Dear Marching Historians

Dear People Who March To Protect Our History,

I’m sorry to hear that some of you have been caught up with a bad crowd.  The President of the USA himself has made it clear – as well as the white supremacists and KKK, there were good people marching to honour the history of the Confederacy in Virginia, standing up for the right to remember the past and the brave people who fought and died in it.  I getcha – seriously.  Britain is full of statues to charmers like Cecil Rhodes and other bastions of racism, and people as passionate as you also get annoyed when we try to take ’em down.  You want people to remember, not forget.  To pay attention to our past and where we came from, even if – perhaps especially if! – that past happens to be full of people who believe that if you are black, you are not human.  You don’t believe that, because it would obscene and you’re a good person, but people did, and these things happened, and shaped who we are, and frankly we’re all grown-ups, right?  And anyway, history is nothing if not seen through the lens of the modern era.

Except…

… and I know this is awkward…

… was there a moment, defenders of the diversity of historiographical discourse, when you looked round at your companions and thought “wow.  That guy’s got a swastika, and I don’t think it’s in a groovy Hindu way”?

Or maybe even: “Hum, these guys seem to be carrying burning torches through the centre of the town in order to march to a statue in honour of a man who was the leading light of a government which, yes, did go to war over economic inequality but also significantly went to war for the right to own black people like an old china teaset… I wonder if this is a bit of iconography that harks back the KKK instead of, say, a nice candlelit vigil in honour of peace and brotherhood and historiography?  Because DUDE, I’m clearly here for the historiography of the thing, but being as I am so savvy about this shit I just wonder whether this might not send the wrong vibe and is in fact a deliberate attempt to intimidate and reinforce old cultural ideas of violence and oppression?”

Presumably at this point, you went away, to reconsider your choices.

And besides, you’re there for history, not pepper spray!  You know from your studies that violence only deepens division, especially when those divides are constructs put in place to control and oppress.

You understand certain key truths – that we study history to learn from it, yes, but also to define who we are now and who we want to be in the future.  Marxists look at history and see the oppression of the many by the few and the gross injustice and violence inherent in a privileged minority maintaining its control.  Brits who marched to protect the statue of Cecil Rhodes might, say, look at the history of the British Empire and see it as a civilizing mission that brought railways, bureaucracy and economic growth to the world.  Post-colonialists might look at it and see it as both a physical and cultural genocide, in which peoples, languages and histories were annihilated because ultimately, we British were superior white people, and we knew best, and that’s how cricket goes.

So you get that the past has shaped your present identity. You even see how that might help shape the future – how, for example, the right might look at the past and say “there will never be equality and we are not one human race, violence and domination are our lifeblood WELCOME TO THE HUNGER GAMES”; whereas the left might go “look at the Enlightenment look at humanitarianism look at how much better we’re doing on ideas of justice, globalism, feminism and diversity!  Maybe one day Star Trek can come true AND I WANNA BE THE FIRST TO BE BEAMED UP YAY!!”

Unfortunately at this juncture, as you walk briskly away from the racists with their tiki torches and anti-Semetic chanting, you might have to start to wonder exactly what it is you’re actually defending, and what world it is you wanna live in when all is said and done.

Because right now, you’re not actually standing up for the right of history to be remembered.  Boy will it be remembered!  It will be remembered and studied – libraries are the best.  Museums rock.  History is for all, it is the story that shapes who we think we are, and unlike say, several centuries of genocide against the Native Americans, or the British massacres of peoples in Malaysia, Kenya, China, India, Egypt, Australia, South Africa… anyway, it’s not a short list…. the American Civil War is definitely getting cultural air time.

Nah… what you’re doing is standing up for the right for certain people in history, and their ideas, to be honoured.  Because a statue isn’t a library book.  A statue is a monument to an ideal.  And the ideal of Robert E. Lee, much like the ideal of Rhodes, is one in which white people are superior, and there’s this fantastical ‘Anglo-Saxon culture’ that is under threat from terrible onslaughts like the music of Bob Marley, or the use of cumin in cooking, or women.  Especially women with dark skin, and like… their voices.  Saying stuff like ‘equal pay would be good and hands off my body without my consent’.  World-shattering shit that your Anglo-Saxon ancestors would like, totally have beheaded people for, like real men.  Not these prancing liberal homosexuals with their individualism, sense of self-worth and commitment to people they love, genitalia and all.  Real goddamn menWITH BEARDS AND AXES AND SHIT.

But hey, let’s say you’re not someone who’s identity is constructed entirely out of negatives, by being more than him and smarter than her and sexier than everyone else or whatever it is that gives you self-worth.  Maybe you feel like you’re standing up for something else.  Maybe you feel you’re standing up for a ideal of something you’ve invested in the Confederacy flag, like independence, resilience, respect… you know, nice stuff.

Except dudes.  Again, being as you are awesome good people who just happened to find yourselves marching with a bit of a mixed crowd, you’re probably savvy enough to know that the Southern States have produced enough amazing people, leaders and ideas since 1865 that if you wanted to honour these qualities, you could probably find an alternative outlet for this that doesn’t involve defending slavery.  Hell – Ella Fitzgerald is from Virginia, if you wanna get awesome and regional.  Or you can go the abstract route – there are ways of respecting brave people who died, without going ‘and whoop slavery!’

Point is, by now you’re probably feeling pretty uncomfortable, because the thought should really have hit you by now that statues honour ideas, whereas history studies them.  And the idea that is being honoured through the image of racists isn’t a groovy one.  Is your contention that Robert E. Lee was misunderstood?  It’s hard to mis-understand four years of warfare in which tens of thousands of people died in a cause that had ‘slavery’ plastered on the wall.  As signals go, it’s a biggy.

So yeah.  I’m really sorry to hear that you’ve got yourself in this pickle, good people who marched for history.  I can see how you might be feeling confused.

Thankfully!  As monuments to oppression, racism and violence are toppled, you can still stand up for the ideas you actually believe in.  Ideals of shared knowledge, of discourse and debate, of learning from the past and using that understanding, that study of who we were and who we have become, to help create a future that is better than what went before.  We have the tools of learning; we have the framework for minds to meet and share their thoughts, changing and growing with each other, and not one of them requires you to bring your own kerosene, though I grant you in Oxford they’ll still ask you to wear peculiar robes.

We have schools, libraries, universities and books.

Yours sincerely.

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