Controversy and History

A recent conversation on Facebook provided the inspiration and momentum to organize my thoughts on the around the removal of Confederate statues and monuments in New Orleans, LA. Sometimes, what one initially says actually can be surprisingly succinct:

History is like cooking – the end result is flavored by everything added during the process. Once something is added, it can never be taken away. You can add more to counteract too much of one ‘bad’ ingredient, but that original ingredient is still there.

IMG_6211
Enola Gay, 2008. Source: author.

I typically lurk in silence as debates wage on social media over the topic du jour. My own personal views are, for the most part, self-censored from the semi-public discussion for my own reasons; however, every once in a while, I will sit down and compose a fairly long monologue with my thoughts on the issues at hand.

Last October, I was following a discussion concerning the Confederate Flag, and the conversation came as the two central associations are involved once again in topics generating friction between friends: the Confederacy and the wounds of slavery. Rather than re-hash the entire conversation, I will only state that I found it interesting to follow a very rational discussion between two ends of the spectrum of opinion which offered insight beyond the ideas behind the symbols that are commonly accepted at face value. However, a few days ago, a friend posted something that I had considered as soon the word circulated that New Orleans was determinedly moving forward on their efforts to remove these statues and monuments:

“You know who else destroys statutes in an attempt to rewrite history? ISIS.”

In reading the passionate comments on this post, I could not help but wonder if anyone else appreciated the obvious. These monuments and statues have been standing in place for how long? How much of a discussion (heated or not) between friends have they generated in that time? A long time, and not much… if you ask me.

On one hand, there is part of me that enjoys this debate over inanimate objects. Instantly, everyone has seemed to become a history major, and there is a renewed interest in a war that was fought many years ago and for a multitude of reasons. Yay.

On the other hand, there is a bigger part of me that finds perverse fascination at the polarization over this topic: “Great, we’re talking about it… wait… no… why is everyone now so pissed off about this?” The entrenchment on yet ANOTHER topic begins. Yay.

I wrote the following a year or so ago as part of a discussion of history in a sociology class:

I feel that if the idea that one battle or war is independent of other factors is held by someone, then they are not understanding the facts at hand and, therefore, not discussing history.

It is possible to bring up one item, the Enola Gay for example, and discuss the role that aircraft played in bringing the Second World War to a close, but as it was shown in 1995, the issue can become tricky once the entire story begins to naturally unfold. With the initial attempt to display the fuselage in the limited space at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, controversy ensued over the wording of the exhibit and the portrayal of the importance, and debatable necessity of such as significant aircraft. In this case, much like any display of controversial artifacts, the overall big picture becomes extremely important in the story behind just one item.

History can be irretrievably distorted and possibly lost if the interpretation is incorrect, inappropriate, or deemed “inconvenient” to compelling narratives. An excellent example of this becomes apparent when I talk about Soviet history from the American perspective with my wife – there has been more than one occasion where she stops me with: ‘Wait, what? No, that’s not correct,’ before we proceed to fact-check and learn. There was as much that wasn’t taught properly in Soviet schools as there is here in America.

History is rarely convenient, cuddly, or comforting… but it is co-dependent on much more than one action or event.

Of course, the conversation weighed on my mind – especially since history remains one of my passions. Enough so, that its momentum carried into an academic forum where the question of the importance of history and the whether historians are qualified or ethically able to judge the past:

The importance of the past is valuable in understanding where a society, nation, or group came from, the challenges faced, and the changes undergone from a specific point in time to the present. A good example is the controversy of the recent removal of Confederate statues and monuments in New Orleans. While the causes and rationale surrounding the origins of the American Civil War are wrapped in emotion on either side of the issue are strong, it is easy for many to overlook the fact that, though the conflict represents a painful period of American history, it remains a valuable part of the path American society has traveled. In the 152 years since the end of the war, the United States has experienced significant difficulties in moving beyond the issues and conditions which set the stage for the conflict, and this progress towards becoming a better society is far from complete. However, in understanding the past it is possible to appreciate and acknowledge the efforts responsible for the changes within our society since 1865, and in the process of learning history, it may be possible to choose a course which will not repeat many of the lessons of the past.

Historians – proper historians – will always be vital to the process. As interpretation is a critical element of the study of history, historians can avoid the problems posed by the cultural and societal disconnect between the past and the present. Facts will always be facts, and their manipulation to support or deny elements of the past will always be a danger to the subject of history. An excellent example of the challenges in interpretation is the difficulties posed in the 1994 display of the Enola Gay at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. With the original wording of the exhibition script by the museum was viewed as their attempt to be “practicing political correctness” in an effort to be “safe and rewarding to liberal audiences.” Returning to the issue of judgements and qualifications of the past, it is imperative that historians do not lose sight in the interpretation and perseveration of the past for the sake of future studies of the events and people which have shaped the present.

What truly bothers me about this whole debate was the potential of the “pendulum swing” when it comes to things like this that are so passionately viewed by some. My biggest fear in this whole mess is that some idiot, pissed that these statues and memorials were removed, will do something more violent and reprehensible in the name of this controversy. Completely plausible, and entirely stupid, but this is how people work.

I think, by making this such a big issue, these icons have effectively become a martyr for those who cannot think in moderation. It is disturbingly easy imagine this being the case, but not entirely implausible. Hopefully I will be proven wrong.

Making a leap from the American Civil War and the Enola Gay, the idea of Soviet revisionist history from a 1952 article in Foreign Affairs illustrates the dangers associated with the establishment of a precedent when it comes to the past:

History has become a ‘weapon,’ and arm of propaganda, and the essential function of which is the justification of the changing policies… through reference to the ‘facts’ and ‘documents’ of the past.

History is one of the few things in my mind that tends to be viewed as an “absolute.” Though more information may alter the perspective of an event, person, or era, the fact that it is part of who we are is unchangeable – for better or worse. However, I will always admire the individuals and groups which strove to overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges. After all, when it comes to the evils of the past, I choose to focus on what has made us better in spite of everything that has been done to mire us in those sins.

 

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