Thursday, August 30, 2007

Victor Rabinovitch has to go

The photograph above is of Dresden during WWII after Bomber Command got through with it. Here is what Arthur "Bomber" Harris, commander-in-chief of Bomber Command,
had to say about the massive allied bombing initiative:

[The aim] was the destruction of German cities; the killing of German workers; and the disruption of civilized life throughout Germany. It should be emphasized that the destruction of houses, public utilities, transport and lives; the creation of a refugee problem on an unprecedented scale; and the breakdown of morale both at home and at the battle fronts by fear of extended and intensified bombing, are accepted and intended aims of our bombing policy. They are not by-products of attempts to hit factories.

And here are the words on display at the National War Museum (I count only 66, not 67, incidentally) that have some lobbyists upset:

The value and morality of the strategic bomber offensive against Germany remains bitterly contested. Bomber Command's aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although Bomber Command and American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than five million homeless, the raids resulted in only small reductions of German war production until late in the war.

As historian Randall Hansen suggests, a new plaque could be made that contains even more information, such as the fact that precision bombing was available at the time, and indeed contributed to ending the war through the destruction of oil targets. But if the veterans don't like such changes to the existing panel, he says, perhaps Harris' statement might be substituted for it.

Letter-writers had their say today as well:

The exhibit should simply state the facts: "Bombing of civilian targets in Germany left 600,000 civilians dead and more than five million homeless."

Let's just rename the museum, which now has the horrendous three-letter word "war" displayed so prominently. I suggest the more modern "Support Our Troops" and redesigning the building as a massive yellow ribbon. [
Globe and Mail, August 30, behind subscriber wall]

The current controversy, certainly, may give the wrong impression of what the practice of history is all about. History is a series of accounts, not a truth dug out of something called "the past" like a dinosaur skeleton. There are many "pasts" and many "truths." But history is also a discipline, and one vital aspect of that discipline is empirical adequacy: statements don't get made, to put it crudely, unless you can back them up. The odd thing about this controversy, however, is that the "67-word" statement at issue is not being criticized so much for factual inaccuracy as for its alleged "disrespect."But since when has the question of respect been part of the historical enterprise? In the words of Margaret MacMillan, one of the historians hired to go over the exhibit, "A museum is not a war memorial."

Which brings us to the Museum's president, Victor Rabinovitch, and his craven response to the lobbyists.

On the one hand we have this:

We are not seeking to whitewash history. We are not becoming historical revisionists....

The fundamental objective is to ensure that the panel text has proper context to it and that it has properly and fully represented the historical record in a brief and summary fashion.

Every public museum engages not only with the public but engages with specialized interest groups. That's normal. Do those groups dictate what the museum says? Not if it's a good museum, not if it's credible.

Sound good? What he really meant, it seems, is this:

The Canadian War Museum has bowed to pressure from veterans and agreed to change a controversial exhibit critical of Allied bombing of German cities in World War Two.

Now this isn't the first time that Rabinovitch has "bowed to pressure." Those with reasonably long memories might recall that, immediately after 9/11, he cancelled a scheduled exhibition by Arab-Canadian artists at the National Gallery. This pusillanimous bit of racism could not stand: he was finally directed by then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien to restore the exhibit. Senator Marcel Prud'homme had some choice words to say at the time about Rabinovitch's shocking decision. He noted that the entire House of Commons rose to applaud M. Chrétien's reversal of that decision, except one man--why, it was Stockwell Day, it turns out, and he's still crazy after all these years. (Rabinovitch, as it turns out, may have had the last laugh.)

Nothing less than the integrity of our national museums is at stake here. Their contents simply cannot be dictated by lobby groups, however sincere or offended or political those groups happen to be. They cannot be dictated by current world events or the danger of hurt feelings or who has the ear of the president. What is needed at the helm is leadership: a CEO who can guarantee the integrity of the process by which exhibitions are assembled and shown, and by which Canada is represented. Rabinovitch has now, on two occasions, shown a simply stunning lack of professional judgement and courage. The current exhibit should stay--and he should go.

UPDATE: (August 31) Pample the Moose provides some historians' responses. One cites a media blog that sums up the matter perfectly, in my opinion: "The Wikipedification of the War Museum."


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