Blogs > Stone Age Brain | Rick Shenkman > We’re All Historians Now

Jul 4, 2020

We’re All Historians Now

tags: statues,Confederate Heritage

July 4, 2020:  A friend writes, “I am troubled by what I see coming from the Left: a demand for ideological purity. You?“ This was my answer.

 Happy 4th!

 How wonderful we are having a debate on this day.  It’s very American!

There’s karma at play in Woodrow Wilson’s becoming a victim of ideological politics.  He was an ideologue.  He came to ruin when he rigidly rejected compromises over the Versailles Treaty.  (Rigidity in his case may have been aggravated by his stroke.)

I have no problem with Princeton’s scrubbing his name off their international institute.  His name no longer inspires idealism in the young and it’s the young who are enrolled in the school.  They deserve a school named after someone who will inspire them.

I am also in favor of removing Confederate statues or at least reimagining them.  They represent a white racist moment from this country’s darkest days.  The only reason they were put up was because white Southerners wanted to vindicate the reestablishment of their control following the end of Reconstruction. They are divisive symbols and in many cases bad art. (See statue of Forrest, the KKK founder.)  They can go.

We should also rename all those army bases named for Confederates.  The only reason those traitors to the cause of liberty were honored in this way was because Southern politicians in Congress, favored by the old seniority system, held the chairmanships of military affairs committees, a sign in itself of the stultifying grip the old aging racist Southern  Democrats held on power because the South was effectively a one-party state. There’s no reason to honor traitors.

That said, I think the impulse to cleanse, destroy, and remove smacks of a Maoist spirit of fanaticism.  It’s dangerous and has clearly gotten out of hand. It rests on the simple-minded and ahistorical idea that we should only honor individuals from the past who think like we do.  How silly!  Example.  Twenty years ago hardly anybody believed gay people should be able to get married. Today, most people think they should.  Does this mean we should pull down any statues we have of people who went on the record years ago against gay marriage?  Of course, not. Times change and so do our moral outlooks.  

A professor on Twitter this week recalled that he used to ask his students if they would have opposed slavery if they had lived jn the South.  All said yes.  How ridiculous.  We believe what we believe because of the culture in which we are raised.  Those Southerners who favored slavery favored it for the same reason Americans twenty years ago disfavored gay marriage. 

The impulse to render a moral judgment on the past is forgivable and understandable.  We naturally want to stand with people who share our values.   But we are not made into saints by virtue of having done so.  And yet many seem to think they are.  So they huff and they puff against Jefferson and Washington in the fallacious belief that this makes them pure.  It does not.  

These men were flawed — as we all are.  It is not for their flaws that we honor them, but for their achievements, which were many.  

And were we to begin to take down THEIR statues our country would be the poorer for it.  We are not united by am common ancestry, unlike many European countries.  We are united by our common ideals, the civic religion if America, which is grounded in those famous words of Jefferson:  “All men are created equal.”  Take away Jefferson and you risk upending the narrative on which this country is based.  

To be sure, the narrative keeps evolving.  Our narrative is not frozen in time.  Women, blacks, and gays, to name just three groups, have been added to the story of America, and of course I’m in favor of that. What I don’t favor is taking a sledgehammer to the old narrative and demolishing it.  Our people, like every other people on earth, need a story.

So I oppose pulling down statues of Jefferson and Washington while also wanting us to put up statues of slaves, women and gays.  

This is a conversation historians have been having since the sixties.  I’m delighted the rest of the country is now joining the debate. One of the key points historians have been making all these years is that a distinction needs to be made between history and memory.  History is complicated. Memory isn’t history. It’s simple. So when we put up a statue we are saying, Here is what we choose to remember.  Here, is something we think worthy of remembering. But it’s not history.  History is the story of how we got here and what people in the past believed and did.

During the Revolution Ben Franklin said something like:  we are all politicians now.  He might have added, we are all historians now, too.  Much as we’d like to avoid the hard demands history puts on us, we can’t sidestep the task.   This means coming to terms with the ugly currents that have heretofore been ignored or downplayed.  I find this bracing! 

comments powered by Disqus