Conservatives — and by this I mean those interested in preserving the status quo in our society — have lit upon a new-fashioned fig leaf to cover their racism; their disguise isn’t half as clever as they think it to be, however. Their pretext is to claim that they are defending history from those who want to obfuscate through monumenticide. Posing as preservationists, they oppose removing the monuments, site names, and other honors given to Confederate and racist figures from our past. Conveniently, this sudden dedication to public history blocks efforts to denude southern cities of honorific remnants of our slaver past.
In the New York Times, Gary Shapiro blames the dilemma on “deferred maintenance of history” — whatever that nonsensical jargon means — but what he is trying to get at is that racists and their sympathizers object to removing Confederate emblems because it targets the legacy of white supremacy in our society. Part of disavowing racism is dishonoring it. Conservatives reject that repudiation, which is really just a first step in pursuing true equality in our country. They don’t want change (Indeed, they want to make our country “great” again.), which means white supremacy remains.
Now, while conservatives imagine their position smacks of historicism, intellectualism, and post-racialism — and perhaps it does to those who are historically ignorant (like its proponents), for those with any experience in practicing history, the bias is obvious. Sure, on its face, the traditionalists’ position claims to oppose historical denialism, sweeping the ugly parts of our history under the rug. Staters of this day — and in the future — should know that our ancestors celebrated and promoted racists — and it was certainly, in part, because of their racism. Richmond’s Monument Row lacks the instructive qualities that teach the past while condemning it, however, and it’s this indistinguishability between honor and historical recognition where the conservative approach fails.
Assuming good faith on the part of some traditionalists, it seems obvious that their defensiveness lies in their naivete. They believe, like so many, that history is canon and that mastering it means learning facts about the past. This is not, however, what history actually is. It is a practice — of collecting evidence and putting it together in interesting stories that tell us things about ourselves. A row of statues itself is not a history. It is just a collection of evidence. An exhibit or public history display does more than present pieces for people to observe. They are selected, arranged, and contextualized (with accompanying commentary or through careful presentation) so as to make a statement and encourage learning. Monuments are not historical exhibits. They are honorary displays, and fail as cautionary lessons.
In his essay, Shapiro suggested that adding instructive text and, perhaps, statues of slaves to Monument Row, as a way of rehabbing the display so that it reflects contemporary values. Merely cluttering the space is not the answer, however. More importantly, it makes for bad history. Overwhelming the site with too many statues creates a historical junkyard — not a cohesive, instructive narrative. Further, it does nothing to rectify the moral problem that the Confederate figures would still be recognized, while symbolic Anyman slave figures would perpetuate the dehumanization of black Americans. Presented namelessly and generalized — once more denied specific identities and singular significance like that of the white figures beside them — they would be again denied privilege of individuality, dignity of personhood, and historical actuality thus demonstrated. It’s likely that this kind of historiographical dilemma is unfamiliar to Shapiro and his like, precisely because they have no experience constructing histories. Unfortunately, such ignorance perpetuates discriminatory treatment.
Ours is not the first society to confront a repugnant past. The conservative element in our country does not see in removing Confederate monuments the populist toppling of statues of Vladimir Lenin or Saddam Hussein, however. The traditionalists still respect Lee and Davis; those men are not ignoble monsters to be rejected like the Communist dictator and Iraqi strongman, to them. In part, this is because conservatives are victims of the apologetic historiography they were raised in, which honored Confederate figures. However, those who want to reject racism must choose to repudiate those figures, and willfully failing to do so is a contemporary act of racial prejudice. Fundamentally, disavowing racism requires the dishonoring of these Confederate figures, specifically through their removal. Monument Row cannot be reconstructed. It must be dismantled. And, any deferral of that — especially in the name of history — is a great misfeasance.