Whitewashing History

>> Wednesday, November 19, 2008

An extremely contentious issue in many countries is the content of history textbooks. There have been several international incidents over textbooks in Japan dealing with the Japanese actions during WWII. These incidents occur when one country seeks to beautify their history or install a view less critical of past governments. A debate on these lines is taking place in South Korea right now. The new conservative government is seeking to alter the way history texts deal with the aftermath of WWII and the Cold War.

The controversy in South Korea is a struggle between the left, who favor a dirtier, less pristine view of events following the expulsion of the Japanese and the new conservative government who want a history South Koreans can be proud of.

On Oct. 30, the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology demanded that the authors of the Kumsung book and five other textbooks used in high schools delete or revise 55 sections that it said “undermine the legitimacy of the South Korean government.”

“A textbook of modern history should be written in a way that does not hurt our national pride,” it said.

To which the authors responded,

“National pride? Patriotism? They should be based on historical facts,” said Hong Soon-kwon, a history professor and co-author of the Kumsung textbook.

There are multiple topics of contention. One i found to be particularly of interest was the discussion surrounding the first South Korean President Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee.

One textbook, published by the Institute for Better Education, says that President Rhee, revered as a nation-builder by the conservatives but detested by liberals as a ruthless anti-Communist, exploited the North Korean threat to “shore up his dictatorial regime.”

The Ministry of National Defense has demanded the Rhee passage be rewritten to say, “He did his best to contain Communism.”

According to the Kumsung textbook, Park Chung-hee — who seized power in a coup in 1961 and tortured political dissidents, while mobilizing the nation for export-driven economic growth — was “a president who placed himself above the nation’s Constitution.”

The Defense Ministry wants this to be replaced with “a president who contributed to the nation’s modernization.”

I dont want to lecture the South Korean government on their history but the left has a much more accurate view of what went on in that time. Just because it is ugly and not too flattering to your national pride does not mean it should be hidden away never to be spoken of again. The shameful things are the ones most in need of sunlight so that they are not repeated.

So why write about a South Korean History Textbook controversy? The underlying principle has value for everyone, especially America at this time. There is going to be a very strong push by the right and many in the center to simply "reconcile and move on." These people are like the right in the South Korean textbook debate. It is better that national pride be papered over and inflated than history be accurate.

The Bush years have been an utter disaster and an embarrassment to America. Yet we cannot simply ignore them an move on. That would be whitewashing history as surely as the South Korean conservatives wish to do in their history books. If we simply let it all go in an effort to move forward without adequately addressing the mistakes and the black ugly parts of the last eight years then we will surely repeat them over and over. While it seems like the easier path to forgive and forget doing so will only see the underlying problems fester and grow worse.

It seems inconceivable now that Bush could possibly be rehabbed into a decent president. His abuses and failures are legion. However, moving on without addressing how they happened and making sure they dont happen again leaves the door open to future whitewashers to come back through and tell a different story about Bush. A story where he was simply misunderstood and did a lot of great things for America. The answer is to open everything up to the light in all its ugly glory. Force people to acknowledge the last eight years happened and they happened and not by chance. Otherwise, its possible future American history books will speak of the 43rd President as one who "fought to bring democracy to the world" and "successfully defended America against terrorists".


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

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