We Have a Right to Question Historical Iconography

I want to give praise to blogging extraordinaire Al Mackey at Student of the Civil War for a nice essay he recently wrote in response to an absolutely dreadful op-ed in the Boston Globe about Confederate history, memory and iconography. The op-ed writer, Alex Beam, synthesizes the worst arguments in support of maintaining Confederate iconography in public and basically suggests that while historical revisionism is important, any effort to question the role of this iconography is akin to “simplifying history” and running away from who we are as a people. Beam never clarifies what sort of “historical revisionism” is appropriate in his mind, and he subtly assumes that the initial creation of these now-contested monuments, memorials, and statues wasn’t somehow a product of “simplifying history” at the time of their dedication. Only those today who would like to engage in a serious conversation about these expressions of public memory are guilty of simplifying the past.

There are many signs of fallacious thinking in Beam’s screed. A poor historical comparison (comparing “willy-nilly de-Confederatization” with de-Stalinization in the USSR or the destruction of ancient Middle Eastern history by ISIS and the Taliban), a misinterpretation of the motives behind these discussions (“simplifying history to accommodate a set agenda – North good, South bad,” according to Beam. Who the hell is actually making that argument? Name one serious historian whose scholarship can be simply whittled down to “North good, South bad.”), and a slippery slope argument (if we get rid of all these Confederate monuments then we may as well get rid of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln monuments! They were flawed people too!).

Al sees through this harried thinking, however, and gets to the heart of the matter:

Beam misses the entire point. The point is not to simplify history, to ignore history, or even to erase parts of history. The point is to decide whether certain people deserve to be honored. Does Roger B. Taney deserve a statue in his honor? Does Andrew Jackson deserve a dinner in his honor? Ditto for Thomas Jefferson? The debate should contain a full discussion of the history of these men, including the fact that Taney freed the slaves he had owned, but ultimately it comes down to whether or not these men deserve the honors they are being given. Introducing phony comparisons and long discredited interpretations isn’t helpful.

The title of Beam’s op-ed is “Confederate flag flap isn’t an invitiation to rewrite history.” In reality there is always an open invitation to rewrite history, because history is the process by which we structure, interpret, and communicate what actually happened in the past. Creating history also means crossing an intersection with memory and how people choose to remember the past, which is subject to its own faults and misrembering. “The past” is what actually happened and “history” is how we go about explaining what happened in the past. How we explain the past will always be subject to revision in both text and public iconography as circumstances change in our world today and historical evidence acquires new meaning. As Kenneth Foote argues in Shadowed Ground: America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, the meanings we ascribe to historical places are always changing, and sometimes those changes necessitate alterations of the natural and man-made creations that dot a historical landscape. That also means, as Al argues, that we are in a position to sometimes question whether or not the people we choose to publicly commemorate are actually worthy of that recognition.

I believe that we shouldn’t take down any Confederate iconography simply for the sake of change, but it’s equally valid to say that we shouldn’t leave up all Confederate iconography simply for the sake of tradition. We have a right in 2015 to question the wisdom of maintaining a monument erected in 1915 just as much as the people of 2115 will have the right to question our ways of remembering the past in 2015. Countries like Germany, Italy, Hungary, France, Russia, South Africa, and Japan are not bound to publicly commemorate their difficult pasts in the same way their forefathers did, and neither are we in the United States.

As has been argued repeatedly by Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory, local communities throughout the country need to think seriously about the values they cherish and how they want to represent their history in a public setting. Some things may necessarily stay the same, some things may need to be contextualized, and some things may need to be removed. That’s the nature of historical revisionism. Let’s keep an open mind and have an honest conversation about public iconography rather than whining about having that conversation in the first place and equating any sort of change to the historical landscape to the work of ISIS.

Cheers

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2 responses

  1. Nick, this was a quality piece. You and I are on a similar page with the topic of statues and public memory. Here’s what I wrote about the Jefferson Davis statue in the Kentucky Capitol rotunda:

    http://www.usefulhistorian.com/2015/07/30/why-jefferson-davis-statue-should-remain/

    1. Thanks a lot, Zach. I’m going to follow your website and share your piece with my Twitter followers. If you haven’t already checked out Anne E. Marshall’s “Creating a Confederate Kentucky” (I’m guessing you probably have) you ought to. Very fascinating look at Civil War Memory in Kentucky after the war.

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