Tearing down the past

History as a discipline is always subject to revision. In fact, historians have a name for history as it changes over time: historiography.

Let’s say a historian writes about the American founders during an era of oligarchy and great concentration of wealth, and his interpretation focuses on how the founders were all wealthy. That’s not a coincidence. Another writing at the end of second-wave feminism crafts a history of women in colonial New England. Also not a coincidence. History is a living discipline. It changes according to the needs of the time.

So now anti-racists are tearing down statues, and others are saying that’s tearing down history. I’ve already chimed in on taking down the statues of people who did both good and ill during their life. But doing so isn’t “tearing down history”. The removal of a monument is part of history, just as commissioning and building it was. The needs of society change.

The question is why, and to what end, destruction is necessary. There seems to be a huge amount of righteous pleasure involved in tearing things down, even more so than in putting them up. And at the moment, the focus on race is leading to everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Charles Dickens being attacked. Instead of creating better models for our present and future, which takes deep thought and compromise, people really like the idea of destroying something, some hypocrisy or ideal they see violated. It’s like a sport — they’re more interested in seeing the other team lose than in seeing theirs win.

And that’s where I get concerned, when the destructive tendency seems to cause more enthusiasm than the desire to build something better. Instead of creating poetry, songs, monuments, novels that reflect a new sensibility, it seems more satisfying to not only tear down the previous models, but to consider them inappropriate enough that they should be banned.

And when we start banning things, we’d better be careful. Not only will we lose Thomas Jefferson, who promulgated many of the energetic freedoms being used to react against previous wrongs, but we could lose our moorings. We could detach from our cultural foundation and start burning books. Doing it in the name of freedom will be the ultimate Orwellian irony.

So I’m cheering a little more quietly than some as the statues come down and names are changed, even while I applaud the names put in their place. I suspect it’s an easier way out than actually building a better world.

2 comments to Tearing down the past

  • jmm

    I’m not a historian (and neither do I play one on TV) but it seems to me that the destruction of monuments reflects several convergent phenomena. 1) As you say, it’s much easier to destroy than to build or imagine building; 2) young people are tense and fearful about the future and have been cooped up for months with no outlet for their distress, so they wanna break something; 3) persistent denigration of minorities is a Thing, and 4) Trump, the jellied gasoline for stupidity, ignorance, impulsivity, and rage.