When the metaphorical dust has settled on the Plains of Abraham—metaphorical dust being the only kind you’re allowed to kick up on the sacred sod a quarter-millennium on—the larger question remains:
What’s the future of the past?
That’s to say, the lesson of the last few weeks is that the latter depends on the former. In 1759, General Wolfe won a decisive victory that led to the end of French rule on this continent: that is what we used quaintly to call a “fact.” To take another unfashionable word, the “reality” of North American life today derives explicitly from that fact.
Once upon a time they used to teach Wolfe in schools. I don’t suppose, between diversity studies, anger management classes and Ritalin shots, he gets much of a look-in these days. Yet it is still startling to discover that to observe 2½ centuries of this transformative event would be a ghastly social faux pas (pardon my French) in the province (pardon my English) of Quebec. When I first heard that the long-scheduled re-enactment of the battle had been cancelled on “public safety” grounds, I roared my head off: the notion of a warrior nation now too fainthearted even to stage re-enactments seemed too obvious a parody of Canadian squishiness. But it turned out to be true. The British won the battle but the French won the re-enactment—which may yet be what counts. As the separatist bruiser Patrick Bourgeois couldn’t resist crowing, it was a glorious victory over the old enemy.
I say “separatist bruiser” but, of course, the pseudo-separatists never do separate and M Bourgeois will end his days a subject of the same Crown that has already inflicted 250 years of humiliation on him. “Je me souviens,” as the licence plates say, although given Quebec’s advanced state of societal dementia maybe they could switch quotations to: “a British subject I was born and a British subject I will die.”
In other countries, they épater les bourgeois. But in Canada les bourgeois épater everybody else. I warmed up to Quebec’s newest hero after listening to everybody else’s response to him. The British victor’s successor as gauleiter of Quebec, the federal government, turned out to be a Wolfe in sheep’s clothing, and abandoned the National Battlefield Commission to its fate. The commission chair, André Juneau, conceded that it is “an ex-tremely painful page in our history,” apparently mostly for the winning side, but he said a commemorative book would still be issued, and—who knows?—it may even be legal to distribute it in Quebec. A spokesman for the organizing group, the Quebec Historical Corps, said they might go ahead and hold the re-enactment in Ontario, which would be as funny as it gets, short of moving the venue to the garden of Buckingham Palace, where presumably it would fall foul of European Union “xenophobia” laws.
Meanwhile, Michael Ignatieff displayed the characteristically bold leadership we’ve come to associate with him since he momentarily wandered off the Liberal reservation and accidentally supported the Iraq war. The leader of the Opposition declared that he wasn’t saying he was for or against the re-enactment per se but that any commemoration of this “defeat and tragedy” ought to be respectful. You remember Lord Nelson at Trafalgar? He put the telescope over his eye patch and said “I see no ships.” That’s Iggy. He put a patch over both eyes, swivelled in all directions, and declared, “I see no re-enactment, but if it’s out there I hope it’s sober and dignified.”
Speaking of Trafalgar, couldn’t we have opted for the solution adopted by the British on the bicentennial in 2005? Worried that the French and Spanish dignitaries would be embarrassed at seeing their side routed, they decided to stage the re-enactment not as a battle between Britain and the French and Spanish navies, or even between “the good guys” and “unspecified shifty foreigners,” but instead between “the Red Team” and “the Blue Team.” And just to be on the safe side the commemorative booklet referred not to “the Battle of Trafalgar” but only to “an early 19th-century sea battle.” It doesn’t exactly fire the blood—“the Red Team expects every man to do his duty”—and I’m not sure whether the dying Nelson turned to Hardy and said, “Kiss me, fellow Red Team member.” But surely the same dodge might have worked in Quebec? The Red Team battling the Blue Team, with perhaps an Orange Team led by Jack Layton coming in at the last minute to do all the commemorative TV interviews about how this battle establishes the Orange Team as the real choice of working families.
But no. Instead, General Wolfe’s historic victory is history in the robust sense of that useful Americanism: aw, he’s history—as in fuhgeddabouttim; he’s gone, he’s over, put a fork in him—he’s done. John Robson wrote a splendid column arguing that not even Quebecers should be dumb enough to want to exchange 250 years under the British Crown for 250 years under absolute monarchy, the Revolution, the Terror, Napoleon, the Second Empire, the Fourth Republic, etc, etc. As for France, she was happy to trade “quelques arpents de neige” (a few acres of snow) for the security of her Caribbean colonies. How’d that work out? See the riots in Guadeloupe the other week? I mean, real riots, not just a staged re-enactment of riots from hundreds of years ago.
Not so long ago, there were millions of people in every corner of the world who attended schools that taught them that the Britannic inheritance was on balance a good thing as opposed to the root cause of all the world’s woes. Good for individual liberty, standard of living, constitutional democracy: see, e.g., Canada, America, the Bahamas, India, Australia, and even a few francophone redoubts such as Mauritius. But then the alumni of Canada’s residential schools sued for “cultural genocide” (a novel concept), and on the whole you’re safer to steer clear of the whole business. The past didn’t change: it is what it is. But the present changed, and the future will be beyond recognition. A couple of years ago, the Mail On Sunday in London reported as follows:
“Schools are dropping controversial subjects from history lessons—such as the Holocaust and the Crusades—because teachers do not want to cause offence, government research has found . . . Some teachers have even dropped the Holocaust completely from lessons over fears that Muslim pupils might express anti-Semitic reactions in class.”
This was from a study for the Department of Education, which noted that “teachers and schools avoid emotive and controversial history for a variety of reasons, some of which are well-intentioned. Staff may wish to avoid causing offence or appearing insensitive to individuals or groups in their classes. In particular settings, teachers of history are unwilling to challenge highly contentious or charged versions of history in which pupils are steeped at home, in their community or in a place of worship.”
Cross the Channel to the Netherlands: different country, same discreet closing of the door on awkward corners of the past. Dutch teachers are wary of mentioning the Second World War because “in particular settings” most pupils don’t believe the Holocaust happened. If there happens to be a Jewish child in the class, it could be a little distressing. But fortunately Europeans won’t have to worry about Jews in the school system much longer. A few weeks ago, during the Israeli incursion into Gaza, Olav Nielsen, headmaster of Humlehave School in Odense, Denmark, announced that he would no longer accept Jewish children. The Copenhagen Post reported that several other principals had also decided that they would no longer let Jews enrol at their schools. Once that system’s up and running, they’ll be able to teach the Second World War without any complicating factors. Likewise, those soi-disant “Church of England” schools in Yorkshire where every student is Muslim will soon be able to resume teaching the Crusades, albeit from a fresh perspective.
In 1984, George Orwell wrote, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” On the Plains of Abraham this last month, Canada lost control of its own past. That’s less bloody than old-fashioned battles with cannon and musket, but sometimes it’s just as significant. Meanwhile, in Britain, public commemorations of St George’s Day, England’s national holiday, have been cancelled on grounds of potential “racism.” On the other hand, Anjem Choudhary, whose last rally featured cries of “Bomb the U.K.!,” was permitted to go ahead with a march calling for the introduction of sharia. Perhaps, in the interests of multiculti sensitivity the British should participate in every re-enactment, but this time round make sure they lose.