Thoughts and Perspectives

If you’re on the Left, you need to follow your own advice: Stop altering History.

Those on the political Left in the United States regularly denigrate the political Right and its efforts to rewrite, revise, or delete History, especially in textbooks, purely based on political ideology. The little-spoken reality, however, is that the Left is almost just as guilty of rewriting, revising, and deleting History based on political ideology. 

History, of course, is an always-changing, constructed narrative, as I have written about many times before. (Explore the “historiography” tag on this website, if you are a newer reader.)

In the past few months and years, there have been continued calls for Confederate statues to be taken down and many of these have been taken down. New Orleans is only the latest place to approve such measures. 

While these efforts are well intended from the perspective of many on the Left, so too are efforts of “rewriting” and “hiding” on the Right, when we consider each sides’ arguments and world views. (More and more studies even strongly indicate that our political orientations are at least partially products of biology. Those on the Right are more fearful and have biological drives to protect themselves and their family above all.) 

People on the Left desire to take statues down in an effort to no longer honor individuals now (rightful) deemed racist and in an effort to have a more balanced History in order to create patriotic, loyal citizens. 

People on the Right desire to add this person and event and remove this other person or event in order to create patriotic, loyal citizens. And, yes, of course, there is also an element on the Right that has vocally spoken against learning and critical thinking. 

The problem with the Lefts’ aims, even when it comes to removing statues, is that it doesn’t really do any good, especially not without accompanying systemic change and conversation. Removing such-and-such statue of Stephen F. Austin or Robert E. Lee will do zero in terms of promoting more balanced historical coverage.

And harm is actually possible. Just because there is a statue of a person does not automatically mean we need to praise that person and their actions. Use it as an opportunity to start conversations. Use it as an opportunity to talk about history in appropriate contexts. Don’t use it as an opportunity to say, “this is a bad person and we don’t talk about them.” 

Just removing the statue is a step far too close to actually deleting said person from historical memory. We need to actively remember history–the good and the bad, the pretty and the ugly–as a society in order to even have a chance of avoiding past mistakes. History is always a battle ground. 

To clarify: I am not saying that I support or agree with Confederate statues, but I am suggesting removing them is not a viable option given the agendas of people calling for their removal and the goals of having historically literate people.

I also have strong reservations about this “Old Dixie Highway” being renamed “President Barack Obama Highway.”

Does this indicate a positive change? Absolutely.
Does this mean people will abandon the mores of “Old Dixie”? Absolutely Not.
Will this have tangible, everyday consequences? Probably Not. 

Even the vary symbolism of removing these statues and old street names is important because it suggests a “sweeping it under the rug” approach. Approaches that hide racism only make racism worse. And for sure, there are no easy answers. 

(On a related note, here is a great article about why Justin Bengry opposes pardons of past convictions now deemed inappropriate…to avoid manipulation to the historical record.)

See also from this blog:

Black Lives Matter: 13 Things I Would Rather See Happen Than Confederate Flags Removed 

“The-Confederate-Flag-Is-Down-The-Rainbow-Flag-Is-Up” Meme and Philosophy is Dangerous and Inaccurate

15 replies »

  1. I’m not American but this is effecting us in Britain. This dangerous game of distorting, removing ‘history’. It is basically attempting to stifle the truth. I believe this pc nonsense is almost as bad as racism, sexism, disablism etc.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ps. Twenty years ago, whilst living in Germany, I was surprised to learn from my stepchild that they were learning a lot about the atrocities of ww2 at school. This way of discussing the evil of mankind – to be aware of the mistakes – is surely the way to go forward.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I certainly don’t want to be too vocal a defender of the left because you are correct that history is often used and abused for political purposes by people of all political persuasions, but I don’t buy some of your arguments. You state that:

    “The problem with the Lefts’ aims, even when it comes to removing statues, is that it doesn’t really do any good, especially not without accompanying systemic change and conversation. Removing such-and-such statue of Stephen F. Austin or Robert E. Lee will do zero in terms of promoting more balanced historical coverage.”

    First off, I would hesitate in assuming that the taking down of Confederate iconography has been in all cases an act perpetuated by left or left-leaning people. The Governor and most of the state government in South Carolina, for example, are Republican. So turning the question of Confederate iconography into a left/right binary isn’t helpful. Secondly, I would be curious to actually hear from people in these communities where these conversations have taken place and ask them if they think the removal of these things hasn’t done any good. I would be surprised if most people–especially those of color–would agree with your argument. Symbols matter and have complex meanings, otherwise they wouldn’t be publicly displayed in the first place. Thirdly, it would be wrong to assume that no other systematic changes or conversations would take place after these things come down. Many comments in that NOLA piece you linked to want to change the subject to crime and poverty in NOLA and “why aren’t you doing anything about that?,” but that assumes that those issues are being ignored by NOLA leadership at the expense of the monument debate, and that further conversations about history, memory, and the Civil War will suddenly end if the monuments go away. They aren’t and they won’t.

    You state further that:

    “Just because there is a statue of a person does not automatically mean we need to praise that person and their actions. Use it as an opportunity to start conversations. Use it as an opportunity to talk about history in appropriate contexts. Don’t use it as an opportunity to say, “this is a bad person and we don’t talk about them.”

    The problem with your argument here is that you’re not taking into account the fact that political and cultural elites who determine a society’s public iconography are establishing a place of honor for these symbols. You may not intend for that person to be praised for their words and actions, but their designation and location in a place of honor implies to many people that the person or event being commemorated is in fact being honored and worth celebrating. You are correct in that we don’t need to ignore bad parts of our history or turn history into a morality play, but this notion that we must keep up all public iconography no matter the context at the expense of “erasing history” or ending conversations about the past is extreme. As I have repeatedly stated to visitors at my work and online on my website, societies are constantly reevaluating how they remember the past and what they value in the present. Local communities must think about their values and determine who and what they want to commemorate in a place of honor. Some things will change, some will be completely removed, and others will stay the same. So again, assuming that the left alone is responsible for the removal of Confederate iconography and that in all cases it doesn’t really make a difference is mistaken.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey Nick,
      Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. What about @Lee Hutch’s comment below? Should we also ban, for example, The Birth of a Nation?

      If we do remove statues, we need to do other things, I’d say, to make sure we still have conversations about what that person did and why that is now problematic.

      More soon

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Where do we stop? Do we tear down the Washington Monument because he owned slaves? By our standards, even Lincoln would be racist. Do we close Civil War battlefield parks? Or just remove Confederate monuments in them? Most of the battlefield monuments were placed there in the late 19th and early 20th century which is when the other public statues were erected.

    Removing statues is symbolic, like the statues themselves. But let’s not get so fixated on flags and statues that we think their removal also means eliminating racism.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I am working on a response to this question. There is no clear cut-and-dry response to offer, but if we’re looking to only honor heroes with unblemished records that meet every standard of our time, then we are bound to take down everything. There are no perfect heroes. Even the real MLK would struggle to meet the legacy that has been established of him through public memory and memorialization. That said, there’s a crucial distinction with Confederate iconography that has frequently been overlooked in this discussion, and that in turn has led to this popular slippery slope argument that often involves suggesting that we take down Jackson, Jefferson, and Washington related iconography as well. Stay tuned for more.

      Like

    • I agree. I’m not arguing that removing one statue equates with removing all statues. I just want to know if we draw a line, where is it? Or is the line a generational thing that changes over time.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Just questions for thought: If we don’t have statues of “bad” people, where do we learn about these people – given that public schools don’t allow much room for learning History and not everyone goes to college? In addition, doesn’t it make things entirely too positive if we only have statues of “good” people (or not as “bad” of people)? I’m thinking about all of this too in parallel to the films I’m writing about for my dissertation.

      Like

    • Here’s a comment that was left on FB that adds some important POV to this conversation:

      “when it comes to the recent vote on the New Orleans memorials, I wish they would have kept them up but added a marker stating that they were erected as a way to counter the voices of African Americans during the civil rights period and that now we recognize how these symbols have been used to bully others, etc”

      Like

Please Leave a Reply (markdown enabled):

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s