Several weeks ago, an art professor urged rioters to use chains rather than ropes to topple statues of historical and artistic significance. This act exemplifies creative destruction, for such action produces the negative space required for the building of the new world to come.
This is today’s America. Such demolition brings to mind the acts attributed to German fanatics, who, late in World War II, justified the obliteration of Germany’s cities by imagining that upon their rubble the metropolises of a new Germanic empire could more easily be built.
The certainty of history vanishes when the last witness to it dies. A vivid example of this change in state is given by Holocaust deniers. They marshal every extraneous scrap of supposed evidence to deny the murder of 6 million Jews. Many people believe their claims; indeed, their garbage is taught in Iranian schools and elsewhere where Jews are hated.
But we have evidence of this slaughter. Imagine, however, if the Allies, after vanquishing Germany, razed to the ground all the death camps in Poland. The case that Holocaust deniers propound would deepen, for less evidence to combat their assertions would exist. As the last victims of Hitler’s inferno died, the case against the Holocaust actually having occurred would be stronger still and would attain more adherents.
This is the danger of removing the markers to history. A hundred years from now, what history might be taught of the impact of slavery in America? This we cannot know, for as with the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s “1984,” it is liable to be rewritten incessantly to suit ephemeral political imperatives.
By allowing the toppling of the markers of our nation’s history, we, as a society, are retroactively applying our present, perhaps fleeting, concepts of morality and goodness to those who have died 100 or more years ago. We, thus, are treating the past as if it were part of the present, which, of course, it is not. By so doing, we are replicating the cognitive problems that may come with hyperthymesia, or with its much rarer cousin, eidetic memory.
The great genius, mathematician and polymath John von Neumann, whose office was steps from Einstein’s, could not forget anything he read. Every word of every book studied was available to him instantly, according to numerous witnesses. He was also a human computer. Yet, for all this, von Neumann had trouble negotiating the daily tasks of life; he was a notoriously bad driver, considered hazardous by his many friends.
John von Neumann possessed what is now referred to as an eidetic (or photographic) memory, which, in adults, is as uncommon a trait as can be imagined. There are only a few instances of it in history, although children may exhibit this trait for a brief period of time. Related to this type of memory is hyperthymesia, a different condition in which one remembers all the experiences of life to a seemingly impossible degree.
Hyperthymestic abilities often come with a very high price. Unable to stop the past from invading the present leads to the lack of discernment of what is truly the past. Trying to separate past from present may become irresoluble, with the affected person becoming lost in a house of mirrors, which may reflect some past point that is now comingled with the sensory experiences of the present. Life becomes immensely arduous, if not impossible. The present and the future can no longer be met with grace, for they may no longer be distinguished from what has already occurred.
By destroying our nation’s monuments and by wiping away other aspects of our civilization’s history, we are in essence destroying the arrow of time. Today is now a jumble of our past, which is being rewritten or edited to conform to a particular view of our present. We have created a new and unprincipled mode in which to experience our lives, the screaming “now.”
This is a recipe for societal dysfunction on a grand scale, which is exactly what we are witnessing. As with the case of a person with hyperthymestic abilities, our present life is exhausting our capacities to cope, for we are making no distinctions between the past and its societal rules, and our present time and the norms we observe.
The rioters of today want to crash their present into our past, to create something that will be uniform. But for it to be so, it cannot have evolved. Aye, there’s the rub: If the evolving nature of life and history is wiped out, then future advancement is impossible, because the past, the present and the future must all be the same. This is the tragic illogic that pervades the minds of these radicals.
We must, as a society, deploy solutions that honor history, while enshrining respect to those who have been wounded by it. One answer could be a cellphone app that gives many different perspectives when one is near any of the monuments to the generals of the Confederacy or to the Civil War. Thus, the totality of history, what these men did that might have been good, and all they did that was bad, their times, and their legacies, could be presented to the public. This would serve to increase knowledge of the ravages of slavery, the Civil War that was fought to end it, and the men and their motivations that caused the war to be waged.
• Richard Levine, director of policy development on the NSC staff under President Reagan, was the first deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for Technology Transfer and Security Assistance, serving under three secretaries of the Navy.