Every week it seems I read new stories of mobs in the United States tearing down statues or of state and local governments choosing to remove these monuments. Sometimes these statues are of individuals who seem to be most wretched. Why does any city need to have a statue of Robert E. Lee? Do supporters of these statues yearn for a time when the South was supposedly free from the oppression of the North while half of the population in many southern states were slaves?
Or perhaps more charitably, do those sympathetic to Lee feel that he made the correct decision in choosing to lead the South instead of the North? Either sentiment is insufficient to oppose the demands of protestors that citizens of the United States need to express collective disapproval of this character from our history. The obvious identification of the South with the defense of slavery makes the defense of these profane memorials a losing proposition.
But what about more ambiguous figures? Does Christopher Columbus need to be demonized for his licentiousness and the oppression that he seems to have brought upon the lands opened by his exploration? How far does this line of reasoning go? Ought statues of Thomas Jefferson and George Washington also be removed since both owned slaves? Was the American Revolution devoid of value owing to the widespread existence and institutionalization of slavery in the American Constitution?
The removal of statues of historical persons deemed to be offensive has not resulted in a constructive conversation. Rather, the removal of these statues implicitly accuses those who would oppose their removal as being morally inferior. How can you argue that we ought to honor evil men with statues? The terms of the argument inherently favor those who wish to extract these altars of evil.
Deleting History or Retelling History
Maintaining historical memory of characters that many deem offensive is not necessarily approval of those characters. How ought a society remember the darker periods of their history?
Hebrew scripture, commonly known in the Christian world as the Old Testament, has successfully confronted this very problem. A reading of the Tanakh does anything but paint a picture of a society whose leaders were above reproach. Jacob stole the blessing of his father Isaac from his brother Esau. The prophet Samuel warned the people of Israel that their desire for a king would accompany political oppression. King David, who is largely praised, had an affair with the wife of his officer Uriah and followed up by sending Uriah to die on the front lines.
King Solomon, extolled for his wisdom, worshipped foreign gods. And the remainder of Israel’s history as told in the Tanakh does not much meet with approval from the biblical narrative. In fact, prophets arose and are praised for their willingness to call the leaders and people of Israel to a path of redemption.
Like those who recorded the history of the Israelites, we need to remember the good and evil in our own history and to understand that history is rife with ambiguity. Often, the characters of history evince a mix of both. Even in the case that dishonorable men were memorialized, should we not remember that communities preferred to honor them? Shall we not ask ourselves what meaning we ought to imbue historical interpretations that seem distasteful to our modern sensibilities?
Likewise, the heroes of our American narrative are imperfect. Yet, it would be dishonest to condemn them due to their imperfections. Leadership of the American Revolution succeeded, against the odds, in launching a project oriented by a claim that human liberty is inviable. Their principles were worthy of pursuit even if the principles were imperfectly applied in their personal lives. And most important, they helped develop a political stage that facilitated a conversation that enabled the polity to transform.
Slavery did eventually end in the land whose founding documents praised individual liberty. Neither is it a coincidence that the liberal tide has led to widespread, legal equality whose breadth is without historical precedent. Application of these principles has been imperfect. But application of liberal principles is certainly more perfect than it was before the American Revolution.
Power as the Ultimate Meta-narrative
History does not offer us a picture of moral perfection. If we are to discard history for its imperfections, then we will end up discarding in whole our own history and the cultural heritage that is bound to it.
It has become the norm for many to view existing institutions as the result of a history of repression. Language exists in its current form because it empowered an oppressive elite. Governing institutions, too, embody the oppressive aims of an elite seeking to maintain their legal and cultural superiority. No institution and no body of knowledge is above reproach in the power narrative. All other narratives must be discarded if we are to overcome oppressive social constructs.
Michel Foucault, in his reflecting on the interaction between knowledge and power, argued:
[O]ne’s point of reference should not be to the great model of language (langue) and signs, but to that of war and battle. The history which bears and determines us has the form of a war rather than that of a language: relations or power, not relations of meaning. History has no ‘meaning’, though this is not to say that it is absurd or incoherent. On the contrary, it is intelligible and should be susceptible of analysis down to the smallest detail – but this in accordance with the intelligibility of struggles, of strategies and tactics. . . . ‘Dialectic’ is a way of evading the always open and hazardous reality of conflict by reducing it to a Hegelian skeleton. (114-115)
Foucault denounced any interpretation of history as collective efforts – successful or otherwise – at developing and refining a constitution that embodies our shared values. Rather, history is the retelling of a war, veiled and distorted by collective narratives. Many academics and intellectuals have adopted this meta-narrative of power, expressing either a skepticism of other meta-narratives in their work or elaborating the perspectives of micro-narratives of minority groups that appear to be oppressed under the status quo. A growing number of histories have focused on the struggles of racial minorities, immigrants, women, members of labor organizations: basically, any groups that appeared to operate outside of the dominant nexus of power.
In the process, the ideal of American identity has been displaced by a focus on social deconstruction and micro-narratives. Further, concentration on the hegemony of American culture and political power in the humanities has limited the appeal of a shared American identity that would include a commonly shared historical narrative. In its place, the American political conversation has taken a turn toward polarization and antagonism. The power meta-narrative precludes a shared construction of social reality that could offer a unifying vision. Or, at least, it has so far.
Reviving American Identity
Yet, it is the collective narrative that necessarily enables the existence of an American community and communities whose accomplishments help to continually redefine that identity. Where would the antislavery movement be without the interpretive filter of the Exodus narrative? And again, where would the civil rights movement have drawn its strength if not from the leadership of African-American churches that drew from the same religious heritage? Both of these movements asserted inclusive interpretation of the liberties enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights and drew on powerful religious imagery to develop a powerful meta-narrative. Both movements are distinctly American and their influence over our conception of American ideals remains to this day.
No doubt, we must be wary of the ability of narratives to support the expression of power, as occurred, for example, with belief in “manifest destiny” and injustices experienced by native inhabitants left in its wake. Embrace of a meta-narrative does not necessitate racial bias or embrace of an ignorant, belligerent partisanship.
A shared interpretation of history is a Schelling point that unites us. Without embrace of a common narrative collectively constructed through civil discourse, we stand at the precipice of the extinguishment of American identity. (This problem, of course, exists for other nations and communities as well.) Wholesale rejection of our national history – with its heroes and its villains – leaves American communities adrift on a rudderless ship. That ship is in danger of crashing against a coastline of political turmoil.
The job of the professional historian is to include and arrange the relevant facts that comprise the past. A lay conception of history must also aspire to honestly retell our past. We must own our history. Every last detail of it. We must own how we tell that history. We can start by transforming the conversation surrounding statues of imperfect men. We can engage in collective discourse as we identify the heroes and the villains of our history and their place in a shared historical narrative.
Don’t destroy the statue of Robert E. Lee. Erect a statue of Harriet Tubman in proximity to his statue. Tell of her service during the Civil War. Wax about the successes and challenges of the Underground Railroad. Tell the story of a struggle for liberty, for oneself and for others. Erect a statue of William Lloyd Garrison, abolitionist and an outspoken supporter of equal liberty for women. Tell the story of his willingness to oppose injustice in the face of danger to himself. Remind everyone that their dedication to the spread of liberty defined not only their lives, but the development of the American project.
It’s time to re-embrace the American narrative. The Declaration of Independence set forth that “all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” How can we not be proud that this is the heritage that we receive from the American founding? Shall we reject this heritage because the men and women who participated in our history are, inevitably, imperfect?
Shall we not retell American history as a story of imperfect men and women attempting to create a more perfect union? The allies of the good are flawed, no doubt. And some characters seem to lack redeeming qualities altogether. But left with the choice between the discarding of history or retelling it with gruesome honesty, shall we not tell a story in which the flame of liberty was somehow fanned by persons noble and, often, ignoble? Shall we not honor those willing to risk their own lives to keep that flame alive and to see it grow? It is time that we confront our paradoxical history of personalities, beliefs, and institutions, telling a story of continued struggle to manifest a civic inheritance of individual liberty and human dignity. A struggle marked with failure, but which we hope will continue to bear fruit for the good of humankind.