In the last week or so, I’ve come across two largely unrelated news items that have gotten me thinking. I suspect they are not unique, nor are they the sort of headline that typically gets everyone talking. But I can’t help but think these are terrifically important, both in their own right and as a mark of something fundamentally wrong.
The stories are as follows:
160 year-old Documents Intentionally Destroyed in Franklin County, N.C.
The basic story (full story at the link) is that an entire roomful of historic documents (whole shelves of record books along with boxes of wills, deeds, photos, letters, etc.) was discovered in a previously sealed room under the Franklin Co., NC courthouse. The researcher, overjoyed at such a find, had just begun the slow process of sorting and cataloging them when they were told to cease doing so. After some weeks of red tape, an as-yet-unnamed local government agency swooped in, took the lot to the basement, and systematically and intentionally burned them in the incinerator.
The other story, halfway across the world:
Lebanon Library Torched, 78,000 Books Burned By Islamists
In this story, a historic library in Tripoli was burned by arsonists after a pamphlet considered offensive to Islam was found tucked into one of the books. The library contained thousands of rare historic texts and manuscripts, from both Islamic and Christian history.
So what do these have in common, aside from the obvious destruction of historic materials? I think that the connective thread here is simply that: that there exists the idea that destroying the past is a good thing. That the destruction of history in the furtherance of one’s current ideology is acceptable. And I think this is the worst, deepest, most fundamental kind of violence.
George Orwell, in his masterwork of political tyranny and destroyed history, Nineteen Eighty-Four, wrote the following:
“If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say of this or that event, it never happened — that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death? And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed -if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past,’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.'”
Who controls the past, controls the future. An odd truth, but a powerful one. One of the deepest horrors of Orwell’s dystopia is that the past has no meaning, there is no past but that authored by the Party. Ellie Wiesel, writing so often of the holocaust, demands that the past be protected from violence. Because in doing violence to the past, all violence is allowed.
And so, these news stories represent the very worst kind of violence; violence to truth, violence to the past. The author of the first story conjectures (with reasonable foundation), that the records were destroyed to hide the shady doings they might reveal done by the forefathers of someone currently in political power. Islam has a long record of destroying the past, from the Buddhas of Bamiyan to the proposal to destroy the Sphinx. In the second story, we don’t even need an ostensibly offensive pamphlet to see the destruction of a library, a historic library at that, as a purely brutish sweep against knowledge, against the past, any past, and record that things might ever have been other than as they are now.
The Christian right attempts violence to the past regularly, with its ongoing attempts to rewrite the past of our own nation, making of its Enlightenment progressive deists a crew of Christian fundamentalists; Thomas Jefferson recast as he Sam Brownback of his day (there’s a terrifying thought!). And this is, ultimately, the mark of the unsustainable worldview. When your doctrine requires that there be no past, only a harsh glare of a bright. unchanging, ever-present NOW, you have, in essence, become The Party of Orwell’s Oceania.
And once there is no past, no truth, no objective reality, then all violence is possible. This hated enemy has always been hated, has always been the source of all our ills, and must be eradicated. And once gone, they never were. Without the past, without memory, there can be no genocide, no holocaust. There are no ‘atrocities,’ because there is no ‘never again.’ When the past has no meaning, and is rewritten at will, there is no wrong, for what was done, was not done.