Along with many other things, people have been thinking a lot about history in the last week or so. My own background is as a historian, so I’m going to engage a bit with that for this week’s blog. Specifically, there’s been a lot of ink being spilled over statues, and (even more specifically) whether statues of Confederate generals and politicians should be taken down.
For just a second, I’d like to try to think about this issue in a vacuum. It’s been suggested that taking down memorial statues (presumably of whatever sort) ‘erases history’, and therefore shouldn’t be done, otherwise we (as a society) will forget our past and (presumably) whatever lessons we should have learned from it.
To a historian, the idea of ‘erasing history’ is of course instantly an alarming one, but this idea that our history, and our understanding of it, comes mostly from public memorial statues is both interesting and, I have to say, highly dubious. There are (I think) no statues of Adolf Hitler up anywhere, but you certainly couldn’t argue that he’s been in any way erased from history, or that people have forgotten about the crimes of his regime. (Yes, obviously his ideas have supporters, but I don’t think that has much to do with a lack of statuary)
That’s because our history is not only preserved (or, I would argue, even mostly preserved) in statues and public memorials. History is preserved in documents and the work of historians, in our works of art and recordings, in the memory of people. I cannot imagine anyone, interested in a period of history, first going out to see what statues were there depicting figures from that period. In part at least that’s because we recognize, perhaps without realizing it, that statues don’t really depict the past, but someone’s idea of the past, and then only of a particular piece of the past. The impression we get is filtered through the vision of the artist who created the piece, the person or group who commissioned it, and whoever made the decision to put the memorial there at all. We know that these things don’t appear without an act of will on someone’s part, and that they are not chosen based on ideas of historical objectivity. The things we make statues to are someone’s favourites.
Public memorials are interesting objects. I think primarily they speak to the part of history that we want to talk about, which is very often our first impulse of how to ‘do history’ – to tell the story we want to tell, about the things we’re happy to talk about. This is the old idea of history as told by victors. We don’t put up statues of our villains, but of our heroes. Even when we do memorialize loss of life, it is either because we valourize it (sacrifice in support of ideals we admire) or because we are (as a society) happy to talk about our regret for that time or those events.
Our public memorials are (I hope obviously) not history in it’s entirety (we’ve got books for that, among other things) but the version of history that the powerful parts of society were, at some point, eager to express. They are what society, or at least a powerful and influential part of society, wanted to hold up to be seen.
This brings us to those Confederate statues, mostly put up not immediately following the war, but in the Jim Crow era of the South. They would not have been thought of, then, as some cautionary tale about division or civil war, or loss of life. They were part of an attempt to re-establish white supremacy in the American South, to put leaders of the Confederacy on public display and thereby assert: these are our heroes. I think it’s clear that this is both a statement of intent and a statement of power; ‘we can do this, and no-one will stop us.’
In advocating for the statues’ removal, then, we’re not advocating for ‘erasing history’, but for dismantling a specific political agenda from about 100 years ago, one which (one presumes) we’re no longer in favour of. It’s also not really hard, or shouldn’t be hard, to empathize with black Americans who see these statues, raised for men who fought a war to keep their ancestors in chains, and find their continued presence in their communities hurtful.
Removing them causes no harm, except to an ideology that we should be happy to see extinguished, and can only help many people. This should not be a difficult decision. I should say that we have many similar decisions to make here in Canada; the name of Langevin was recently taken off a building on Parliament Hill due to the role of Hector Louis Langevin in the residential schools program, and the statue of Cornwallis that caused some controversy in Halifax recently should also come down.
People object that this means ‘forgetting’ history, or being ashamed of it. It means neither of those things, and in fact to me it means the opposite. It means actively remembering what happened in our past, recognizing that we have changed and progressed as a society, and making symbolic change that reflects that. It’s actively recognizing our past, admitting it, admitting the truth about it, and then doing something about it. It isn’t refusing to discuss something or trying to hide it, it’s openly saying ‘yes, this is what we were or what happened’ and marking the fact that we aren’t that, anymore.
Most Canadians, I suspect, would not have known who Hector Louis Langevin was prior to his name coming off that Parliamentary building. Perhaps, in the choice being made to take it off, and the explanation as to why, a few more do now. Sometimes, a removal in fact leads to greater remembrance.
Symbolic actions are not the most significant kind of action we can take. In Canada, there’s a lot that needs to be done to help our First Nations communities on a practical level that goes far beyond taking down some dedications. But if there is one thing I have learned as a historian, it is that we love symbols. Symbolic actions can be some of the most powerful ones we take.
It’s past time for a lot of these things to happen.