Does removing Confederate monuments “erase history”? (And what the hell does “erasing history” even mean?)

Campaigns to remove Confederate iconography from public spaces tend to draw the criticism that doing so amounts to “erasing history.” I’m presently involved in an effort to rename MTSU’s ROTC building, now christened for Nathan Bedford Forrest, a slave-trading, axe-murdering Klansman creep; I’ve encountered this argument frequently in this space.

Here’s an example from the Change Forrest Hall website:

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And this from a local page:

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However, it isn’t clear what “erasing history” actually means. (Nor am I sure the charge is sincere, rather than a political device. But I’ll treat it on its own terms.)

One problem is the ambiguity in the word “history.” It means more than one thing. It can suggest any of the following:

(1) The past;

(2) Historical artifacts;

Or

(3) The record of the past;

I’ll explore each of these options in turn.

“Erasing history” as erasing the past

Notice the critics say we “can’t” erase history. This suggests by “history” they mean the literal past; as of course we can’t undo what’s happened. But then, what’s all the fuss about? If we’re doomed to fail, you can safely afford to let us try. Yet there is a fuss. So something more must be going on.

I imagine they are saying: “Your campaign is ‘in effect’ an effort to erase the past, and even though you can’t literally do this, your efforts will cause damage along the way.” And this damage is precisely to (2) and (3) on our list (historical artifacts and/or the historical record). So I’ll turn to those now.

“Erasing history” as destroying historical artifacts

There does seem to be a worry that we are discarding important historical artifacts. For an extreme example, I’ve heard a commentator liken removal of Confederate icons to ISIS’ destruction of ancient Babylonian statuary. Certainly, this interpretation would explain the degree of ire directed toward such campaigns.

The only problem: The items targeted by these campaigns by and large aren’t historical artifacts. (At least, not in the sense our critics mean; they aren’t Civil War artifacts). Virtually all the contested images date from the period of the very late 1950s through the 1970s, when they were erected by reactionary whites as a giant, collective middle finger to the Civil Rights Movement. e.g. Forrest Hall was erected in 1958, four years after Brown v. Board of Education gave the order to desegregate public schools. The other two contested representations of Forrest in Middle TN date to the late 1970s (bust in the state Capitol) and late 1990s (the I-65 statue).

The most our critics can say, then, is that these items are artifacts about history; that is, contemporary items which represent something historical.

I’ll turn to these next.

“Erasing history” as destroying the record of the past

So then, is destroying these ‘artifacts about history’—present-day items which represent the past—tantamount to “erasing history”?

If this is what our critics mean—and by elimination, it appears that’s all they could mean—the charge seems a bit overblown. By this logic, each of the following would constitute “erasing history” too:

  • allowing any history textbook to go out of print;
  • rescinding a terrible, failing History 101 paper which was accidentally published by a small press;
  • scrubbing “This is racist” protest graffiti off a statue of a confederate general (see below);
  • removing hundreds of tiny uncooked-spaghetti sculptures of historical figures which I set about the town square overnight;

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(Hell, while I’m at it, the blog post you’re reading contains a number of historical statements, so I’d be “erasing history” in the same sense if I took it offline.)

These examples are a bit silly—but that’s the point: Clearly, nobody could consistently believe that ‘contemporary representations the past’ is some untouchable class of items. To the extent they sometimes talk this way, they’re either confused or lying.

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My kid drew this pic of Rutherford B. Hayes. Don’t ask me to take it down. That would be “erasing history.”

I imagine our critics might reply:

“When we say ‘erasing history’ we aren’t talking about pasta folk art and crappy term papers. We’re talking about erasing the good historical representations, or the important (or noble, well-made, competent, etc.) ones.”

OK, but so are we. We just differ about which ones those are.

The upshot is: As soon as you start discriminating among historical representations—saying, this is valuable, but this is expendable—you have conceded the basic point: Not all representations of the past are sacrosanct. And deciding which are important enough to keep around is an essentially moral enterprise; it will be determined by our values. There is no way around this. Sure, our values may differ, and you’re free to argue that Confederate iconography is socially uplifting (or whatever), but the point is—that’s the case you have to make. Do the fucking work, or don’t. But this pretense to neutrality—the whole, “it happened, good or bad, so just let it be” approach—isn’t enough.

* * *

Finally, the critics could still have a point. I mentioned “historical record” above. I use this phrase broadly, meaning the thing which all those “historical representations,” silly and otherwise, add up to. It could be argued: “Erasing” one or a couple pieces of this record does no real damage; but what if so much is destroyed that a subject becomes “lost” to history altogether?

Do our critics have reason to fear this will happen with Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Confederate flag, and soforth, due to the opposition campaigns?

Uh, no.

Do some very rough math. First, we aren’t talking about just any historical representations, but those dedicated to the honor of some entity.[1] Honorariums constitute but a wispy little fraction of all existing historical representations. (Consider every book, museum, lecture, memory, conversation, spaghetti figure….) And we aren’t talking about all honorariums. Only a wispy little fraction of the total are in the cross-hairs for “erasure.”

Not to mention, “erasure” isn’t really on the table after all: Of the targeted memorials, almost none if any will actually be destroyed; they will simply be moved to another publically-accessible location, causing no net loss to the “historical record.” (For example, per the recent decision of the University of Texas-Austin to “remove” a statue of Jefferson Davis from campus, he will simply be relocated in UT’s Briscoe Center for American History.) Likewise, in the case of Forrest Hall, the name will almost certainly be replaced with that of another historical figure who was him/herself “erased” (or “undrawn” in the first place—surely just as bad) by not being there all along; so that, too, amounts to a “wash” for the historical record.

Even still: Let’s imagine the extreme case in which we succeeded in removing every honorarium to every historical figure—hell, even the good ones—in the entire country. We still wouldn’t touch a tenth of a tenth of of a percent of all existing historical representations of these figures and events. Not even almost.

So kindly put your fears to bed. They are infinitely misplaced. (And I think you probably fucking knew that.)

Notes

[1] An honorarium doesn’t just give facts about history; it doesn’t just say “this happened.” It says, this happened and it is good. Which points to another reason you can’t be neutral in this debate: Displaying an honorarium in public means we the public are saying “this is good.” And maybe we aren’t.

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