When the accounting of history falls victim to political correctness, we stand on dangerous ground. Here in Virginia, we have witnessed that with Gov. Ralph Northam’s contrived dismissal of the superintendent of Virginia Military Institute (VMI), retired Gen. J.H. Binford “Binnie” Peay III, and creation of a commission to examine purported racial injustice at one of the commonwealth’s most respected institutions.
VMI, steeped in history, is as much a museum to history as a producer of history-making graduates who exemplify the values of duty, honor, and country as both military leaders and citizen soldiers.
Unfortunately, VMI falsely has been accused of fostering racism by people unhappy with the military college’s hesitancy to remove Civil War monuments and other traces of that conflict from its campus. To suggest that today’s VMI is “steeped in racism,” even by some writers in this paper, is specious.
That said, any institution that has existed in Virginia since 1839 will have examples of racism in its past — just like newspapers that staunchly were pro-slavery in 1852. However, VMI and newspapers alike deserve the benefit of context.
In that regard, the modern moralizers of today seek to scour the historical record to their liking, occluding from view all they find offensive. They engage in what British writer and lay theologian C. S. Lewis coined “chronological snobbery,” looking with disdain on previous eras not to their liking.
Their revisionism ignores truth and context at the expense of knowledge. The late Virginia Tech Civil War scholar, Professor James I. “Bud” Robertson Jr., said this of their obscurantism: “One cannot view history selectively, picking and choosing to suit one’s fancy. You have to study the warts as well as the beauty spots. Otherwise you learn nothing.”
Indeed, is it wise to cancel history for our own good? Is there no place for the likes of Civil War personalities in the portrayal of our history — brilliant on the battlefield albeit emphatically wrong on the evil of slavery — so that we might learn from their actions good and bad?
What contextual standard is applicable to characters like Alexander the Great and Augustus Caesar, men who did incomparable things yet perpetrated much pain and agony on innocent people?
Indeed, how should we assess President Abraham Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War? Did he abrogate a fundamental constitutional right to secure a justified end regardless of the means?
Should President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s unjust internment of Japanese American citizens in 1942 result in removing any trace of his existence today, including portraits and statues?
The tyranny of retrospective judgmentalism by the modern keepers of acceptable history poses a distinct threat to all of us seeking to learn from the past. The ex post facto imposition of righteous judgment on historical figures — including chroniclers and artists alike — subjects them to an unrealistic standard largely absent when they acted, wrote their histories or caricatured those acts we now reject.
Is it not important to have the benefit of a complete history, painful as it might be when assessing the actions of others? Are we so blind to the need for historical context that we would hide from view, scrub from pages and remove from walls the depictions of past wrongs, hoping that by banishing them the malevolence will not recur?
Have we become so eager to soothe the rejuvenated pain of repression arising from today’s racial strife that we think ignoring past injustice will produce future justice? In truth, history sifted through the prospecting pan of political correctness amounts to mining for fool’s gold. That pyrite might gleam and glisten in the hands of the self-satisfied moralizers of today, but it will do nothing to add to the wealth of knowledge future generations will require to avoid the wickedness of the past.
The truth is — like it or not — that great men rarely are great themselves. But that is no reason to erase from sight what they did both good and bad. If nothing else, their choices then can be decisive in helping us navigate the contradictions and conflicts of the current age. Erasing history is precisely what our governor and his political allies are doing to advance their selfish political goals. It is utterly shameful.
The discourteous dismissal of the VMI superintendent and the slanderous assault on VMI is only the latest example of politically correct carnage. One can only wonder what context will be used by future commentators and historians to judge the political opportunists of today who would obliterate history for the glittering pyrite of political correctness.
L. Scott Lingamfelter is a 1973 graduate of VMI, a retired U.S. Army Colonel and a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates who served from 2002 to 2018. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org