“We do not allow the dead to rise up against us. … You will be lifted clean out from the stream of history. Nothing will remain of you, not a name in a register, not a memory in a living brain. You will be annihilated in the past as well as in the future. You will never have existed.” – George Orwell, 1984
In the year 610, Emperor Flavius Phocas was overthrown in a military coup. He was stabbed to death and beheaded by the man who usurped his throne. But his enemies did not consider that sufficient punishment. As an act of damnatio memoriae, the Roman tradition of dishonouring the losers of history, his statue in the Hippodrome was knocked over and publicly burned. The very name of Phocas was scratched from monuments, his portrait busts were smashed and literary works that praised him were consigned to the flames. It was if he had never existed.
This sort of induced historical amnesia is not uncommon. At the Cadaver Synod of 897, the body of Pope Formosus was exhumed, dressed in papal finery, set up on a throne and put on trial for perjury. The corpse was found guilty, stripped of its vestments and the three fingers of his right hand (used for blessings) were cut off. The remains were then cast into the Tiber and his reign, with all of its acts and decrees, was declared invalid.
If you go to the Doge’s Palace in Venice and consider the portraits of the city’s rulers, you will find them all in chronological order until you come to the place where you would expect to see that of Marino Faliero, elected in 1354. Instead of his likeness, you will behold only a black pall and the words “Hic est locus Marini Falethri decapitati pro criminibus” (This is the spot for Marino Faliero, beheaded for his crimes).
In the 20th century, Kremlinologists had a hard time keeping up with the Soviet personalities who achieved high office but somehow earned the wrath of Josef Stalin. One day, they’re a member of the Politburo, a famous poet or a marshal of the Red Army; the next day, they’re given a bullet in the back of the head and their names are erased from Communist Party publications, with photographs altered to show that they had never – despite what witnesses might remember – reviewed the troops in Red Square, been acclaimed a Hero of Socialist Labour or stood beside Vladimir Lenin during the revolution.
Unfortunately, Canadians are not above this sort of thing. Now is the turn for Hector-Louis Langevin. For the crime of being associated with the Indian residential school system, his name is to be stripped from one of the buildings on Parliament Hill. Although he was a Father of Confederation, an architect of a nation spanning half a continent, the political class of today deems him unworthy of being remembered. Never mind that his ideas were utterly respectable in his day and shared by those who are, for the moment at least, still allowed to be memorialized – Sir John A. Macdonald, Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché or Sara Riel, for example – they are now considered shameful.
The irony is that this brouhaha will not obliterate Langevin from public memory; thousands now know more about his life and works than they did a month ago.
But oblivion is not enough for today’s signallers of their virtue. They want to go beyond Orwell’s novel 1984, past amnesia into disgrace. They want to dishonour Langevin and those who were of his opinion – and by extension, anyone today who opposes current Liberal aboriginal policy.
As Orwell told us: “You will be annihilated in the past as well as in the future. You will never have existed.”
So long, Langevin!
Gerry Bowler taught history at the University of Manitoba for 25 years and is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.