Controlling the past, controlling the future

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By John Hubbuch

The decision to take down three murals, painted in 1937 through the Works Progression Administration (WPA) program and displayed in three different District 97 schools in Oak Park, seems pretty innocuous. These murals depict children at play in summer and winter. Since they were painted in 1937, only white children were portrayed because, well, very few black people lived in Oak Park.

Details on the decision seem a bit incomplete. According to the Julian Middle School principal, some parents and students felt the winter scene mural of only white kids skating did not reflect the diversity of the current student body and did not promote the greater sense of belonging and inclusion that the school is so diligently pursuing. So the mural had to go.

Inevitably, a few questions arise: First, how come this concern never came up for 72 years? For decades, black and white parents and students walked past the mural and saw a bunch of white kids skating on a pond, and not a peep about the mural. I suspect Oak Park kids see far more disturbing things than white kids skating, and are sophisticated enough to understand that things were different a long time ago. Why now?

Just how many parents and students complained about the mural? Two? Ten? Who else knew about the decision to remove the mural? Julian Student Council? Julian PTO? Teachers? The District 97 school board? Anyone? Was there any discussion at any level? It seems weird that in Oak Park where we do more processing than Kraft does with Cheez-Whiz, a 72-year-old mural goes away so quickly and so secretly.

As a result of this truncated process, I was unable to present my brilliant idea of painting over some of the white kids with kids of color thereby reflecting the diversity of the student body. Problem solved. Cheaply.

There is, of course, a larger point. In Oak Park a progressive ethos is ascendant. The winners get to tell their story the way they want it told. George Orwell's prescient masterwork 1984 observed: "Who controls the past controls the future, and who controls the present controls the past."

In the aftermath of World War II, France wrote a history that its people had resisted the Nazis occupation and genocide of the Jews in France when in fact the resistance was minor, and the Vichy government collaborated, and most Frenchmen were indifferent to the Nazis' murderous evil.

Communists are particularly good at rewriting history. The inevitability of their historical dialectic requires it. Millions of peasants secretly starve. Stalin is a great man until he isn't, and then he is again. The Chernobyl plant explosion is a good example. Thousands died due to the disaster, but to this day the official government death total is 31.

In this country, the history of Reconstruction has been rewritten several times. When I was in junior high in southern Indiana, there were the Southern scalawags and Northern carpetbaggers who sought to exploit the South. Today the carpetbaggers are government officials tasked with securing the promise of the future for the former slaves, and the scalawags were the duly elected black representatives. The saintly, albeit slave owner, Robert E. Lee had fought in a Lost Cause to save a way of life. Birth of a Nation, the first movie blockbuster, depicted the KKK as freedom fighters. Today we take down the statues of southern Civil War generals, and we know Woodrow Wilson was a racist.

We should be careful how we revise our story. History is much more than something that makes us feel comfortable about ourselves today. We should not neglect our past. We might find it useful someday.

I give the last words to Orwell: "Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day, minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right."

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