Posted on June 30, 2020 at 2:46 AM
Written by Neil Levy
Statues are the latest front in our ongoing culture wars. Symbolism (as all sides agree) is not the be all and end all of politics, but it does matter. Those who want the statues to fall argue that they are harmful, because they commemorate racists (and worse) and thereby contribute to making these attitudes, and the exclusion they enable, acceptable. Those who want statues preserved argue that we should learn from history, not attempt to erase it. At most, they say, statues should be framed better, with explanatory plaques that note the misdeeds of the person commemorated and place them in context.
Those who argue we should learn from history, not rewrite it, might point to some recent events to argue that the movement to tear statutes down is ignorant. A number of statues of people who opposed slavery have been damaged or destroyed. The statue of an abolitionist was toppled in Madison, Wisconsin. A statue of another was vandalized in Philadelphia and another in the town of Whittier. If we allow statues to be torn down, we will lose commemorations of people we ought to celebrate, alongside those who are more questionable. Better to educate people about the historical figures commemorated and bring us to a better understanding of where we came from. Or so we might think.
In one sense, of course, the targeting of these statues does illustrate the ignorance of the protesters. Had they known that the statues commemorated abolitionists, they would have chosen other targets. But they also illustrate the contemporary meaning of statues (of the traditional type).
The protesters did not feel the need to read up on the men whose statues they attacked because these statues are read as representing traditional sources of power, with all the structural racism and exploitation that embodies. The protesters may (or may not) be poorly educated, but the meaning of these statues is the same for us and for them. Few of us know who the men commemorated by the public statues we pass really were. We see them as generic: not just dead White males, but dead rich and powerful White males. In fact, there’s a case for saying that not only is that what they actually represent for us, today, but what they have always represented. Statues are expensive, and no matter how radical the individuals may have been in their day, most of their statues were funded by governments and individuals who were content with the status quo with all its inequalities and all its racism (think of how Martin Luther King Jr. is now celebrated as an all American hero, with his socialism and radicalism conveniently forgotten). In any case, whatever their history, these statues carry this meaning now. They are rightly seen as representing the polity in which Black lives matter less than White.
That being the case, the protesters have not made a mistake in targeting these statues. And they’re not making a mistake in attempting to rewrite history by tearing them down.
The accusation by some on the right that the movement to tear down statues aims to rewrite history is a strange one. That’s what historians do: they rewrite history, because history isn’t simply in the past. It needs to be rewritten in order to bring out its relevance for us and our concerns. It is always in need of reinterpretation because the concerns and values of past historians led them to understand it in ways that are not appropriate for us. The meaning of history is relational and the person who understands it is one pole of this relation. So, too, with statues: they have a meaning, and that meaning shifts across time depending on the concerns of the observer.
In tearing down the statues, the protesters indeed aim to rewrite history. They attempt to rewrite it so that it is responsive to their concerns and not (just) those of the past. They object to the meaning they rightly take these statues to have. Interpretive plaques tend to go unread and it is likely that even with them in place, these statues would continue to represent a set of values that the protesters object to. Tearing them down contests these values, and rewrites our history for new times.