Paul Greenberg

"Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past."

--Party slogan, "1984"

It is an essential part of the totalitarian mentality -- excuse me, not mentality, but to use today's neo-non-word, mindset. As if approved ideas could simply be poured into the mind to set, the way concrete is. And any trace of what was once there will be covered, effaced, smoothed over. For the past must not only be hidden but, to the well-trained mindset, it never existed at all.

It's an approach as old as the French Revolution, which was not only going to create a new socio-economic system but a New Man -- just as the Bolshevik Revolution set out to do the same. And would end in the same result: total dictatorship. Bonaparte was the natural result of one revolution, Stalin of the other.

Some things never change, except maybe the name of the dictator. The Reign of Terror became the Great Purge became Mao's Cultural Revolution as one revolution followed another, each bloodier and more terrible than the last.

It's not just results that some revolutions seek to impose but finality. For there must never be any going back to the old order, the ancien regime. Louis XVI and his queen had to be guillotined, and the Tsar's family stood against a wall and mowed down. Lest any trace of the past survive to return. Or even be remembered. Except in the caricature of history the New Order would authorize.

It's not just totalitarian regimes that insist on a kind of historical amnesia: "College to remove Lee Chapel's flags" --Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, July 10, 2014. It seems Washington and Lee University is removing the Confederate flags from the place they occupied in the chapel, where one of its namesakes lies buried. A group of law students at the university objected to the flags' being displayed there, and so they had to be moved.

To quote the university's president, slavery was a "regrettable chapter of our history, and we must confront and try to understand this chapter."

President Kenneth Ruscio's language is itself worth confronting and trying to understand. Let's see: Slavery was "regrettable" -- like a social engagement one cannot attend, as in Mrs. and Mrs. John Doe regret they will not be able to attend high tea next Sunday a week. And we must confront human slavery, the South's "peculiar institution," to use the euphemism of an earlier time, by moving, not confronting, those Confederate flags. Quick, hide them away somewhere. Quick, before the children see.

But why remove only the flags? What about the general? Why even keep Lee's name as part of the university's? Not to mention Washington's. Weren't they both not just planters and generals but slaveholders?

No need to go into detail about how they both came to oppose slavery and eventually provided for the emancipation of their own slaves, which both of them had acquired largely through inheritance or marriage. That would mean going into history, which can be messy. Unlike ideology, which can be as superficial as President Ruscio's explanation for why the flags are being removed, which was as lengthy as it was superficial. Just forget all those bothersome historical details, along with slavery, the Confederacy and anything else in the past that might disturb our equilibrium -- or educate us.

Yes, the flags had to go. To quote the law students' letter of protest, they felt "alienation and discomfort" whenever they saw those banners. Their tender sensibilities should not have to be subjected to such a sight. It's enough to make you wonder how these law students will face up to some of the characters they may run across when they become lawyers, civil or criminal: murderers, rapists, serial killers, abortionists, chiselers small-time and big, gangsters, pimps....

Maybe these future lawyers could be given what today are called trigger-warnings, formal notices now issued by some of our more prestigious universities so their students can be forewarned, and won't risk being shocked on opening any book that deals with history, that record of mankind's follies, crimes and atrocities.

So, yes, hide those old Confederate flags away, maybe in the kind of dusty display cases museums use. Or at least call them something else, like Historical Artifacts. The way the signage for Confederate Boulevard here in Little Rock was changed to some less historically charged name.

Yes, that's the ticket. Change the name, change the past. Just as Constantinople became Istanbul, Saigon is now Ho Chi Minh City, and St. Petersburg became Petrograd, then Leningrad, and now is St. Petersburg again. What's in a name? Sometimes a whole history.

No, we wouldn't want the past to live, or even be remembered. Lest it disturb our innocence, which is not always easy to distinguish these days from what used to be recognized as just plain ignorance.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.