Historical figures can’t be judged by today’s values
MORE than 60 years after saving the world from Nazi rule, Sir Winston Churchill was this week involved in yet another war.
The former British Prime Minister was quoted by former Nasa astronaut Scott Kelly who had called for civility during Brett Kavanaugh’s divisive appointment to the US Supreme Court.
He wrote: “One of the greatest leaders of modern times, Sir Winston Churchill said, in victory, magnanimity. I guess those days are over.
The tweet sparked outrage among activists as they attacked Kelly for daring to quote the former Prime Minister who some labelled a racist and a “mass murderer”.
One went as far to say Churchill was “just as good as Hitler” while another tweeted: “Check out the records of the Bengal famine of India where his policies and decisions lead to the death of millions due to starvation and disease.
They were referring to Churchill refusing to send food to those starving during the Bengal famine, which led to a shortage that claimed around three million lives in 1943-44.
The critics failed to point out how historians argue the Prime Minister did as much as he could given the circumstances of World War Two. The attacks, in the US and the UK, were a far cry from 2002 BBC poll that voted Churchill the “greatest Briton of all time” and last year’s depiction of him in the Oscar-winning film Darkest Hour.
The attacks were so great it led Kelly to issue a grovelling apology.
“Did not mean to offend by quoting Churchill,” he later tweeted.
“My apologies. I will go and educate myself further on his atrocities, racist views which I do not support.”
It’s a sad state of affairs when you have to volunteer for re-education for quoting one of the greatest leaders of the last century.
Kelly couldn’t just tell the critics to get real without becoming a target.
As UN ambassador for space, he’s tweeted on the horrors of President Trump pulling out of the Paris Accord and setting up a Space Force.
But to quote the man who saved the western world from Nazi rule was a step too far.
Churchill could be ill-mannered and obstinate, with a tendency to see things in black and white terms, and there were times when he got things tremendously wrong – for instance, his colonialist inclinations poisoned his opinions on India.
But unlike most of us – he possessed genuine greatness.
With invasion looking likely, Churchill was under great political pressure to do a deal with Germany – something he resisted, vowing to the House of Commons “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat”.
So it is no surprise Kelly praised him as one of the “greatest leaders”.
We should be wary of “presentism” - the judging people of another time by the standards of today.
There are many US heroes who had views that today seem thoroughly objectionable.
Three of the first four US presidents – George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison – owned more than 1,000 slaves between them. But they were products of their times, and times change.
If we continue with ridiculous attacks on history and those who shaped it we will not learn from the lessons of the past. We may, in fact, run the risk of repeating them.
They were products of their times and times change