Apologies for taking over from the previous writer of bad history, and particular apologies that my thoughts, ideas and notions will not be as reliably, academically informed.
However, there is an on-going movement in history, as well as in culture, towards acknowledgment of ‘the bad’. The stuff people did wrong.
All around the world, across all walks of life and from all areas of achievement there are artists, academics, sportspersons, musicians, politicians, historical philanthropists and people of note who we are coming to find out have skeletons deliberately thrown in closets to keep them from public view.
Even when they are put to view of the public, they’re dressed up, like it’s a Halloween novelty, or casually mentioned without going into detail.
People are associating the desire to uncover these skeletons a bit more with the so-called ‘cancel culture’, as if people, as if historians and academics, are trying to erase figures from history.
It’s not about erasing people or their achievements within their field, but acknowledging their flaws as human beings so that we can have accurate, rather than mythological, portrayals of people who – like it or not – will be respected and admired as role models.
They say “Never meet your heroes.” You know? That’s what this is about. Taking those heroes, inspecting them under the microscope of truth, no matter how harsh, and seeing them as the flawed people they were.
Richard Feynman, an exceptional scientist, working-class academic icon, integral to the Manhattan Project, investigator of the Challenger space shuttle disaster was a sex pest. He was a sexual predator with misogynistic attitudes towards women.
Say I was writing an article about Feynman. Well, for We Lack Discipline this is the sort of thing we want to highlight and want to bring to light.
It is possible to separate the person from their achievements. It is possible to see their achievements as groundbreaking, their expertise and contribution to the world of science as integral but them personally as a piece of shit.
Richard Feynman was an exceptional physicist, a great scientific communicator and a sexually predatory misogynist shitbag.
Another key example in this sphere is Dr. Werner von Braun. He was, of course, NASA’s chief rocket engineer for many years, the mastermind behind the Saturn V rocket, used for the Apollo missions that took human beings from their home planet of Earth, and transported them all the way to the Earth’s natural satellite, the Moon.
He was also a fucking Nazi, not some wishy-washy ‘just didn’t leave Germany’ kind of Nazi, a full, paid-up, fundamental part of the Nazi war machine and, I believe, a member of the elite unite, the Allgemeine SS. A proper fucking Nazi.
Not only that but whilst being a Nazi he took a bunch of Nazi money, much of it obtained from robbing the various people they were busy persecuting during the Holocaust, mainly Jews, and invested it in invented new Wunderwaffen – wonder weapons. These included the V1 and V2 rockets, the long-range, rocket-based, guided bombs that terrorised London and the South East during the war.
This Nazi bastard literally bombed my home town.
And yet, he helped put humans on the Moon, partially with the knowledge he gained by building weapons to bomb my home town. He opened up the age of space exploration as we know it today, currently undergoing a renaissance as humans look to expand their horizons and frontiers once more. Without von Braun, would we be doing that?
How do you reconcile this?
In my opinion, you don’t.
He was an incredible rocket engineer, and an absolute fucking piece of shit. His achievements are separate from his personhood.
In fact looking at his opinions, attitudes and behaviours I would say he was an amoral careerist only interested in pursuing his own projects regardless of the thoughts, beliefs or ideologies of those paying for him to do so. He was a ruthless opportunist in this regard, and did not care if people were getting hurt so long as he could do as he pleased.
You don’t reconcile this. Nor should it be the responsibility of a historian to try and reconcile this. It is the job of the historian merely to document and potentially interpret it. Not hide it, not cover it, not brush it under the carpet, but put it out there.
One of my personal favourite ethologists (study of animal behaviour) Konrad Lorenz was an Austrian and another Nazi scientist. There is no reconciling this and he knew it.
He regretted the role he played in the events of the time and let it be known if by nothing else then through his work.
His seminal works ‘On Aggression’ and ‘King Solomon’s Ring’ are, to an extent, works of popular academia that, in my opinion, were written in the spirit of regret and a desire to understand what he had done, why he had done it, what causes the aggression and infliction of misery not just in humans but in all animals.
But if I ever write a biography of Konrad Lorenz, I won’t brush his Nazi past under the carpet. He was part of a scientific machine set up with the express intent of creating a nationalist scientific body, and to persecute innocent people. No matter his achievements in the field, no matter how much I respect his work I will never not mention it.
Einstein was a misogynist, Newton was an arsehole, Ted Hughes was a dick to his wife, George Washington was a slave owner, Christopher Columbus persecuted indigenous populations and even Charles Darwin likely ate a shit-ton of Galapagos tortoise contributing to their declining numbers.
It is hard to find someone in history with a spotless record, so how about we stop pretending? Huh? This isn’t about ‘cancelling’ anything, it’s about asking who we are celebrating and why? What kind of lessons do we want to set for the future?
Is there an air of presentism to it? Of judging past historical figures by contemporary standards? To an extent, but it is with a view towards the future and so long as it does not erase these figures or their contributions, so long as it is not the equivalent of a ‘damnatio’ in Ancient Roman culture, where faces would be scrubbed off statues, people’s names erased from records then all it is – is honesty.
I am, eventually, going to cover some historical Roman figures biographically. Most of these people will have been butchers of men, warlords, murderers, rapists and slave owners and there is no point covering any of that up.
It was, and denying it only leads us to an inevitably romantacised lie of history. It’s a myth more than a truth, and if I gave a shit about studying myth I’d read theology rather than Roman history!
If I were in the United States I would not want my children going to, say, George Washington High School. Regardless of what you may consider his achievements to have been to the Nation and Republic of the United States, he felt entitled to ‘own’ people. He made a fortune using slaves on his estates. He thought it was okay.
Churchill is a good example here in the UK. Often held aloft as a hero of the nation, one of the greatest Britons, he was a grotesque man, with a vile attitude, a complete posh twat, a vulgar racist and a military failure. His greatest achievement, and we should give him his due here, is twofold.
One, he made some damn fine speeches that bolstered the spirit of a nation battered by war and two, having learned from his fuck ups in World War I he left much of the planning of military operations up to the actually smart people who knew what the fuck they were doing.
But he is, and should be, a controversial figure for his attitudes, for his beliefs, for things he said about certain people and races and for his contribution to the Bengal famine. We should be able to accept that for all the good he may have done at one time, he may not always have acted that way. For all Britain might think he is wonderful, other nations then under the Imperial umbrella may not like him as much.
He’s even controversial in Britain for having mobilised the UK military against striking Welsh coal miners!
There is a lot of bad behaviour that, for the sake of protecting someone’s achievements in their field, has been swept under the carpet.
We’ve started to realise that you can’t truly study history without lifting that carpet.
Yes, we’re uncovering a lot of dirt. But it is better to know it is there, and to make people aware of it, so that we may have a cleaner, healthier future.