In the spring of 2016 I was travelling in the Persian Gulf. In Abu Dhabi I decided, with some apprehension, to visit the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. Opened in 2007, this mosque is advertised as one of the world’s biggest, with the largest central chandelier, the largest carpet, etc. I wondered if I might be confronted with a Disney theme park, a vulgar display of wealth by nouveau riche oil sheikhs. After all, oil was discovered in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) only a couple of generations ago. Prior to the discovery the locals eked out a precarious subsistence desert existence, while today many Emiratis are counted among the top 1 per cent on the globe.

After I made my way across a vast parking lot under the brutal midday desert sun (record highs were being recorded across the Gulf) and past the checkpoint where women visitors were being scrutinized for appropriate head coverings and lengths of sleeves, I caught my first glimpse of glittering white domes and minarets. From a distance a bit like a Hollywood set for an Arabian Nights epic, but rather beautiful against the brilliant blue sky.

On closer approach, my apprehensions quickly gave way to something very different: stunned admiration for an astonishing architectural and aesthetic achievement. The Grand Mosque draws on the legacy of the extraordinary Islamic artistic tradition but brings it into the 21st century with the latest building materials and techniques incorporated seamlessly into a remarkable conceptual unity – a place of worship that, like the great cathedrals of Europe, puts secular artistic tools into the service of a striving toward the eternal. Every detail conforms to a standard of good taste, without a trace of vulgar display. No more than a decade old, the Grand Mosque already reasonably stands comparison with the Taj Mahal, the Alhambra, Angkor Wat, the Parthenon.

Yet appreciation quickly gives way to doubts, not about the mosque itself, but about the context of its construction. The UAE is in many ways an unsettling place. As little as 12 per cent of the population consists of actual Emiratis, who lead lives of extravagant leisure while most of the work is done by the more than 80 per cent who come from abroad and have no citizenship rights or even security of residence. Many of these are manual workers and tradespeople, but many others are highly paid business and professional types working in the burgeoning financial sector in the UAE’s spectacular high-rise office towers.

One Pakistani driver in Dubai told me that he was supporting an extended family at home on wages he could never match there, but he cautioned that he could be expelled at a moment’s notice for any misstep. That goes as much for the European and North American investment bankers at the top. It’s all a little like H.G. Wells’s dystopian vision in The Time Machine of a future in which an effete minority are maintained at leisure by the underground toil of the Morlocks. To keep this system going, the UAE is a repressive surveillance regime that crushes any signs of dissidence or even criticism. Its foreign policy is closely aligned with that of Saudi Arabia, including participation in the horrific Saudi-led military assault on Yemen, one of the worst (and most unaddressed) humanitarian catastrophes of our day.

Not a pretty context for the production of the exquisite Grand Mosque. But does this negate the cultural achievement? After all, the Parthenon was constructed by an Athenian democracy that excluded women, foreigners and slaves. Indeed, much of the economic surplus that enabled the Parthenon to take shape came from Athenian silver mines where slaves toiled in unspeakable conditions. Yet the greatness of the Parthenon remains indelible after two and a half millennia.

In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin described history as a triumphal procession of rulers stepping over the prostrate. Spoils, called “cultural treasures,” are carried in this procession. Yet these treasures have an origin that one cannot contemplate “without horror,” since “they owe their existence not only to the efforts of the great minds and talents who have created them, but also to the anonymous toil of their contemporaries.” Benjamin concluded with this chilling aphorism: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”

Yet even as radical a critic of capitalist society as Jean-Paul Sartre could write a lengthy treatise on Gustave Flaubert in which he recognized that though Flaubert was a bourgeois writer in a bourgeois age, his Madame Bovary transcends its origins. If every document of civilization is indeed at the same time a document of barbarism, one should forget neither side of this equation. Yes, Aristotle – unconvincingly – justified slavery as “natural.” That surely cannot mean that this seminal Western philosopher should be consigned to a Politically Incorrect trash bin. But neither is uncritical adulation of Aristotle as cultural icon acceptable any longer.

All this is a roundabout way of coming critically at a worrying contemporary tendency to aggressively project the cultural wars of the 21st century back onto the past and onto the Western cultural canon. Of course every generation has the right, perhaps the duty, to redefine the legacy of the past for today. Failure to do so leads to cultural stultification. But what is worrying are demands to erase and silence the past where it conflicts with current preoccupations. Feminists are right to identify and decry the sexism that runs rampant through the philosophy, art and literature of the past. But it would be self-defeating to silence the voices that still speak to us across the years. Happily, many feminists realize that it is far more radically subversive to reread the past and reengage in the continuing dialogue, but in a new, critical light.

The civilization/barbarism dialectic will continue to play out at the cultural level as in some sense it always has: there were once ignorant Christians who wanted to burn ancient writings as “pagan,” just as today vandals like the Taliban and the Islamic State smash cultural treasures that fail to conform to their crude ideas of Islamic truth. The past and its voices will survive.

When culture is politically weaponized, things get even messier, not to say nastier. To politicians and leaders of social protest movements, culture is often seen as an asset to be deployed on the political game board, history a field to be cherry-picked for advantage in the present.

Take the current fracas in the United States over the Confederate flag and monuments honouring Confederate generals like Robert E. Lee. Donald Trump (a man whose immense historical ignorance has constantly been on display) may inveigh against those demanding the removal of Confederate monuments as the enemies of “history,” but history is the last thing involved in this war of partisan symbols. Most of the monuments date from the 1940s and 1950s. They were the frantic efforts of that generation of white Southerners to rewrite 19th-century history to combat the emergent 20th-century civil rights movement against slavery’s stepchild, segregation. The Lost Cause, according to this fraudulent revisionism, was not the defence of slavery but the assertion of states’ rights and white Southern identity.

Today the monuments serve to validate the resurgent white supremacists gathering behind the Trump presidency. This is a travesty of both culture and history. Yet as much as one might wish to see the whole sinister nest of Confederate symbols swept from the public eye, there is still need for fair analysis of Robert E. Lee, a very complex human being, given his key role in American history. And no understanding of American political thought could omit John C. Calhoun with his theory of concurrent majorities in a federation, despite his role as attack dog for the slaveholders.

This brings me to a Canadian reflection of these debates, the recent calls from Ontario teachers to remove the title of Sir John A. Macdonald from schools named after Canada’s first, and arguably greatest, prime minister. The ostensible grounds are Sir John’s role in the creation of the discredited residential school system and his failure to alleviate Native starvation on the prairies on his watch.

It is easy to empathize with Native people who cringe at the celebration of a man who had a leading hand in policies of cultural genocide and enforced Native suffering. However, the calls for renaming – which have come from non-Native sympathizers rather than from First Nations activists more interested in real-world solutions than symbolic victories – ignore historical context and the degree to which Macdonald reflected the general prejudice of white society as a whole rather than leading or initiating it. But we can refuse to excuse Macdonald on Native policy, while still recognizing and honouring his unique role in Confederation and building the Canadian state.

Indeed, without Macdonald the northern half of the continent might today be part of the benighted Trumpian Republic to the south. I’m okay with naming a few schools to honour that achievement. But do remember: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”