanderbilt University in Nashville, for example, certain groups successfully lobbied to have the word “Confederate” removed from Confederate Memorial Hall, which was originally built with money from the United Daughters of the Confederacy. One of the more famous images from September 11 was the three firefighters who raised a flag above the rubble of the World Trade Center. The picture was further immortalized in a bronze sculpture, except that the three white firefighters had been replaced with a black, Hispanic and white firefighter. Same image, imaginary people. A spokesman for the group that commissioned the sculpture defended it: “I think the artistic expression of diversity would supersede any concern over factual correctness.” And, in a slightly different vein, Harvard President Lawrence Summers was recently chastised for suggesting that genetic factors might influence a person’s chosen profession.

Attempts to alter the past by distorting the truth also work in reverse: By emphasizing the bad at the expense of the good. A particularly egregious example of this is how liberal educators have been able to diminish the stature of our Founding Fathers because they were white slaveowners. Some have even equated the United States during World War II with Japan and Germany, because the government interned Japanese civilians or President Truman chose to drop the atomic bomb.

The ancestry of this obnoxious revisionism traces to the Roman Empire, when the politically powerful would erase the names of their defeated rivals from public documents. It was known as damnatio memoriae, and for historians piecing together bits of Roman history, it worked: Lives and truths were erased forever. Or, in the Sartre case, airbrushed.

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