So, in the last few weeks, the issue of historical commemoration has come up a lot in the news, with predictable (and presumably self-interested) expressions of concern about preserving history, good and bad. I’m referring of course to the controversy over preserving or removing statues of Confederate leaders in the southern United States (and, bizarrely, in places where the Confederacy didn’t really happen, like Arizona).
I don’t want to explain what others have explained many times, so let me get the obvious stuff out of the way in bullet points:
- Despite the name, Confederate statues do not (mostly) date from the Confederacy period. They are mostly from the late 19th and early 20th century or even from the 60s. They represent periods of racial resentment and serve to create a narrative of “our” past, where “our” specifically excludes African-Americans.
- Many other figures of historical importance are commemorated despite their flaws. For instance, George Washington owned slaves, Woodrow Wilson was a racist jerk, Winston Churchill was Winston Churchill, and so on. But these people are not commemorated for the awful things they did (mostly), and in history classes they are usually taught in a nuanced way (at least in my experience). Quick, name something else Nathan Bedford Forrest did that would account for all these statues of him.
- The US government has historically adopted a calculated policy of leniency toward what can only be described as traitors taken in arms against it. This was the result of specific historical circumstances, including but not limited to the desire to return to some kind of economic stability following a costly war and also a fundamental sympathy to the aims of white supremacy.
- Not everyone who thinks Confederate statues should be preserved is a racist, but there is a significant overlap that non-racists who oppose their removal need to think hard about.
- A museum would be a fine place for some of these things, but most could be scrapped without any real loss to the historical or aesthetic value of the areas they’re in.
- If their purpose is to tell us about an ugly period of American history, which is indeed a valuable purpose, it’s kind of a shame that there aren’t more statues honouring the enslaved people of the era and their struggles — and if you think their purpose is to tell us about an ugly etc., then surely you agree with that statement.
OK, so those are the specific issues of the Confederate statue removal issue. It’s amazing to me that people are just coming to it now, honestly: “both sides” commemoration was something I discussed during my undergrad admission interview at Cambridge (we were talking about postage stamps in those days), and that was in 1996.
You can see parallels in British public commemoration: the most common example would be when some civic philanthropist type turns out to have made his money in the slave trade. People don’t like that because it shows some kind of ambiguity: Jeremiah Whatsisface gave money to the orphans! But he was also a slaver! Whaaaaat? Surely two things can’t be true! The problem, of course, is that statues hold up the whole person as a unitary image.
I think that a lot of people feel that way about Civil War statues, thanks to a media tendency to portray Southern generals as noble and heroic. Robert E. Lee was dignified, courteous and good at being a general. That’s good! But he fought for slavery, although he said it was reluctantly. That’s bad! People don’t like that conflict. They want him to be just a good guy. I don’t think that people who want the statues torn down want Lee to be just a bad guy; they just seem to think (correctly, I would say) that people who fought for bad causes but were not Doctor Doom don’t necessarily merit a billion heroic equestrian monuments.
We don’t seem to have this problem in other conflicts. Erwin Rommel was a nice guy by WWII German standards, which isn’t saying much, but that’s turned him into a chivalrous character in popular imagination. And yet there are not a lot of statues to him in France for some mysterious reason. People seem to have figured out which of the two factors is more important.
Ultimately, and I can’t believe I’m saying this in the context of the murderous clown show we’ve been witnessing over the past few weeks, this is a discussion about the purpose of public history. Are these statues educational? Inspirational? Are they expressions of mourning? Here we see the frustrating ambiguity of historical symbols and the ways in which bad actors can use that ambiguity to slip and slide from one meaning to another. (Well, honestly, everyone does that, just not necessarily with malicious or deceptive intent.)
Leaving out the racism and the people getting murdered, this is a real boon to some of my teaching. One of the things that I try to stress to my students who aren’t really big history fans (it’s a mandatory course for one of my student groups) is that people will use the language of history to try to influence them, and that they need to speak it in order to really understand that.
Not that I think this is some great teachable moment about public commemoration. I think it’s a mess. I’m just trying to get what good I can out of it.