Erasing history

The news these days are full of stories of social unrest. Something that has been brewing for a while, as society divides become greater, rather than narrower.
However, I find myself perplexed by the practice of tearing down statues of people who were slave traders or racists, along with their other attributes, for which they were celebrated.

 


History is built in shades of grey: unfortunately human nature is such that the strong often prey on the weak.
Alexander the Great built wondrous libraries in his glorious conquest of the ‘known world’, but also massacred plenty of ‘barbarians’ along the way. In the democracy of classical Athens, there were slaves, who did not have a vote—and neither did women, or foreigners.
The men who hauled blocks of marble to build the Parthenon were not blessed with paid holidays and health care. Should we tear down the Pyramids, because they were built in sweat and blood?
Religions and sects have persecuted, burnt, and tortured people who did not share their beliefs. Should we tear down the churches and temples?
Some of the slave traders were black themselves, preying upon their own kind. And racism is not confined to blacks—many others have borne the brunt of it. Native Americans, Maoris, Armenians, Jews, Tutus, the list is long—anyone who found themselves in the minority in the place they lived in. Human nature.


Here is an anecdote: I recall, when visiting one of the Balkan countries during Communism—I think Bulgaria—being shown around a monument by a local guide. It consisted of a large circle dug into the ground, two stories below. It was open to the sky and, all around the perimeter, stood a row of larger-than-life bronze statues representing workers: one held a scythe, another a plow, a third a hammer, and so on. The whole thing was rather ghastly but, was was weirder still, was that when I asked the guide who was the sculptor who made them, she answered, ‘We don’t know.’
‘How can you not know? This is not antique, it’s recent.’
She hemmed and hawed, then she said: ‘He fell out with the regime, and his name was erased from the books.’
Such a narrow minded way of looking at things.


Things that happened, happened. Should we try to erase the past? I think it’s better to reserve our energies for improving the present—with more efficient laws, and with reform, not destruction. Thousands of people are slaves still, in the 21st century—and they’re not all black. There’s a huge immigration crisis, worldwide. There are people now, today, who have made fortunes exploiting others, but everyone sucks up to them, because their money gives them power, and they also take good care to make large donations to charities and universities. There are huge corporations operating on the returns of sweatshops and the like.

Is it a solution to stop reading Rudyard Kipling, or showing Gone With The Wind?

I’m curious to know what everyone thinks about all this.

47 thoughts on “Erasing history”

  1. “Things that happened, happened. Should we try to erase the past? I think it’s better to reserve our energies for improving the present—“ totally agree

    Liked by 4 people

    1. An interesting piece. History is littered with atrocities and injustice. Asking people to apologise for events that they had no part in does not achieve anything in the black lives matter campaign. The multi ethnic society that exists in Britain today is the direct result of its Colonial past, so it makes no sense to erase that past when it defines who we are today . We should focus on now and learn from the past

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  2. I agree with you 100%. As somewhere said (recently somewhere on the News): History is not there for us to like or dislike; it’s there so we can learn from it.

    To destroy these things is surely to deny their lessons…

    Liked by 3 people

  3. I’m mixed – one the one hand I agree with all you said. On the other hand, I try to understand the views of those who see those statues, flags etc. as symbolic reminder of pain. I think I would be disturbed by Nazi flags flying or statues of Hitler in my city streets or sports venues. Often generations have vague or no context to put these symbols into perspective.

    It’s complex. But I would rather err on the side of not causing so many pain, whether I share, understand their pain or not.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. And yet most Jews do not want Auschwitz demolished, because they don’t want people to forget. On the contrary, Jewish associations raise money for the preservation of the camps. We need to see things in the right context.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Yes, you are right. However . . . .We built a “monument” to 911 and a museum to explain what happened. Yet we are not flying terrorist flags nor building statues of the hi-jackers. Flags and statues are largely seen as “tributes”. I think that as a species we humans do give context and that context evolves over time. Hopefully, we evolve to a more just and compassionate world view and our “context follows.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Are we evolving to a more just and compassionate world? Reading history, I don’t think so. Humans are just as brutish, violent and cruel as before, albeit with more technology. We seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes. Or maybe I’ve become a depressing old bat…Sigh…

        Liked by 1 person

      3. At the risk of calling you a depressing old bat . . . absolutely we are evolving into more aware and compassionate humans. We no longer throw people into volcanoes to appease the gods, the younger generations are marching for equality, some of the wealthiest people are beginning to donate to bettering the world instead of just their progeny . . . (I could go on).

        We still have a long way to go as we humans are still in late adolescence but I have no doubt that humankind will eventually grow into adulthood. I probably won’t be around to see it but I believe it’s happening.

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      4. I only hope that by the time we manage adulthood, we will still have a habitable planet to live on! Amazing how one subject raises another… And we might not throw people into volcanoes nowadays, but we still manage to behead them on video… Certainly, things have improved for a lot of people, mainly in the western world, and I do not mean to underestimate or denigrate the good things going on, of which I agree there are many. And I’m happy many who have commented here feel so optimistic about the evolution and the future of mankind!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Perhaps not remove all the statues, maybe just the really contentious ones. And put additional information with them so that people can understand the context of the times and why some of what these people did was not admirable, although they may have done some other remarkable things.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Nothing is pure, though we might wish it to be so. That s why we have no real discourse right now, and, as you say, we ignore the many other issues that need to be dealt with. None of them exist in isolation–they are all connected.
    Still, I’m not a big fan of statues glorifying any human. It simplifies history too much. Better to plant a tree. (K)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. For days I have been unsuccessfully trying to put your words down in print. Thank you for doing so and so well. I am utterly shocked that the present multiple discontent around the world should have led to what, quite frankly, I regard as mad and criminal activity. Much in history may not have been fair or ‘pretty’ . . . but it belongs to the evolution of our world and mostly should stay there in my opinion. At the moment in Australia Captain Cook’s statues have had to be put under police surveillance . . . Captain Cook !! And to say ‘Gone with the Wind’ is suddenly unacceptable or John Cleese’s ridiculously funny goosestep !!! Quo Vadis – attend to current life’s problems and let the past be . . .

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Yes. Attempting to rewrite our individual or collective history erases our responsibility of reflecting on our cultural mistakes and, in consequence, doing better in the future. As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the past and current unrest we’ve experienced. I believe it is important to remember, learn, and create something better. We need to take greater care of ourselves (humankind) and the environment. Thank you for this thought provoking post.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. You have expressed very well similar thoughts I’ve been having over recent days. You can’t rewrite history, no matter murky, ugly and often shamefully racist (as well as sexist). I understand the sentiments of some protesters who would remove the most contentious symbols of our past. But where will it end? It will not take away what happened and the fact that these people were part of history, good and bad. I think a better solution would be to erect other monuments in parallel that explain the less savoury side of these statues and honour the lives that were lost in history whether black, indigenous or Jewish, for example.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Such a thought provoking post and such an intriguing issue. I have certain clear views – I don’t like vandalism or mob rule or street violence whoever perpetrates it. But after that it gets murky. In Britain we have 800 odd public statues, of which 400 odd are named men, most of whom you’d never have heard and 60 are named women, if you ignore the plethora of Queen Victoria’s that populate the land. The vast majority went up in the 1820-1914 period when we Brits were rather too full of ourselves for anyone’s good but our own. If you take Trafalgar Square we have Nelson on his column (a known supporter of slavery but memorialised for keeping Napoleon off our cricket pitches and imposing compulsory boule), two minor 19th Century generals, one of whom is only famous for his pun (he captured Sind province in northern India and sent a one word message peccavi meaning, in Latin ‘I have sinned’ and one of which is empty. Personally I only notice statues when photographing a tour and often have to look up who is who. So in short, I’d be happy to change them (only in the last five years have we had the first woman memorialised in Parliament Square and we also have Jan Smuts, a war leader of repute but also the father of apartheid in South Africa and Nelson Mandela who didn’t want him taken down) because they aren’t relevant any more and most of them memorialise non entities by today’s knowledge. Put them in museums or stature parks where they can be contextualised, rather than vandalised. If I was an Irish politician visiting parliament I’d be pissed having to pass Cromwell who imposed a pogrom on the Irish in the 17th century but who was undoubtedly why part of why we live in the democracy we live in in Britain today. So he stays but we should understand what he was party to and not simply have him there to revere.
    All of which is very interesting but largely irrelevant to the crux of the issue which is the ongoing disparity in opportunities and barriers to entry of certain groups and classes in Britain today. We have such a complex relationship with our relatively recent past – empire, world wars and so on – that it will take a long time to fully unpick it. All i hope is that, in doing so, and I’m confident we will, we view this as a ‘see-saw’ issue and not a ‘pendulum’ issue. This is not time to swing to extremes, invoking the ‘it’s now my turn’ logic of corrective politics, but to quickly reach balance. Like others I’m on the side of, and believe in the ‘Better Angels’ of human evolution. We do repeat mistakes and we do have many – too many – examples of egregious brutality still occurring today. But nothing like at any stage in our history as a species. We are often Sisyphean in our development though, unlike Sisyphus we will reach the top because there aren’t any gods, capricious or otherwise to stop us.
    Thank you, M for allowing me to write this!

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    1. And thank you, Goeff, for this extremely interesting analysis of things British, for which I can hardly claim to be an expert. It just seemed to me disproportionate rage is being directed against some mouldy old statues which, as you pointed out, most people hardly notice, when so much is wrong with the current world. And believe me, I’m happy to see you and many others who have commented here (and many people of my acquaintance and in my own family, as it happens) think human evolution is progressing in the right direction. In Europe, certainly, our standard of living is vastly improved. Much better health, material comforts, leisure. Are we happier than other generations? But that is another, huge, subject. In the world as a whole, however, we are witnessing misery on a huge scale. Massive population movements, wars everywhere, slavery, religious fanaticism, total lack of cooperation between nations. And the spread of terrorism, and of disease (which is probably very much due to our current lifestyles) Are we exposed to too much information? Perhaps. But it certainly makes for depressing reading of the morning papers. Anyway, I would certainly agree with your use of the term Sisyphean!

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  11. If, and I do say if, today’s anti racism idiots stopped to think – a new experience for most of them I’m sure, they would soon realise you cannot erase what happened in the past, simply because it offends them!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I think the reason for the statue or flag being displayed is another factor; how many states displayed the confederate flag in the 1960s not as a piece of history but a response to the civil rights movement. When the status went up did it include the numbers of people that died on both sides, the length of the war, the impacts on government, or was it for the glorious dead?

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  13. A really good post and some excellent responses. We can waste too much time over-thinking whether or not a statue should be there or torn down, without ever providing a true solution, which would involve equality, respect and equal wages. Throughout the history of the human race, there have been slaves and slave-traders. Vandalizing or removing a statue of someone who participated in the slave trade a couple of hundred years ago while not improving the lives of today’s people is just a lot of hot air. While I can understand that Americans might want to remove statues of Confederate generals, considering they were on the losing side, I do not understand English people wanting to remove statues of Churchill just because he was racist (as if he were the only one). Do we destroy the ancient statues of Julius Caesar just because he caused a lot of bloodshed many centuries ago? Everything should be put in perspective and context. When Oliver Stone’s film ‘Alexander’ was released, it was rather insulting to the history of the Greek people and I remember at the cinema, just before the film started, they displayed an apology note, saying it’s just a film. I’d rather we be allowed to watch/read/experience controversial things than have them censored or destroyed forever.

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  14. An interesting read when this isn’t in the news as much at the moment. Where we place the value of history in decisions today is SUCH an important and vastly interesting topic. **shameless plug** for our blog based on this theme. We’re always looking for new contributors, please do inquire on our page!

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