The Past is a Foreign Country

Commentary, Culture Wars, Gerry Bowler

Someone named Laila El Mugammar thinks about racism every time she stands up for the Canadian national anthem. This is because the composer of the song’s tune, the nineteenth-century Québeçois musician Calixa Lavallée, once founded a blackface minstrel group which performed a type of entertainment that stereotyped African-American culture. Minstrelsy’s depiction of blacks as happy-go-lucky, ignorant, and lazy gave the practice of “blacking-up” a bad name, which a prominent federal politician found out during the last election. 

Maclean’s magazine recently allowed Ms. El Mugammar to give vent to her righteous indignation in a piece with the click-bait title “The hidden racist history of ‘O Canada’”; there she urged her fellow citizens to spend Canada Day discussing strategies for anti-racism until Lavallée rolls over in his grave. 

Meanwhile, over in England, one of Queen Elizabeth’s grand-daughters, Princess Beatrice, got married and, as part of the ceremony, her mother read “I carry your heart with me (I carry it in my heart)”, a love poem by Edward Estlin Cummings, who practised his art in the lower case as “e e cummings”. It’s a lovely little ode, very romantic, and it shows up frequently at weddings, but it prompted the Daily Mail to rush into print with an article entitled “Sorry, Beatrice, your love poet was a racist and a bounder”. 

Its author, Christopher Stephens, announced to the world what most students of American literature already knew, that e e cummings had made anti-Semitic remarks and had, while in war-time Paris, consorted with prostitutes. Stephens concluded his piece with the pious hope that “perhaps, if Beatrice and Edoardo had known the scandalous truth that lay behind the poem — not to mention the vile anti-Semitism that flowed alongside it — they might have chosen another piece of verse for their otherwise glorious wedding day.”

Or perhaps not.

Both El Mugammar and Stephens make the mistake of confusing the art with the artist, implying that if an author or composer is guilty of offending the conventional pieties of the year 2020, it somehow taints a piece of music or literature written over a century ago. Lavallee’s tune is entirely innocent of a “hidden racist history” and Cummings’ love poetry contains no hint of bigotry. To say otherwise is merely to engage in empty virtue-signalling, making frantic gestures to the world that you are now as woke as the times require.

As a historian, I have news to impart: The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. Horrible though it may seem, people of earlier times went around with different opinions than those we cling to in the twenty-first century. Some of these viewpoints we are right to disavow – that slavery was a good idea, or that women should be confined to domestic duties only – and some we were wrong to cast aside – that memorization is an excellent educational tool, or that we should look to artists to produce works of beauty. 

Different times produce different ideas and if we heap scorn on those who held notions we don’t agree with at the moment we are like children, locked into a continuous present, unable to connect with or learn from the past, and unable to imagine a future where we might change our minds.


Gerry Bowler is a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy