Whether it is a Presidential campaign bumper sticker that has now become an embarrassment, or a book whose title now evokes something completely different in retrospect or public art that has now become cringeworthy, there’s always the temptation to change the past to suit the present.
You can scrape the sticker off. You can photoshop the shame away. Jerry Sandusky’s likeness has now been painted over in a Penn State Mural and replaced with a blue ribbon. The title of a Sandusky biography, “Touched” has become retrospectively suggestive enough for people to wonder whether it should still be kept on the library shelves.
Times change and so does the standard of what constitutes socially acceptable speech. One of the problems facing Peter Jackson in remaking the Dambusters is that in the original (and in real life) the radio code-word for a successful mission over the Ruhr dams was to have been the name of Wing Commander Guy Gibson’s black labrador dog, N****r. Broadcasting that name signified that the objective had been destroyed. Since the word can no longer be uttered in modern cinema, the BBC reports that in the remake the problem of embarassment has been solved by renaming the dog after the term for an Australian soldier: Digger.
Stephen Fry, who is writing the film’s screenplay, said there was “no question in America that you could ever have a dog called the N-word”.
In the remake, the dog will be called “Digger” instead of “Nigger”.
But even though these manipulations are made with the idea of avoiding offense and removing painful memories, the inescapable fact is that such politesse changes our memory of the past. Some might argue that it is precisely in order to preserve these painful memories — so that they may never be forgotten — that it is important to preserve memory just as it was.
By removing Sandusky’s likeness from the mural or renaming Guy Gibson’s dog people are destroying information with the best of intentions, but destroying it all the same. While memory is fresh the loss is trivial. The current generation “knows” that the disgraced Penn State assistant coach once sat where the blue ribbon is now depicted. There are still a few gray heads who remember that Guy Gibson did not name his dog the Australian equivalent of “GI Joe”. That is because they can switch the placeholders in the mind and arrive at the original sense of the story. But one day scholars may ask what Australian soldiers were doing toting barges on the Mississippi and no one might be able to explain it.
Diggers all work on de Mississippi,
Diggers all work while de white folks play,
Pullin’ dose boats from de dawn to sunset,
Gittin’ no rest till de judgement day
But maybe that is how things go. Writing history is often not only a process of organized remembrance, it all too frequently is an intentional act of organized revision.
Ah gits weary
An’ sick of lyin’
Ah’m tired of runnin’
An’ skeered of stoppin’,
But ol’ man river,
He jes’keeps rolling’ along.