A MINOR CONFESSION of mine is that I have been known to watch cooking competitions on TV. Shows like Top Chef, Chopped, and even from time to time Hell’s Kitchen have for the most part replaced O’Reilly and the nightly news. Don’t ask me why; I could ask the same question of people who watch golf.
A common requirement of the chefs on such shows is to “deconstruct” a popular dish. The idea is to take something like turkey and dressing, break it down into its basic components, and then come up with something “hip” and “new”. You know, sort of like the way history is treated these days.
Consider the current assault on Thomas Jefferson, Winston Churchill, and more recently Ronald Reagan in pop culture and among so-called journalists. A recent op-ed piece in The New York Times, for example, went to great lengths to paint only the dark side of the author of the Declaration of Independence.
The provocative title, The Monster of Monticello, went out of its way to point out that Thomas Jefferson never worked to do away with slavery. According to the writer, destroying families didn’t bother Jefferson because the Monster of Monticello believed blacks lacked basic human emotions. “Their griefs are transient,” he wrote, and their love lacked “a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation.”
Similar negative portraits of Winston Churchill have been featured as of late with mostly accurate yet incomplete quotes such as:
“I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
“It is alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer of the type well-known in the East, now posing as a fakir, striding half naked up the steps of the Viceregal palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”
Dr. Suneel Dhand, a direct descendent of the people Churchill raved against, calls for a better balance to our views of men like Jefferson and Churchill in a recent article in the International Business Times.
Dehand warns against the trend toward deconstructing history in order to come up with recipes more friendly to modern perceptions. He writes, “As hard as it was, I found that I could not ignore Churchill’s heroic qualities. I may have to constantly balance these against his views and acts against my ancestors, but he undoubtedly deserves to be held in high esteem for his service to his people and country.”
Looking backwards at both Jefferson and Churchill through the lens of our comfortable times, according to Dehand, is a fatal flaw. He points out:
Just as Winston Churchill’s finest hour came during World War II, so too was Thomas Jefferson’s in the founding of a new nation. And had it not been for the likes of Jefferson, who stood up bravely against a mighty king and empire, there may not have been an America for us to be so free in today.
When I wrote Things Still Don’t Make Sensea couple of years ago, I confessed my own confusion with the contradictions I saw in my grandparents as I grew up through the tumultuous years of Martin Luther King and the Evers brothers. The truth is, they were children of their times that only the times and more like them could ever correct. However, deconstructing their lives or those of Jefferson and Churchill serve only to make fools of us all. My grandparents and figures like Jefferson were fallen men and women, beset by hearts that were desperately flawed. Like all of us.
Orwell understood the negative power of deconstructing history. To destroy a people’s history is to control and ultimately destroy them. The job of a writer of history is not to construct or deconstruct but rather to sort. But sorting through the lives of men like Jefferson and Churchill requires more than trying to prove one’s own point. It requires a willingness to see them honestly, admit their failures, all the while refusing to allow their achievements to be diminished by their weaknesses.
So whose life do you see being deconstructed these days? Does it matter?