The editorial team at The Washington Post has decided to jump into the debate surrounding Confederate iconography. Unfortunately, they provide little more than the standard platitudes and offer nothing for communities that are in the midst of what is a highly emotional and divisive discussion.
At the center of the argument is the assumption that the changing of a name or removal of a monument represents the “airbrushing” of history. The term is never defined, but the author appears to believe that any alteration to a community’s commemorative landscape involves a conscious effort to look away or ignore history.
This is a fundamental mistake that has been made in countless editorials, letters to the editor and other commentary over the past few months. Regardless of your position on these issues, monuments, memorials, as well as building and street names are not historical interpretations. They are representations of how a community has chosen to remember the past in a certain place and at a certain time. First and foremost, they are a statement of a community’s values. Changing the name of a street or removing a monument is not necessarily ignoring history. In fact, for many it may be a function of directly confronting it.
The debate about Confederate iconography is not simply about history, it is about whether the people in their communities can look around and see their values reflected in public spaces that are supported by their tax dollars.
All monuments and other acts of commemoration “airbrush” the past in multiple ways. They offer a highly value-laden interpretation of the historical individual[s] or event. As a result, they inevitably “airbrush” the rest of a community’s history from its collective memory. The very act of commemoration is to some extent a distortion of the past because it is as much (and sometimes more) about the present.
For now let’s stop telling people that they run the risk of erasing the past by even talking about Confederate flags, monuments, etc. Before June most people probably gave these questions little to no thought. In fact, I suspect that many people were unaware of what was around them. If anything, this points to the removal of the past in our lives. There are multiple ways to learn from the past.
Once again, I am not advocating the removal or renaming of anything. These are questions that each community must decide. As I’ve said before, I welcome this debate. It comes with a great deal of baggage, but I place as much trust in community members to decide what to do with these sites as I do with the people who were responsible for their placement.
[Click here for everything that I have written about this debate over the past three months.]