The Washington Post “Airbrushes” Debate About Confederate Iconography

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.]

11 thoughts on “The Washington Post “Airbrushes” Debate About Confederate Iconography

  1. Pat Young

    If you go to the prominade in Brooklyn Heights you will find the Fruit Streets. These are
    Orange, Cranberry, and Pineapple Streets, which accoring to the NYC Parks Department were “named by neighborhood resident Lady Middagh. Prior to her nomenclatures the streets were named for the aristocratic families of the neighborhood. She found this pretentious and so removed the street signs and put up those of her own fruity design. Eventually, the City made her choices official, but ironically, named a street after her own family, which remains today.”

    Yes the original street names were named after historic figures, rich guys, but sometimes people stop wanting to honor men who imposed their names on the streetscape. Did this erase history?

    Reply
  2. Patrick Jennings

    Yes, Pat Young, in a way it did. Your hero, Lady Middagh, set to erase what “she” viewed as pretentious but only as long as it fit her personal narrative. She forced her narrative on a neighborhood selectively enough to keep her family name prominent yet advocated names of things that have absolutely no relationship to Brooklyn (I dare say a pineapple or orange has never grown on those heights).

    The use of Confederate naval standards as “battle flags,” as representative of the Confederacy itself, a relatively recent historic event reaching back only to the 1950’s, is exactly the same thing. A group of people forcing their personal narrative using a symbol that has been taken so far out of context it is, indeed, easy to see it as a symbol of hate in the manner it was used.

    I have a friend who jokes that there is no such thing as a lie…there is only taking personal control of reality. The wonderful thing about history is that you can’t take personal control. History is jarring, savage, uncomfortable, and disruptive and it belongs to no one. Every hero is tarnished by the simple fact they are human. Every villain is rectified by the very same fact. For example – Lady Middagh is a villain. She forced her ridiculous concept (illegally, I might add) on the rest of us and now some poor sap is forced to live on “Pineapple Street” rather than a street named after Henry Remsen who once served in the Continental Congress and was secretary to John Jay – I shutter at the pretentious! Yet, Lady Middagh can find salvation in the cute story of her looney crusade to erase a history more powerful than her own and Henry Remsen can be vilified for his efforts to displace the Native peoples of upstate New York.

    Like it or not, street names, plaques on houses, monuments and the like are the actual front line of history. You can change them but you can not change the history. The removal of these things, if it is to happen, must be a carefully studied and researched action – otherwise it is nothing more than an immature emotional response to a contemporary event that has been politicized far beyond its impact, and history will remember that immaturity.

    Taken as a whole I agree with the broad strokes of Kevin’s notion that each and every community must decide for itself what to do about existing markers, names and memorials to any of the dead. But I will also note that such acts must be carefully weighed and measured closely. Years ago, when John F kennedy was made head of a senate committee to create a senate “hall of fame,” he noted that it was critical to measure the whole man and the whole history or no one would make the cut. The same applies to monuments, plaques, and even street names but especially memory. Those things are put in place for a reason and that reason must be balanced against the entire history of that reason. History matters It is crucial to our foundation as thinking human beings and for that reason we should not segregate any part of our past in a moral skeleton closet.

    Reply
    1. Pat Young

      Patrick Jennings

      Not sure where you got the notion that Lady Middagh was my “hero”.

      Also, I’m guessing that Remsen would be remembered (or forgotten) with or without the street name. Which was my point. Changing a street name does not erase history. Naming a street rarely creates history either. Just ask Teunis Joralemon.

      Reply
  3. Forester

    I think its all contextual. For example, in Norfolk there is a Maury High School, built in 1911 and named for Commodore Matthew Fontaine Maury, who was in the Confederate Navy. His ties to the Navy and Norfolk make the choice logical. It also predates the Civil Rights movement, so I don’t think the name is a middle finger to black people.

    Compare that to the controversial JEB Stuart High School in Fairfax, founded in 1959. That school was named as a direct stab at black people, and it really should changed. There was no historical reason to name a school after him — he didn’t even live in that part of Virginia! It should be renamed.

    I don’t think every monument or school is equal — they don’t all deserve preservation or destruction. It’s contextual, in my opinion.

    Reply
    1. Kevin Levin Post author

      I don’t think every monument or school is equal — they don’t all deserve preservation or destruction. It’s contextual, in my opinion.

      I tend to agree with this to a point. How one frames the context is going to be dependent on a number of factors. When an object was added to the landscape is certainly one way to approach it.

      Reply
    2. Pat Young

      Forester’s point is well taken. In addition, some monuments have individual artistic value that should also be taken into consideration, as well as other factors.

      Reply
  4. Patrick Jennings

    Pat Young, I don’t necessarily “think” Ms. Middagh is your personal hero. It was a writing tool, a turn of phrase to brighten the text. If such things bother you I shall refrain and stick to fact, theory and philosophy.

    Now, I too happen to agree with Forester. Context is critical. It is in the exercise of contextualizing why a certain thing is done in a certain way that we ferret out these critical differences.

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    1. Bryan Cheeseboro

      “The Washington Post point about Roosevelt strikes me as awfully thin.”

      I don’t know about that- I think the article makes a good point. The one thing that bothers me about the backlash against Confederate flags right now is that it comes off like all of America’s sins and sinners can be traced to the Confederate battle flag. Obviously, every monument of memorial has someone somewhere who is offended. I remember being in the Smithsonian American History Museum once and while visiting an exhibit on the presidents, I overheard a woman say, “They were all bad men. They were all bad men.” I imagine a lot of monuments would be gone if it were up to that lady.

      Reply
      1. Kevin Levin Post author

        From my vantage point, the issue under consideration in communities throughout much of the nation is whether anything associated with the cause of the Confederacy deserves to be celebrated. The relevant question is not whether individuals ‘men are bad,’ but whether there is anything redeeming about the Confederate cause.

        Independent of my view of specific examples of Confederate iconography in public places the answer is a clear NO.

        Reply
  5. Bryan Cheeseboro

    “The issue under consideration in communities throughout much of the nation is whether anything associated with the cause of the Confederacy deserves to be celebrated. The relevant question is not whether individuals ‘men are bad,’ but whether there is anything redeeming about the Confederate cause.”

    Fair enough. So could that “redemption” be the fact that the united States had a rebellion against itself; survived that “fiery trial”; interpreted it through Lost Cause mythology for generations and then reevaluated that interpretation through the African-American Civil Rights Movement?

    I know at one time, you said you didn’t want to see any Confederate monuments come down (if you’ve changed your mind on that, so be it). Personally, I think trying to remove them all or every public display of the Confederacy is rather disingenuous. Use them as a teaching tool and add the things we’ve learned along the way to them. Just my thoughts.

    Reply

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