Robbing the Past

My first reaction was quizzical interest. My second was a forced laugh of disbelief. Ultimately, I ended up mourning how despicable an act this was.

This article tells the story. An Abraham Lincoln researcher admitted to altering a presidential pardon for a Civil War soldier by President Lincoln. The researcher altered the date by making it the same day as Lincoln’s tragic death, so that he could claim to have found one of the final official acts President Lincoln made during his life. The researcher then cited the evidence in a book that he authored.

This is abhorrent.

According to the article, the researcher actually took a pen into the National Archives and physically altered the document. This is the equivalent of painting a mustache on a Van Gogh or a Picasso. Did he do so for fame? Did he do so to contribute to the sales of his book? In any case, the article reports that he confessed. I’m grateful in a way that the statute of limitations has passed on the offense, because there’s no point in his serving a prison sentence for this. Hopefully, his book will lose all credibility, and that will be enough.

The event makes me think of the Roman style of conquest, in which the history of a conquered civilization was re-written in order to include the Roman conquerors. This is the ultimate way to wipe out a society, the cruelest of erasures. When memories and records are robbed, they will eventually cease to exist. This is the most invasive and complete form of what we might today call identity theft. This leads to the massacre of a culture’s psyche and identity.

To think that someone would engage in a version of that action, however small, in order to further their own personal gain, leaves me…sad. I’m sad for this man.

When I was in high school, I fell into the fault of most modern teenagers: I was over committed in academics and extra-curricular activities. One day I had a test that I had either forgotten about or had neglected to study for, I can’t remember which. I tried to get my friend who sat in front of me to pass answers to me. That friend, thankfully, refused.

That was one of those moments that one looks back on with profound regret. Something that I can gladly say that I am horrified that I did and learned a lesson from; something that I would not do now.

My hope is that this researcher feels the same way about this incident, or that he will come to a point at which he does.

In the meantime, perhaps profits from his book could be taken to pay for the restoration of the artifact. That would be justice.

Image Credit: National Archives, Public Domain


I suppose there’s nothing worse than posting something late for a special event, but what I’m posting about was likely unknown to many of you last week (it was to me until someone told me), and…well, I’m on a once-weekly posting schedule here, so you’ll have to look over it.

Last week was National Banned Book Week in the U.S., an event sponsored by the American Library Association and other organizations to draw attention to the harm done by censorship and the still unbelievably common practice of banning books in certain schools and communities. You would be amazed at the books that have been banned in the U.S.: titles and authors ranging from Harry Potter to Shel Silverstein have been deemed dangerous or unfit for reading by children. My imagination immediately invokes images of book burnings through the course of history (I saw a video presentation for National Banned Book Week that contained images of Nazi book burnings), and I immediately leap to frustration at efforts to close down freedom of inquiry and expression. I think it is important to read opposing and unpopular viewpoints, because I’m not sure how one disagrees with something until one understands what that something is.

In fact, I groan at how, very recently, history has repeated itself at some level, this time in the name of protecting state secrets.

As a scholar, as a thinker, as an artist, I will scream from the hilltops that censorship is never, ever okay. I’ll also cry that the public has a right to know, whatever the dirty laundry of our leaders. Banning books and keeping them from the hands of inquisitive readers causes all sorts of adrenaline-laced exasperation to course through me, because it smacks of mind control and propaganda. Everyone should be able to read everything whenever they want. Literature and scholarship must be open to all, and is the property of all.


Someone vocalized a rational, opposing viewpoint during a conversation at the end of the week.  That would be that children of certain ages should be prevented from reading certain material in order to protect their innocence. I spat and sputtered for a moment upon hearing that, but when you think of it…none of us would argue against protecting a child’s innocence, would we? The person taking this stance wasn’t advocating for books to be banned, but merely withheld until a certain age…more of a parental function than a governmental function, I think, and perhaps as a tactic of the educational system.

Now, I don’t for a moment think that this metaphor extends to governments keeping secrets from their people, but I can suddenly see the logic of protecting names of vulnerable people that could meet harm or lose their lives should their names be published.

Still, does that merit censorship? I can’t agree that it should. A higher burden of responsibility on the writer, perhaps, and a recognition that servants who place themselves in harm’s way assume the risk that such a thing could happen. Similarly, in the vein of the other argument, I’m not sorry I read anything from my childhood, although I can see how I certainly lost a level of innocence by reading some of the authors that I did.

L’Engle once said that only books with something to say get banned. Franklin spoke against the concept of giving away liberty for the sake of security. I can’t sleep well at night with the idea of advocating the restriction of thought in the name of security or protection. Yet, I can’t sleep well at night with the idea of robbing anyone of whatever innocence they might have left in our bent and industrialized culture. National Banned Book Week leaves me in a bit of a conundrum.

What do you think?

…May Appear Closer Than They Are…

Remember the old Meatloaf song? It was always one of my favorites. This weekend, Karen and I talked about the physiological difference between men and women in regards to depth perception. Apparently, women have poorer depth perception than men as a rule. She compared it to the rearview mirror of a car…that objects in the mirror may be closer than they appear.

I thought immediately of the Meatloaf song. Likely because I’ve been thinking a lot about memories.

The first time I recall it happening was soon after I began grad school. I had returned to my parents’ home to celebrate Christmas. The memories were so intrusive at times I thought that I could see myself running through the rooms as a child. I heard conversations that I had had with my parents as a child. The memories were so real I could almost reach out and touch them.

Normally that would have been a really cool experience. Christmas, after all, tends to bring back those sorts of recollections for many people. Since then, however, it has happened over and over, basically every time I visit my end of the family. For the long weekend this weekend, Karen and I traveled to visit my parents. For various engagements and things we needed to do, I drove the surface streets of the town in which I grew up this weekend. Sometimes, I don’t realize that I have that many strong memories connected with that place. Certain streets, certain restaurants, certain buildings bring back such powerful remembrances of events that occurred, and the people with whom they occurred, that they must border on flashbacks. Even moreso does this occur around my parents’ home. As I wandered their property this weekend, my mother showing me all of her “curb appeal” projects, I sometimes had to stop to wander away and remember what that part of the lawn used to look like, and what I pretended it was in my imaginary super-hero worlds: sometimes in the summer, sometimes covered with snow.

I wonder why I’m having such strong returns to childhood and high school days? When Karen and I were first married, the strong memories were of college years. Of late, the recollections are more all-inclusive, hitting every formative period of my history. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not hallucinating. No, really, I’m not. I just think that, at some point, my blinders have fallen off and I have come to appreciate the importance of personal histories.

Ironically, until the last five years, I have never been that interested in personal histories. I have always been more focused on the present and future. The past happened. I was aware of its details, and knew what had preceded the present accurately. I just didn’t see the point in dwelling on it. I think, in fact, that this was my family mindset, due to various geneological reasons I won’t go into here. The past is past. Now is more important.

Since being married, I’ve discovered that being wholly present in the now is dependent upon an appreciation for the then. Knowing that I have a branch of the family that is all my own now is very important in that regard, I think. Providentially, this was the time that I needed to gain that appreciation the most, and it is the time that I have. There’s a reason for that. I just don’t buy into coincidence.

I see myself in the stories of my family’s past. I see my wife in the stories of her family’s past. Those pasts have converged, and it is now our family. There is a foundation for the present. Its not always the strongest, but its there, and it is what we stand on.

As for the future? I’ll just say that I’ve learned to not plan life that carefully.

Photo Attribution:

Spinning the Story…or Not…

War is a horrible thing. I fall into the school of thought that nobody wins a war, but somebody loses. However, war does happen, and when it does, we need to learn from events that occur. Thus the discipline of history becomes indispensable to any culture. Here’s the thing with history, though: in order to be truly useful, it must be taught completely and present the whole truth.

Now, before I write more, I’ll offer the disclaimer up front that I’m no historian, and I don’t claim to be. I know only as much as anyone who recognizes the importance of knowing the events that brought us to where we are. For in-depth questions, I ask my friends who study history. Some things, however, are glaringly obvious.

Recently, the National D-Day Memorial, located in Bedford, Virginia, installed a bust of Joseph Stalin, because he is associated with Operation Overlord. And, wow, did everyone get really pissed off. Protesters lined up, and one person quoted said something about how horrible it was to have Stalin in their back yard, or something like that. The general consensus: how dare a national memorial recognize and honor a Soviet dictator who was responsible for the deaths of millions? After all, Stalin was initially an ally of Nazi Germany, and only decided to enter the war on the side of the Allies after Hitler violated their non-aggression pact. And, as those who protest the statue are quick to point out, no Soviet troops were involved in Operation Overlord. Thus, no bust of Stalin has any business in a national memorial commemorating the lives lost in that offensive.

There’s a couple of glaring issues, here. First off, the placement of a bust of a historical figure in a national memorial isn’t necessarily meant to honor that person, and immediately claiming that it does any such thing is a leap in logic. In fact, I don’t think you can really get there from here. The foundation operating the D-Day Memorial placed a plaque with the bust identifying Stalin as a “genocidal dictator” and all-around not-so-pleasant person. Secondly, even as dramatically as history is generally distorted when taught in the U.S., I don’t think anyone really has a positive impression of Stalin…at least not anyone who has spent any time in a history textbook. The D-Day Memorial Foundation has stated that they are merely marking Stalin’s involvement in the war. Stalin was involved in D-Day in the planning stages, and was in fact instrumental, along with Roosevelt and Churchill, in formulating the concept of Operation Overlord.  Historians have debated why he did this, and his motivations in the war in general. As far as this particular bust is concerned, however, no one is using it to attempt to argue that Stalin joined the Allies with noble intentions. The purpose of the bust is simply to say that he did join the Allies on this occasion. That’s an objective fact. That’s history.

To omit Stalin from the story of D-Day, the sacrifices involved in it’s implementation, and the horrific loss of life that occurred that day, would be to tell a partial history because of a moral value judgment. Good history, however, is like good journalism: give the facts. Leave the value judgements to the ethicists and theologians, and tell the events exactly, as best we can, the way they occurred.

Those who are protesting the bust of Stalin should step back and realize that the purpose of the statue is not to honor a homicidal dictator, but to point out objectively that he played a role in the planning stages of D-Day. Doing so does not, as the petition in this blog claims, enter the realm of “misinformation” or “distortion.” In fact, omitting Stalin from a narrative of D-Day would be engaging in misinformation and distortion. Nor does the bust’s placement dishonor the soldiers who served in that operation, or in that war. To honor those who lived through it, perhaps we should focus on getting the story as accurate as we can. This is an attempt at a complete telling of a historical event.

That happens infrequently in the U.S., and perhaps around the world in general.

I’m disturbed that such a vocal opposition is raised because someone is attempting to do so.


I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve gotten to meet someone in person that I’ve previously only conversed with online. This weekend, I had a chance to meet a long-time fellow-blogger, Katherine, in Washington, D.C. This doesn’t happen very often, and it is a very cool experience to finally meet someone personally that you have known virtually for years. Bloggers, unite!

While we were there, we had a chance to visit, among other things, the International Spy Museum, and several monuments. I’m not going to lie: I wanted to visit the Spy Museum to see James Bond sorts of gadgets. I wasn’t disappointed. As with any museum, you learn a great deal. The experience was an education in history I’ve known and forgotten, history of which I knew little, and history that I’ve never known at all (I am, after all, a product of mostly public education, and we know how well they do history).

The Spy Museum begins by talking about how critical secrets are to governments, and moves to the premise that, in order to understand history, you have to know the history behind the history. Therein is the realm of the spies. The stories of deception and the knowledge that spies look like everyone next to us, as well as how events in history unfolded because of secrets that were leaked, smuggled, and otherwise divulged, moved me beyond my love of intrigue in espionage novels. There’s an exhibit on propaganda that will leave you shaking your head in stunning realization. There’s an exhibit on the formation of the KGB, by whom spying was turned inward for the first time, that will make you cringe.

The next day, Karen and I visited some monuments that she had never seen. I haven’t been to D.C. since I was an undergrad, so the visit was just as impactful for me as it had been the first time. Years ago, I walked the length of the Vietnam Memorial to gain some appreciation for the war into which my father was drafted. Monuments, of course are erected to commemorate a person or an event. For example, the Lincoln Memorial points not only to the President, but also to his positive contributions to American history…a sign, more than a symbol. Enormous crowds of people pressed in on all of the memorials on Monday, in commemoration of Memorial Day, and I imagine many of them being as I was for many years of my life…reading a thankful patriotism into the history with which the monuments connect us. And I’m not saying that’s wrong. I was just left to ponder man’s desire for power, a power gained by keeping secrets, secrets that cause perpetual violence and war. Perhaps those things will always be with us in our mortal lives. I still like the intrigue (The real life Aston Martin was incredible for those of us who are James Bond fans), but knowing that a harsh reality is the basis for the fiction causes me to see past the intrigue, into shadows of a humanity always poising itself for power over itself.

The fiction we can put away when we go to bed at night. The reality is something with which we must always live, and moreso the consequences of that reality. In doing so, perhaps we realize that our monuments portray, at once, both the dark and the light that walk together through history.