Hi Hilary, apologies if you don't want to talk about this any more. But as a historian, what's your opinion on the "preserving history" argument of current events?
I think it’s misguided at best and openly racist at worst, has nothing to do with preserving history, is an exercise in denial and cowardice, and is certainly not what anyone who pretends to be concerned about it really cares about.
(Prepare yourself for a rant.)
The thing is, we have a certain subset of white people acting as if the history of the Confederacy will somehow magically be Forgotten if we take down the statues/monuments/associated physical legacy of their presence. You know who sure as hell has not forgotten the Nazis? Germany. Germany has not forgotten the Nazis one bit. Nor do they play around with it. You can and will be arrested if you fly the Nazi flag or give the Nazi salute in Germany, and they have destroyed nearly all the Nazi buildings or any place that could be used as a shrine or gathering place. The difference here is that Germany a) knows what the Nazis were, and b) hasn’t decided to disingenuously reduce them to a “heritage” or “Germanic pride” or fly the Nazi flag the same way the Confederate flag is proudly flown today. They have not tried to celebrate their racist, terrible past. They have taken steps to dissociate themselves from it as strongly as possible, and now lead Europe in taking in the most refugees from the Middle East, as well as having a chancellor (Angela Merkel) who is essentially the new leader of the free world. Germany hasn’t forgotten its history, it teaches that history and is always, always aware of it, and somehow manages to do that without valorizing or insisting on the continued existence of Nazi paraphernalia as “important history.”
The point of all this is: white people in America have been HAPPY to forget their history for years and years, selectively misremember it, tolerate and even idolize the Confederacy and its beliefs and symbols, and now they’re suddenly worried it will vanish? Give me a break. Black people in America have had to live with the knowledge of this history every day. They do not get the luxury of disengaging from it. Every black child has to learn about and confront the existence of racism and the legacy of this history. White kids don’t have to. They can skate. And white people get really upset when conversations about race or history of race come up. Why are you bringing that up, that was a long time ago, etc, etc. America has never systematically confronted and denounced its racist history the way Germany has. It continues to be celebrated. We have that fucking TV show (Confederate) in production, where it will basically provide an imaginative space for what a large portion of the population wishes HAD happened (that the South won the Civil War and slavery in its historical form remained legal). THERE IS NO CHANCE AT ALL, ANYWHERE, OF THIS HISTORY BEING FORGOTTEN ABOUT, AND THE PEOPLE MOANING THAT IT MIGHT BE ARE THE ONES WHO HAVE DONE THE FORGETTING.
(Also: Many of the actual post-Confederates, including Robert E. Lee himself, disavowed their participation and viewed it as treason. Lee refused to be buried in his Confederate uniform or have his colleagues wear it to his funeral. His direct descendants agree the statue should come down. When did the revival of Confederate symbols start? Jim Crow. When did the Confederate flag start flying over the South Carolina statehouse again? 1961. As in, it was constructed specifically in reaction to the civil rights movement, as deeply racist Southern whites continued to resist the idea of black people having any agency or recognition. That was when Confederate monuments became a thing: NOT FROM THE ACTUAL CONFEDERACY.)
Let’s imagine for a moment that there was a large group of people who had put up a bunch of statues of, say, Osama bin Laden, and made a huge fuss about the possibility of them coming down. They view the attack of 9/11 as the triumph of a small band of patriots over an oppressive tyrannical oligarchy. They fly a flag with the planes crashing into the twin towers, and insist it’s not about the actual deaths of the people involved, it symbolises “culture” or “heritage” or whatever else. Let’s also say these people insisted that their right to defend a statue of OBL, a guy who clearly hated America and made that clear at every turn, was fully compatible with their identity as patriotic Americans, and in fact still to be preferred any time that identity is challenged. Let’s further say that a large segment of the population tacitly or explicitly agrees with them, demands the statue should stay up and attacks anyone who questions its existence in a public space, and claim that you are as bad as the other side if you want it taken down and insist that the flag cannot be dissociated from its history and the deaths involved. You get nowhere by pointing out that OBL, as noted, actually hated America and was fighting to destroy it. Even your supposedly liberal white friends become oddly deaf when the subject is raised, or give some version of the “well I don’t like it either, but this is America/we respect everyone/it’s history” argument. At worst, there are people marching underneath this flag, putting it as a bumper sticker on their pickup trucks, stockpiling tons of guns, and treating it as something to be inspired, celebrated, and replicated.
You’d feel like you were taking crazy pills. You would feel incredibly unsafe every time you stepped outside – what if you met one of these crazies and they targeted you? You would wonder how nobody else on earth could apparently see that no, these people are terrorists, and we are celebrating the murder of innocent people and it may be history, but why is it being treated as a fetishistic and terrifying subculture instead of a tragic and shameful event that we should never want to repeat? And yet, that is exactly what is happening with America’s collective denial and ongoing reluctance to talk about the Confederacy or put it in those terms. There’s always another excuse, and frankly, when Americans have been fed on a steady diet of “America Is Teh Awesomest” for years and years and have no way of critiquing or understanding their actual history without getting offended and going for the “all terrorists hate freedom!” route, the cumulative historical denial is both sad and staggering. Nothing, in this framework, is ever America’s fault, specifically white America’s. But if the people moaning about history being forgotten actually cared about history, they would have to confront the fact that that is simply, empirically not the case.
The fact is, America was built on white supremacy, slavery, and genocide, the victims of that history have no way of forgetting it, and view it pretty incredulously when white people start wringing their hands over it. That is just a historically verifiable reality, and yet white people go for the “long time ago” or “black on black crime” or “I’m not personally racist” defenses, rather than actually listening to the people who have never had the luxury of overlooking that history. This is why we get the absurd both-siderism. On the one hand, we have violent white supremacists proudly identifying as Nazis, a political movement that used to be uncontroversially identified as the most evil of the 20th century, if not ever, and which has roots that go back centuries in vilifying and exterminating anyone who is not a cis Christian straight white male. On the other, we have Black Lives Matter and other protest groups, who are defending their communities and people from the consequences of that ongoing mentality, sometimes violently. Then we have white people on Facebook posting things like, “Both sides are equally guilty! Bad all around! Everyone’s to blame!”
There is an overwhelming tendency to favor the status quo over actual justice, and to sanctimoniously condemn any violence used by a marginalized group – we somehow think that people only ever achieve recognizance of their humanity by holding hands and being “non-violent,” and that any time they forcibly resist the overwhelming and somehow-always-justified violence of the dominant group, they lose any expectation of our sympathy. We want to be violent against people of color without consequences, and we might allow them to struggle for liberation if we feel like it, but they have to do it Nicely. We might tepidly condemn the killings of unarmed black people, or post memes about “coming together,” or “not all cops,” or so forth. But when unarmed Native Americans at Standing Rock in 2016 are met with tanks, water cannons, full military deployments, tear gas, guns, and dogs, as were (and are) African Americans at lunch counters or city streets in the 1960s, then no, we do not get to claim that anything has changed. Because the instant those people resist being killed, or call out the comfortable white status quo, or challenge the state’s forever-sanctioned and always-admirable (according to its defenders) violence, they’re just as bad as neo-Nazis.
I get it’s a difficult topic. I get it’s hard for white Americans to actually look at what it means to be both white and American in a world where they have always benefited from these identities, and where White Liberalism and White Feminism ™ is just as racist while steadfastly insisting it’s not. Especially when you add American exceptionalism to the mix, where America is never responsible for anything and is the greatest country in the world, there is nothing remotely close to Germany’s decades-long reparations for the Nazis. American culture holds that saying sorry is for wimps. We need to be Proud of Our Heritage.
Nobody’s advocating for the Confederate monuments to be destroyed. They can be kept in a museum, or in storage, or wherever else. But insisting on their continued presence in public life is saying, “I want my right to believe the same things they did to be validated, and I want people personally affected by this belief to Know Their Place and It’s Just History Get Over It, and I don’t want to be challenged on whether this was wrong; I just want everyone to think about it how I do.” It is an insistence on power and an insistence on the safe and comfortable narrative of history that is completely removed from reality. When people say they don’t want Confederate history forgotten, they mean they don’t want white mainstream history to be challenged; they don’t want the people most hurt by this history to get uppity ideas about speaking out or breaking the cycle or making them face consequences. They want to go back to denial, and they resent the people trying to educate them otherwise. It’s the exact opposite of all this sudden Concern for History (which, as noted, isn’t going anywhere).
Conservative movements jeer at liberals all the time for being “snowflakes” who need “safe spaces,” and mainstream liberalism, as noted, can have incredible problems. But then conservatives are the ones crying about how difficult it is to be a racist these days (cry me a river, buddy) and painting liberals as tyrants who want to crush these poor, misunderstood white men whose influence and legacy might somehow vanish from the world (spoiler alert: not happening). So if preserving history is actually what anyone is worried about, don’t talk to your black friends about it. Don’t tell your black friends how much you hate racism. Talk to your white friends about it. Tell your white friends how much you hate racism. Then perhaps you might understand just how much the bubble of privilege protects you, and face the possibility of actually disrupting your life and losing friends or family in the way that white Americans get to take for granted that they do not have to do.
So yeah. It’s not in any sense about really preserving history, and frankly, my opinion as a historian is that I need another god damn drink. And I don’t even drink.