Service of Retrospect: Cleaning Up the Past with Rose Colored Glasses

July 26th, 2018

Categories: Awards, Famous, History, Library, Racism


There a many powerful pro and con arguments about the confiscation of historic statues—of Robert E. Lee in New Orleans, Confederate Soldiers and Sailors in Baltimore or Jefferson Davis in Memphis to name a few—or the removal of names on prizes and honors of people once admired. In most cases their political positions, remarks or writings represented or reflected racist sentiments, often typical in the day, that are unacceptable now. Yet not all have been equally demoted.

Robert E. Lee statue formerly in New Orleans

Take Albert Einstein. In recently released travel diaries he wrote “some racist things about the Chinese back in the early 1920s,” Peter Dreier reported on “As I point out in my book,” wrote Dreier of  The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, “none of the 100 people in my Social Justice Hall of Fame was

Albert Einstein Photo:

(or is) a saint. They all had vision, courage, persistence, and talent, but they also made mistakes.” He also wrote “I would certainly incorporate Einstein racist comments in my profile of him, but that wouldn’t exclude him from being in the pantheon of great American radicals and progressives.”

Drier continued: “Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood and a crusader for women’s health and birth control, briefly endorsed eugenics.

Margaret Sanger Photo:

Theodore Roosevelt’s was a foe of big business, but his ‘big stick’ imperialism outraged many progressives. Alice Paul, the great women’s suffrage leader, was an anti-Semite. Eleanor Roosevelt also absorbed the casual anti-Semitism of her upper-class WASP upbringing.”

Then there’s the former Laura Ingalls Wilder Award. A division of the American Library Association [ALA]– the Association for Library Service to Children {ALSC]–renamed the award the Children’s Literature Legacy Award. According to Michael Taube in The Wall Street Journal, “‘Wilder’s legacy, as represented by her body of work, includes expressions of stereotypical attitudes inconsistent with ALSC’s core values of inclusiveness, integrity and respect, and responsiveness,’ the association announced in a press release.

Laura Ingalls Wilder Photo:

“Characters in ‘Little House on the Prairie’ say ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian’ three times,” Taube reported. “Wilder’s references to her white settler family’s manifest destiny has also troubled the black community,” he wrote.

Taub continued: “Hardly anyone would defend these sentiments today, but people are products of their times. The Wilder Award was established in 1954, and its first recipient was Laura Ingalls Wilder herself. If we judge past luminaries by today’s standards, who’s next to go?”

For 36 years the ALA collaborated on Banned Books Week with Amnesty International. Taub quoted “An ALSC blog post about it last September called the week a time to ‘celebrate intellectual freedom.’” He asked: “How does the ALSC square the spirit of Banned Books Week with its scrubbing of Wilder’s name?” and concluded “I tried to reach them, but didn’t receive a response.”

How best deal with the past when looking at it through today’s rose colored glasses?

  • Why are we inconsistent in our castigation of prominent historic figures, punishing some and not others? For example, should the World Cultural Council rename its Albert Einstein World Award of Science?
  • What does it take for some, and not others to lose their exalted place in the firmament of the admired?
  • Do you agree with the name change made by the Association for Library Service to Children from the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award to the Children’s Literature Legacy Award?
  • Should we leave well enough alone or in the forewords of book reprints, such as Ingalls Wilder’s, put in historic context her remarks and attitudes that are now considered hurtful and demeaning?


Eleanor Roosevelt Photo:

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6 Responses to “Service of Retrospect: Cleaning Up the Past with Rose Colored Glasses”

  1. ASK Said:

    We should take off the glasses and stop trying to rewrite history. The “Fahrenheit 451” aspects of such revisionism are frightening.

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:


    The tidbit that Michael Taub shared about the Banned Books Week affiliation to the association that took away Wilder’s award once again suggests that it helps knowing all the facts. I was sorry that the organization didn’t respond to his query as I’d be interested to know their response.

    I hope that the next step in this sweeping clean initiative won’t find historians eliminating information that might offend one or another group.

    This period in history makes several things clear:

    1) With all the indignation about the past, we see the WH muzzling the press. Is this appropriate and PC and American? I refer to Kaitlan Collins of CNN who repeatedly asked DJT about the Cohen tapes during a press conference. She was then barred from attending the subsequent open press conference in the Rose Garden. Some of her colleagues spoke up for her.

    2)Giant groups of people looking at the same event take away such opposing impressions you wonder if they watched what you saw or if they had any memory at all. A newsman on WOR 710 radio said he thought Collins was rude to ask her question. The same station urges its stringers to ask intrusive questions of Joe and Jane Q. Citizen caught in a news story.

    It seems OK [though makes me uncomfortable] when a reporter shoves a mic at someone who has just lost all their belongings in a tragedy–or worse–but that is standard even, I imagine, on Fox. In addition, for a man who tells his following not to believe what they see or hear to approve of this approach seems contradictory.

    So who are we to whitewash the past?

  3. Protius Said:

    You touch upon a topic which has been much debated, and left unresolved, by historians for a long time.

    Supposedly, on 21 July 356 BC, Herostratus, perhaps a slave and certainly a nobody, set fire to the Temple of Artemis, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, at Ephesus, a Greek colony in Asia Minor, now Turkey. When asked why he had destroyed this remarkably beautiful object, Herostratus stated that he did so to make sure that his name would be remembered forever. Consequently, the Ephesians, when they condemned him to death, decreed that his name never be recorded or remembered. However, the eminent geographer and historian at the time of the late Roman Republic, Strabo, when he learned of the story decided that, no doubt in the interest of full disclosure, to publish it…, and I’ll bet you that more people, even today, know Herostratus’s name than how Millard Fillmore earned his living. Was Strabo right? I think, on balance, he was.

    As to the larger issues your post raises, I think accuracy and honesty are what count. Don’t be hypocritical and rewrite history to suit current tastes. Those civil war Confederate statues are part of our history. As unpleasant as it may be for many of us, they are our history and should not be “never recorded or remembered.”

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Full disclosure: I did not know about Herostratus nor did I know how Fillmore made a living before he became VP and then President. But you make a good point, even if it wasn’t the takeaway you’d meant to share: It’s easier to remember negative things while some of the positive get lost.

    Anyway, what good in erasing what was? It was for a reason and that it is nor more, if the change is positive, is a GOOD THING. Do people hide promotions on their resumes? Do corporations neglect to publicize strides in R&D or sales?

    However, I just thought of something. When people terrorize in me-too shooting incidents in movie theaters, at concerts, in schools, I think that the incident should be covered but NOT the name of the perpetrators. Their faces should not be flashed on TV and computer screens. So, in that context, I’m with those who punished Herostratus, who “decreed that his name never be recorded or remembered.” People so driven to be in headlines [or their equivalent], without doing positive things to deserve a spotlight, should not be encouraged.

  5. Protius Said:

    I strongly disagree.

    Punish Herostratus, and tell the world why he set fire to the temple. The truth always wins.
    One of the reasons we are in the terrible mess we are in is that our leaders do not tell us we intuitively know to be true, rather what we have become cynical enough to recognize as wishful thinking. Tell the public how bad things really are, and you will get a very different response.

  6. Lucrezia Said:

    Those responsible for attempting to diminish worthy historical figures are as foolish as the ancients who tore down predecessors statues along with other records of their accomplishments. It would appear that common sense and foresight have not progressed for thousands of years.

    Thank goodness for the technical end to intelligence: Central heating, phones, planes & etc.!

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