Damnatio Memoriae by Nitay Arbel
The slippery slopes of “damnation of memory”
[See also this earlier PJMedia article by the blogmistress, https://pjmedia.com/trending/2017/08/20/remembering-the-past/ ]
Ancient Rome had a practice called “damnatio memoriae” in which emperors or public figures that had fallen into disgrace were literally erased from view: not only were any monuments to them torn down, but their name was erased from things they had built.
In the wake of the recent push to demolish statues to military leaders from 150 years ago — respected on both sides of the war they fought in — the POTUS facetiously asked whether the Founding Fathers would be next. [Sure enough, some regressive leftist soon answered, “hold my beer!”.]
But seriously: as long as we’re engaging in “damnatio memoriae” by tearing down statues of historical figures who owned slaves etc. — why stop there? Let’s have a look at the sciences.
Karl Pearson held views on eugenics, race, etc. that can only be characterized as vile. He is also one of the founding fathers of statistics, and indeed coined such concepts as the correlation coefficient, standard deviation, and regression coefficients. Are we going to discard these statistical concepts as tainted by Pearson’s odious views? Or are we going to excise just him in favor of Ronald Fisher, who invented or popularized (Student’s t-distribution, ANOVA,…) several more statistical concepts? Oops, Fisher too was big on eugenics and racial stuff. And if you start digging into Charles Spearman: with all his work on intelligence testing, “if you’re looking to beat a dog, a stick is easily found” (Dutch idiom). So are we, in the name of political correctness, going to have to ascribe the fundamentals of statistics to “an unknown author”? At the risk of Godwinizing, the way Heinrich Heine’s song “Lorelei” and several popular compositions by Mendelssohn were credited “to an unknown author/composer” during the Third Reich because of their creators’ Jewish origins?
Let’s go from statistics to physics. Johannes Stark was awarded the 1919 Nobel Prize in Physics for experimental spectroscopic work that in part inspired the development of quantum mechanics. The splitting up of atomic and molecular spectra in an electric field is known to this day as the Stark Effect.
Yet Stark was also a stark (ahem) raving antisemite, and this wasn’t just a privately held prejudice. During the Third Reich was actively involved in purging Jewish scientists from German academia and attempting to establish an “Aryan physics” purged of such subversive “Jewish” notions as Einstein’s theory of relativity. He was helped in these endeavors by another Nobel laureate, Philipp Lenard, already in his dotage.
So are atomic and molecular spectral lines now no longer allowed to split up in an electric field? Or do we need to rename the Stark effect after some mythical philosopher-peasant of [insert favored minority du jour], the way this happened in the former Soviet Bloc?
William Shockley led the research group at Bell Labs where the transistor was discovered: he shared the 1956 Nobel Prize in Physics with his subordinates John Bardeen and Walter Brattain. He was later said to “have put the silicon in Silicon Valley”. The always eccentric Shockley became an outspoken racialist in his later years. Does that mean he is no longer the co-inventor of the transistor? Or, worse, are transistors and the microchips based on them now racist? Does that mean that SJWs now only get to use computers based on vacuum tubes or relays? Or do we simply edit Shockley out and ascribe the transistor entirely to his co-inventors?
And since so many readers here are space and sci-fi enthusiasts, I probably won’t need to rehash the story of Werner von Braun and his involvement with the V1 and V2 missiles — suffice to say that he must have been aware of the inhumane conditions prevailing at the Dora-Mittelbau underground factory (a satellite camp of Buchenwald) where the missiles were mass-produced.
In chemistry, I will just cite Fritz Haber as an example. Haber, with chemical engineer Carl Bosch, developed the Bosch-Haber process for the fixation of aerial nitrogen, which freed agriculture and chemical industry from dependence on guano deposits as sources of ammonia and nitrates. It is hard to imagine how today’s world population could ever be fed without a sustainable source of artificial fertilizer. (Among other honors, this work earned Haber the 1918 Nobel Prize.)
Yet on the other side of the ledger, Haber was instrumental in introducing poison gas on the battlefield. WW I would probably have ended two years earlier (probably with Germany starved into surrender) without Haber.
Does this mean we no longer can use the Bosch-Haber Process, speak of the Born-Haber cycle, … Or that the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin needs to change its name?
I can go on like this for quite a while longer. Academics are probably second only to artists and politicians in their propensity for virtue signaling and moral preening. Yet in these matters, they let common sense prevail. A person can be a genius in one area of human endeavor, and at the same time an imbecile or a scoundrel in another. One can acknowledge the latter without gainsaying the former.
Allow me to end on a personal note. Last year, during a side trip from a work assignment, we visited the city of Toledo (Spain, not OH). The famous “El Transito” medieval synagogue was actually on Mrs. Arbel’s bucket list to visit. As we walked toward it, we passed through the Calle de los Reyes Catolicos [“Street of the Catholic Kings”, idiomatically and in context: Ferdinand and Isabella Street]. It was only to be expected that streets would be named in honor of the dual monarchs who finally unified Spain (and who, by the way, also sponsored Columbus’s voyage). However, we could not help being reminded that these were also the very same monarchs who issued the infamous Expulsion Decree, which gave the Jews of Spain the choice between exile, conversion, or death.
But did the thought of being “offended” that the Spanish named the street after Ferdinand and Isabella (and probably another street in most major Spanish towns, plus umpteen monuments) even occur to us? The very concept would strike us —both proud and unapologetic Jews — as bizarre. Ferdinand and Isabella are inextricably part of the fabric of Spanish history — for good and bad.