Does removing Confederate monuments “erase history”? (And what the hell does “erasing history” even mean?)Posted: September 15, 2015
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:
And this from a local page:
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;
(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;
(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.
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.
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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?
Do some very rough math. First, we aren’t talking about just any historical representations, but those dedicated to the honor of some entity. 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.)
 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.
Other states are deciding you shouldn’t get 85 years for pot possession, or be kept from visiting your dying spouse in the hospital because his genitals look like yours. Meanwhile, Tennessee is busy making sure rape victims who get pregnant carry their attackers’ babies to term.
Our upcoming mid-term elections (Nov. 4) will play host to “the nation’s biggest abortion battle” in the form of a ballot initiative called Amendment One.
The background: In 2000, the TN Supreme Court determined that the state constitution contains an implicit “fundamental right to privacy” which covers a woman’s right to an abortion. This immediately struck down three of four extant restrictions on abortion (e.g. waiting periods, pre-operative counseling). It has since fended off the more egregious sorts of regulations seen in surrounding states.
Amendment One would add nullify this decision by adding the following language to the constitution (paraphrased): The constitution does not imply a right an abortion, after all, and therefore legislators (or the citizens, through their legislators) do have the right to restrict access to abortions.
(1) The best reason to oppose Amendment One is straightforward: Because there is simply nothing wrong with having an abortion. It’s baffling to me how this fundamental point gets lost amid the fog of “government interference” and “individual choice” and the rest. (I’ll elaborate on the moral claim in
my next an upcoming post.)
(2) The amendment would almost certainly be illegal, as it would simply override a court decision rather than rewriting or repealing the parts of the constitution on which it is based. This would be like adding a clause to the US Constitution saying there is no such thing as a right to bear arms—while keeping the Second Amendment intact.
(3) Amendment One is misleading in at least two ways:
The first sentence of the bill declares “the right [of lawmakers] to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion.” Legally speaking, the bill was complete at this point. But it awkwardly goes on to list a number of non-exceptions to the right already defined—namely, “pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.”
To clarify, this is a list of cases for which legislators do not have to make exceptions in any future abortion restrictions. But given the language of the first sentence, there are an infinite number of other cases which could have been listed there. The bill could have said exceptions don’t have to be made for economic hardship, religious preference, eye color, or anything else. Why these particular three?
Note, most “pro-life” voters in TN support the three (and only these three) exemptions in the bill. Most voters everywhere do; the list is standard in these debates. The bill is designed in the hopes that causal voters will skim the bill, eye the standard exemptions, and assume “the[y] are either in place, or could easily be put in place.” (Polling data shows this is already happening.) In fact, the opposite is the case.
If you doubt the confusion is intentional, consider that the scripting, if clearly understood by all Tennesseans, would actually make the amendment less attractive—since most voters support the exemptions. The bill’s drafters know this, and they included it anyway. This makes them either phenomenally stupid, or cunning.
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A second way the amendment misleads: We know the legislators backing the bill intend to use the Amendment as a wedge to regulate abortion out of existence, or as close to non-existent as possible. We know this because of their voting records, their statements, and the fact that they hired abolitionist pro-life lobbyists to draft the bill. But lately, they are keeping mum about their long-term intentions in the mainstream press.
As District 7 Senator Stacey “Shit for Brains” Campfield clumsily admitted:
After [Amendment 1] passes, I have several ideas but for fear of those ideas being used to help defeat Amendment 1, I will refrain from talking about those at this time. I doubt there are any ideas I would oppose that would restrict abortion in Tennessee.
The relatively innocuous language of the bill masks the full story. Fewer Tennesseans would cast a vote knowing it effectively licenses forcing women to, say, bear children that will kill them.
(4) Amendment supporters say that, thanks to that 2000 court decision, abortions are “unlicensed and unregulated” in Tennessee, and therefore pose undue risk for women. This, of course, is a lie. But let’s assume there is some truth to this claim.
A thing is not either “safe” or “unsafe.” Safety is a continuum; you have more or less of it, and tradeoffs with other values (efficiency, cost, etc.) are inevitable. A car that tops out at 35 miles an hour would be safer, but overall less desirable, than a faster but more dangerous one. Similarly, it may be the case that having abortions which are (a) less regulated, but more accessible, is preferable to abortions which are (b) more regulated, and therefore more safe, but less accessible.
But let’s be clear: Our supposedly “unregulated” abortion is still safer than actual childbirth. If women’s safety is your capstone concern, you should encourage as many abortions as possible.
(5) Amendment backers complain that TN’s relatively lax regulations make it an “abortion tourism” destination for residents of adjoining states.
First, if you want to argue that not restricting abortions causes more of them, fine—but the fact that the “more” happen to hail from another state is beside the point. Where they reside is no more relevant than how tallt hey are. (Actually, all things being equal, tourism of any kind is good for a state.)
But then, this is a terrible argument. It amounts to saying: We have to restrict abortions or…more people will have them. Well, duh. The same could be said of every activity from homicide to drinking tea. The real question is: What’s wrong with abortions in the first place? If you haven’t answered this question, simply pointing out the near-tautology that not restricting something makes more of it doesn’t provide an answer. And if you have made the case that abortions are bad, this adds nothing to it; it feels a bit like “piling on.”
A final word of caution: Your vote against Amendment One is wasted if you don’t also cast a vote for (someone, anyone, for) governor. To amend the state constitution, more than 50% of all people voting for governor have to vote for the bill. If 100 people vote for governor, the amendment has to get at least 51 votes. Any fewer, it will fail.
Therefore, it is in the interests of those who oppose the amendment that there be as many votes as possible for governor, to raise the 50% threshold to be met for passage. (On the other hand, it might be wise for those favoring the amendment not to cast a vote for governor.)
Write-in candidates do not count toward the threshold. Vote Isa Infante on the Greens ticket.