The philosopher George Santayana famously wrote in The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
This statement makes sense, especially in light of our society’s recent trials of history – and the accuracy of history being placed on trial.
The first example involves Scott Kelly, a former U.S. astronaut. He committed a serious offence on social media by having the audacity to quote (wait for it) the late, great British prime minister Sir Winston Churchill.
This bizarre episode started when he tweeted out on Oct. 7: “One of the greatest leaders of modern times, Sir Winston Churchill said, ‘in victory, magnanimity.’ I guess those days are over.”
Kelly’s three-word quote is accurate. It’s taken from Churchill’s The Gathering Storm (1948), part of his six-volume series on the Second World War.
Yet it immediately turned several social media users into ballistic creatures. Some attacked Churchill as a “racist” and “mass murderer” who reportedly viewed non-white communities as inferior. Others pointed to his apparent indifference toward India and the Bengal famine.
After a few hours, Kelly issued an apologetic second tweet: “Did not mean to offend by quoting Churchill. My apologies. I will go and educate myself further on his atrocities, racist views which I do not support. My point was we need to come together as one nation. We are all Americans. That should transcend partisan politics.”
It’s not only embarrassing that Kelly succumbed to an angry mob of left-wing social justice warriors, but he simply went along with their historical revisionism.
To call Churchill a racist is preposterous. He was no better or worse than most people in his time, and always treated individuals from different walks of life with respect. Meanwhile, to claim he was responsible for the Bengal famine remains a disputed fact – and, in the view of most historians, a highly inaccurate one.
Churchill was an imperfect beast. But he was also a great intellect, thinker, writer, orator and, above all, political leader.
The second example involves U.S. President Donald Trump and the claim he praised a Confederate general when, in fact, he didn’t.
On Oct. 12, Trump spoke at a large political rally in Ohio. He praised the state and said, “It also gave you a general who was incredible. He drank a little bit too much. You know who I’m talking about right? So Robert E. Lee was a great general. And Abraham Lincoln developed a phobia. He couldn’t beat Robert E. Lee. … And one day, it was looking really bad. And Lincoln just said, ‘You’ – hardly knew his name – and they said, ‘Don’t take him. He’s got a drinking problem.’ And Lincoln said, ‘I don’t care what problem he has, you guys aren’t winning.’ And his name was Grant. Gen. Grant. And he went in and he knocked the hell out of everyone.”
The crowd seemed to know who the president was talking about. Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant was born in Point Pleasant, Ohio, after all. Some historians agree Grant drank a bit, others have suggested he may have been an alcoholic and still others aren’t sure.
Yet NBC News decided Trump was referring to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and praised him in a state that sided with the Union Army.
Lee was a southerner born in Stratford Hall, Va. He was never associated with either heavy alcoholism or, by many historical accounts, social drinking. And yes, he was a great general in military and strategic terms – or else the Union and Confederate armies wouldn’t have both offered him the same leadership role!
What’s clear is NBC missed the break in Trump’s speech, and tied his third and fourth sentences together. After a day of negative press, they finally acknowledged this mistake and issued a correction. Rest assured the Trump White House will revisit this silly error as often as possible.
It’s important that we understand history. Yet it’s even more important we understand history as it was and not how some of us wish it would be.
Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.