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History, revised, should not repeat itself

Sunday, June 15, 2003

In 1661, a mob dragged Oliver Cromwell, once Lord Protector of England, to Tyburn Hill in London, hanged him and then chopped off his head. That Cromwell had been dead for three years did not dampen the enthusiasm for this enterprise. Between Puritans and Cavaliers, punishment is certain, if not swift.

The ardor for posthumous execution builds every now and again in societies disoriented by change. In 1986, a crowd of Haitians broke into the tomb of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier and beat him to death. This sort of thing has never been considered an especially edifying trait in our species.

One sure sign of civilization, it might be posited, is that at least the dead are safe from harm.

So the week just passed was a small disappointment. The Pulitzer Prize Committee has announced that it will review, with an eye toward revocation, the prize awarded to Walter Duranty in 1932 for his coverage of the Soviet Union. Duranty has been a regular if immobile target of the nation's right wing for his facile writings in The New York Times about the Stalin regime which, as it turns out, was a bust. Who knew?

The most salient charge against Duranty is that he ignored, in his coverage from 1932 through his retirement, a famine created by Stalin to suppress Ukraine. That Duranty won his prize for coverage that predated the famine does not seem to matter.

The immediate and transparent purpose of this campaign is, of course, to further discredit the Times which, it should be noted, long ago acknowledged the discrediting of Duranty.

In New Mexico, forensic looters plan to pull up the remains of a man who went to his grave claiming to be Billy the Kid. Their theory is that Pat Garrett, who was supposed to have shot Billy the Kid in Nebraska, can at last be exposed as the murderer of a patsy rather than a hero. No literary award rests in the balance on this one. Perhaps they can hang him.

As if the world were not wobbling on its axis sufficiently after the foregoing revelations, a group of Orthodox believers in Russia is demanding sainthood for Grigori Rasputin, the mystical weirdo who kept the Romanov family in his thrall until his murder in 1916. Stories of his womanizing, court intrigue and alcoholic debauchery aside, he appears to have been a saint, at least by today's standards of conduct.

And today's standards are what so much of this is all about. We are happy to let history judge, but happier still when we attempt to judge history. Hence, Thomas Jefferson's ownership of slaves is reason to condemn him, rather than to appreciate the fact that a man born into a slave-owning society saw the inherent wrong in it and sought to eradicate the institution. Recently, a close friend asked me to name the biggest war criminal in history.

After offering up the usual suspects --Hitler, Stalin, Michael Bolton -- I was surprised to hear that the correct answer was Abraham Lincoln.

"He went to war with his own countrymen even though the Constitution allows states to leave the union. Therefore, he is a war criminal," my friend explained.

Lincoln, of course, did some fiddling with constitutional principles. He suspended portions of the Bill of Rights so he could prosecute a civil war he had tried to avoid. He was, by this judgment, an imperfect man, but he was imperfect in a time when perfection would have destroyed the nation. Assessed by today's standards, Lincoln's judgment seems as out of date as his grooming. But he is not president in 2003. He was president when we needed him.

When confronting the failings of mugs, shmendricks and rat finks, the danger of posthumous floggings is not what it does to the dead, but what it does to the living. A society so fixated on retroactive justice that it relieves a man 46 years dead of a 72-year-old prize sounds like one incapable of moving ahead. Note how, whenever the current administration falters, it resurrects the Clinton presidency. Note how, when Jimmy Carter's pals micromanaged the nation into malaise, Democrats invoked Richard Nixon.

The dead are very useful in some moments. The problem is that we cannot dig them up without getting our own hands dirty and leaving a bad smell.

A withdrawal of Duranty's prize, the indictment of Pat Garrett, the canonization of Rasputin all will undermine the sense that the past is history. Surely we can learn from history, but the learning must be useful for the present and even more so for the future. It should be a well of learning, not a bottomless pit.

Dennis Roddy is a Post-Gazette columnist(droddy@post-gazette.com , 412-263-1965).

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