“When was the last time you thought about history?” I said to Swamp Rabbit, who was playing a video game on his phone. “Here, check this out.”
I made him read the laughably creepy anecdote that starts Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. Kundera describes future Czechoslovak President Klement Gottwald standing bareheaded in the bitter cold, speaking to a big crowd in Prague, 1948. Foreign Minister Vladimír Clementis steps onto the balcony, takes off his fur cap, and graciously places it on Gottwald’s head. A photograph is taken. A few years later, Clementis is arrested and executed on a trumped-up charge of treason. Communist censors airbrush him from the well-known photo.
Kundera wrote of the doctored photo: Where Clementis once stood, there is only bare palace wall. All that remains of Clementis is the cap on Gottwald’s head.
“It’s easy to erase history,” I said, in case Swamp Rabbit had missed the point.
“That don’t make no sense,” he replied. “You can’t erase something that actually happened. What about all them peeps who watched the speech and knew the dude was there that day?”
“They forgot about him,” I said. “The modern world is fast-paced. One memory has to make room for the next. Who has time to fuss over what happened yesterday?”
“That’s what history is for, Odd Man. If something is important, it’s gonna end up in the history books.”
I told him he was being too simplistic. A lot of important stuff gets left out of history, or expunged. Or watered down to the point where it no longer reflects what really happened. History books often leave out unpleasant or inconvenient truths. The powers-that-be are happy to help people forget events that could be a threat to the status quo.
“The Tulsa Race Massacre, for example,” I said. “Hundreds of black people killed, their neighborhood burned down, but the entire event was airbrushed from history. Most people knew nothing about it until it turned up as a subplot on a TV series called Watchmen.”
Swamp Rabbit was unconvinced. “That massacre was a hundred years ago. Nowadays, them history books get things right.”
“Really?“ I said. “What about those yahoos at the U.S. Capitol who tried to overturn the election results? Only five months ago and already the Republicans are trying to make us forget. They’re saying the yahoos were tourists or non-violent protestors, or that the violent ones were really leftists. A lot of people believe them.”
“And a lot of peeps don’t,“ he said. “What’s your point?”
“My point is it’s important to keep the bad guys — Communists, Nazis, Republicans — from replacing history with bullshit. Not forgetting is hard work.”
“Too hard for me, I guess,“ he said. “I forget why you brought up the subject.”