History is a discipline, not a virtue

 

There has been much wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth over the past few days on the part of white supremacists who suddenly have a heart-felt attachment to the ‘history’ of Confederate monuments in the United States. The monuments, they argue, must be preserved because they honour the legacy of a bunch of guys who lost a war to enslave other people and participation trophies are important. Never mind that the majority of Confederate monuments have not survived to us from the American Civil War, and were erected during the Jim Crow era of the twentieth century. No no! They must be preserved, in situ, because they are a part of history.

I regret to inform you that this thinking makes no sense to actual historians.

The sudden cri de coeur about the importance of preserving ‘history’ is absurd because history isn’t the act of simply remembering a series of events. It is the act of combing through documents and artefacts from another era and analysing them. We then use this analysis to inform our view of how society functioned at that particular time, and how people lived within it. A statue is not, therefore, in and of itself, valuable because it recounts a particular time. It is valuable because it tells us about the values of the people who erected it.

For an historical document to inform us, it need not be in situ. The documents that I work on most frequently, for example, are not kept in the original private libraries of the individuals who collected, copied, and used them. They exist in national libraries, state archives, and, occasionally, grand private libraries like the Klementinum. The value of historical works does not diminish because it is in a new context. It can be studied elsewhere. Historians have learned to get around the limitations of objects not being in their original space with rigorous study, and, yes, imagination.

It does not matter that Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights is no longer in the town palace of the counts of Nassau in Brussels. It can be studied in the Prado just as readily. I write extensively on communities of people who lived in fourteenth-century Prague. That they no longer live there, and that in the majority of cases the buildings that they lived, worked, and worshiped in no longer exist does not stop me from meticulously recreating their city based on written evidence.

Moreover, it isn’t even necessary for particular objects to even still exist for us to analyse their importance and what they meant to people at the time. Written records, or indeed pictures, of objects can be used to tell us what we need to know about statues, paintings, cities – you name it. You know what the seven wonders of the world are, even if you or I will never see the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Colossus of Rhodes. You understand that these objects were important. Similarly, I don’t need to see the actual wooden structures that priests constructed in their churchyards in Prague for use by sex workers and their clients. The fact that they existed is what I need to know.

All of which brings me to my final point – it is not necessary to keep Confederate monuments, let alone in situ, in order to learn their historical significance. The monuments which are being torn down, and must be torn down, do indeed tell us a lot about society when they were erected. They were put up during the Jim Crow era as an explicit call out to white supremacist values. Wherever white people felt that they needed to further impress their theoretical superiority upon people of colour, a statue was erected to remind everyone that once white people were allowed to own other human beings and dictate the course of their lives. This is not about commemorating anything other than a time when racists were allowed even more free reign than they are now. Otherwise why would we find Confederate monuments in, for instance, Helena, Montana, a state which was not admitted to the Union until 24 years after the American Civil War concluded?

We already know everything we need to know about these monuments and memorials. They can be removed and destroyed right now. For the historical record, it would be ideal if their former locations were recorded as well as perhaps their dimensions, and if pictures were taken. This way when people in one hundred, or two hundred, or five hundred years are writing about the commemoration of white supremacy in public art work they will have all necessary information at their disposal.

History in and of itself is not meaningful or virtuous. Historical documents, artworks, buildings, and any ephemera must be examined to have significance or worth. History is a discipline, which we use to inform ourselves about why our society functions the way it does, given our past.  If you are arguing to preserve a statue that was erected specifically to cow other humans into submission and remind them of a time when they were nothing but property, you are on the wrong side of it.


For more on history and its meaning in a post-Trump/Brexit world see:
On medieval healthcare and American barbarism
Keep the word ‘Judeo’ out of your racist mouth Nigel Farage
On chronicles versus journalism, and ruling versus governing
On the American election, teaching history, and why it matters

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Author: Dr Eleanor Janega

Medieval historian, lush, Kanye apologist.

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