Podcast: What Our Monuments (Don’t) Teach Us About Remembering The Past

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Monuments don’t mean things on their own. They mean things because we make them mean things. So this Robert E. Lee statue, which I suspect most Charlottesvillians would have walked past and ignored as well, has taken on a new valence. And I think that’s an important reminder. Monuments are not static things that have a single narrative behind them. Monuments are things that we create. Monuments are objects whose meaning and significance we create daily.

 

Debating the history of the Stonewall Riots

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the famous New York riot that is credited with having given birth to the modern LGBT rights movement in the US, much has been written about the popular history of the event and how it is remembered. In addition, there was a 2015 movie about Stonewall that drew a lot of criticism because of its portrayal of the event. This issue raises a lot of interesting questions about history, how it is written and how it is remembered. It also raises interesting questions about the historical accuracy of movies and what responsibility artists have to being historically accurate.

Who Threw the First Brick at Stonewall? Let’s Argue About It

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the internet can spread misinformation, but why had this particular fantasy of Stonewall taken on such importance in the queer imagination?

To find out, I interviewed people who participated in the Stonewall uprising, historians who had devoted years to studying L.G.B.T.Q. history and contemporary queer writers. It turns out that it wasn’t just the question of who threw the first brick: Apparently no one can agree on almost anything about Stonewall.

Gay rights activists give their verdict on Stonewall: ‘This film is no credit to the history it purports to portray’

Roland Emmerich’s film about the 1969 riots has been labelled an offensive whitewash by many critics and campaigners. So what do some of those who were actually there at the time make of it?

Promoting the film, Emmerich defended both his narrative decisions and choice of lead, saying that he’d made the movie for as wide an audience as possible, and that “straight-acting” Danny was an “easy in” for heterosexual viewers.

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/sep/25/stonewall-film-gay-rights-activists-give-their-verdict

I was at the Stonewall riots. The movie ‘Stonewall’ gets everything wrong

But “Stonewall” is uninterested in any history that doesn’t revolve around its white, male, stereotypically attractive protagonist. It almost entirely leaves out the women who participated in the riots and helped create the Gay Liberation Front, which included youth, trans people, lesbian separatists and people from all other parts of the spectrum of our community.

https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/stonewall-movie

Debating the legacy of Winston Churchill

The first story is what led to a lot of interesting pieces being written about Churchill and offers some interesting insights about the nature of history.

Winston Churchill was a villain, says John McDonnell

There has been renewed debate recently over the legacy of Churchill, who in 2002 was named the greatest Briton ever in a BBC poll. The Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan rebuked the Green party MSP Ross Greer on live TV last month after the politician called Churchill a “white supremacist mass murderer” in a tweet.

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/feb/13/winston-churchill-was-more-villain-than-hero-says-john-mcdonnell

The Rest of Us Always Knew Churchill Was a Villain

His record in Britain’s former colonies more closely resembles that of a war criminal than a defender of democracy and freedom.

https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-02-16/churchill-was-more-villain-than-hero-in-britain-s-colonies

The Churchill row is part of the glib approach to history that gave us Brexit

The idea of history as composed of heroes and villains is infantile. Inside every hero lurks an opposite. The best answer to a stupid question is no answer, as McDonnell said when asked his favourite Tory. Fake history may be a clever way to engage the empathy of the young with otherwise difficult material. But if the purpose of history is to offer lessons for the future, distorting it is fraught with danger.

The current cult of identity politics is to rifle through the past careers of great men and women, not to ascertain accuracy but to sort them into friends or foes. Churchill has been accused of racism. He undoubtedly expressed racist views but they were uttered in very different times, in which such ideas were deemed acceptable by many.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/feb/14/winston-churchill-history-brexit-john-mcdonnell

 

Should We Remove Monuments of Unpopular Historical Figures?

There has been a lot of debate recently around the presence of the confederate flag at various government buildings along with war memorials to Confederate figures. Below are a couple of recent articles on the topic. These raise issues about how we should treat the past through these memorials and whether we should remove or edit them once the figures, or the ideas they represent, become unpopular.

Confederacy: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

“Confederate symbols are still celebrated despite the ugly history they symbolize. John Oliver suggests some representations of southern pride that involve less racism and more Stephen Colbert.”

Baltimore City commission recommends removal of two Confederate monuments

http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-confederate-monuments-20160114-story.html

New Orleans votes to remove Confederate, Civil War monuments

http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/17/us/new-orleans-confederate-monuments-vote/

Richmond mayor vows to confront tributes to Southern Civil War figures

https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics/in-the-former-capital-of-the-confederacy-a-new-path-forward-on-monuments/2017/06/22/3133e044-56c3-11e7-a204-ad706461fa4f_story.html?utm_term=.2a1d409eff8b&wpisrc=nl_draw2&wpmm=1

In England, a similar debate is happening over a statue of Cecil Rhodes.

  1. ‘Black lives are cheap at Oxford’: Furor follows decision to keep Cecil Rhodes statue

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/grade-point/wp/2016/01/29/black-lives-are-cheap-at-oxford-furor-follows-decision-to-keep-cecil-rhodes-statue/?mc_cid=84d899c964&mc_eid=34e2887073
  2. Over one third of Oxford students want Cecil Rhodes statue removedhttp://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/jan/15/oxford-students-cecil-rhodes-statue-removed?mc_cid=84d899c964&mc_eid=34e2887073
  3. Removing visual reminders of unsavoury history is not the best way to confront the past.http://www.historytoday.com/rupert-fitzsimmons/rhodes-must-not-fall?mc_cid=84d899c964&mc_eid=34e2887073

New York City Just Removed a Statue of Surgeon J. Marion Sims From Central Park. Here’s Why

“With Sims, the controversy is not about the merits of his medical achievements, but how he accomplished them. Though Sims founded New York’s first women’s hospital and innovated new surgical techniques, his success came at the cost of unethical medical treatment of enslaved women in the antebellum era.”

http://time.com/5243443/nyc-statue-marion-sims/

Podcast: The Falling of the Lenins

“The same protests that brought down that Lenin statue eventually brought about a new government in Ukraine, which sought to eliminate all physical reminders of communism and Russia.  But it hasn’t been easy, logistically or politically, because removing these things erases history that is still important to some Ukrainians. Furthermore, communist symbols are very pervasive in the built environment — they can be found on buildings, bridges and other infrastructure.”

http://99percentinvisible.org/episode/the-falling-of-the-lenins/

Other Posts on this topic

https://toktopics.com/tag/monuments/

 

Fighting over Martin Luther King Jr.’s memory

Knowledge Questions: How is history shaped by our present beliefs? To what extent can we accurately construct knowledge of the past? How do we decide what is an “accurate” history?

Below are three articles discussing the different ways and the consequences of how Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered today. Each shares ideas about the fact that many times our memories of the past and our histories are created to serve our current agendas. For some, history is not about a sincere desire to accurately understand or make meaning of the past. When we interpret the words and memories of our historical figures, can we say that one interpretation is better than another?

Restoring King

King’s radicalism is lost to the obfuscating fog of memory. In American culture today, we have several Martin Luther King Jr’s: the Commemorative King, the Therapeutic King, the Conservative King, and the Commodified King. Each of these Kings competes for our attention, but each of them represents a vision of King that he himself would not have recognized.

https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/01/restoring-king/

From Most Hated to American Hero: The Whitewashing of Martin Luther King Jr.

White people love Martin Luther King Jr.

For them, he is the standard-bearer for resistance while negotiating the minefield of white sensibilities. In the rewriting of history, King has been fashioned into an apologetic freedom fighter who carefully sidestepped white ire while pointing out inequality. They have cunningly backdated their admiration for King and the civil rights movement to prove that they have always stood on the side of justice.

It is bullshit.

https://www.theroot.com/from-most-hated-to-american-hero-the-whitewashing-of-m-1824258876

The Consequences of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Canonization

Pence, of course, is doing only what the current version of the holiday demands. Across the ideological spectrum, politicians must seek to fit themselves under the aegis of the Kingian legacy. That means a contingent of Americans who surely oppose the positions King held in his life are compelled to contort him into something friendly. Columns must wield King to attack everything from “identity politics” to the very act of “politicizing” King’s life itself. Democratic presidential hopefuls must employ King in order to make the case that each of their disparate platforms is the natural heir to his legacy. The sound bites evoking King are stretched like skin over the bones of existing debate. The figure celebrated looks nothing like the leader who lived—and who was killed—but like a granite-chiseled modern founding father, a collection of axioms by which our age is defined.

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2019/01/martin-luther-kings-legacy-and-those-who-claim-it/580903/

The War Over King’s Legacy

So who was the real Martin Luther King Jr.–the integrationist preacher of the summer of 1963 or the leftist activist of the spring of 1968? The question is not just academic. Its competing answers shed light on enduring–and urgent–tensions between white and black America over race, class and conspiracy. Most whites want King to be a warm civic memory, an example of the triumph of good over evil. For many African-Americans, however, the sanitizing of King’s legacy, and suspicions about a plot to kill him, are yet another example of how larger forces–including the government that so long enslaved them-hijack their history and conspire against them. In a strange way, the war over King’s legacy is a sepia-toned O.J. trial, and what you believe depends on who you are.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/mlk/legacy/legacy.htm

The reliability of oral histories in constructing knowledge of the past

Knowledge Questions: How do we construct knowledge about the past? How reliable are oral histories when learning about the past? To what extent do oral histories need to be independently corroborated in order to be believed?

The Underestimated Reliability of Oral Histories

As an archaeologist, if I have to dismiss the veracity of Native American oral traditions simply because they are not written down, then simple logic forces me to dismiss some of the accounts written in the Dead Sea Scrolls, which also began as oral tradition. To do anything else would be to maintain a racist double standard.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/09/dead-sea-scrolls-oral-written-history/571039/

How science and First Nations oral tradition are converging

Science is finally catching up to oral traditions passed down through generations of First Nations cultures

While the convergence of science and oral history is important, Kimberley TallBear, associate professor at the University of Alberta’s Native Studies, says that it’s important that such investigations be a collaborative effort. She’s concerned that Western culture has always dominated that of First Nations and that it could do so again.

“I think it’s good, and I think it’s progress,” TallBear said. “But Western knowledge … [is] privileged over Indigenous knowledge.”

https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/science-first-nations-oral-tradition-converging-1.3853799

Ancient Sea Rise Tale Told Accurately for 10,000 Years

Aboriginal stories of lost islands match up with underwater finds in Australia

Without using written languages, Australian tribes passed memories of life before, and during, post-glacial shoreline inundations through hundreds of generations as high-fidelity oral history. Some tribes can still point to islands that no longer exist—and provide their original names.

“It’s quite gobsmacking to think that a story could be told for 10,000 years,” Nicholas Reid, a linguist at Australia’s University of New England specializing in Aboriginal Australian languages, said. “It’s almost unimaginable that people would transmit stories about things like islands that are currently underwater accurately across 400 generations.”

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/ancient-sea-rise-tale-told-accurately-for-10-000-years/

Good riddance: Americans need to set aside icons like Robert E. Lee to live up to our potential.

Knowledge Questions: What is the role of historical monuments in learning history?  What is the role of history in society? How does history change over time?

screen shot 2019-01-06 at 5.33.17 pmWhen we choose how we view history, we risk mythologizing events and people, reducing them to two-dimensional stories. It takes nothing away from Abraham Lincoln’s heroic stewardship of our nation through the Civil War, for instance, to admit that he was still a creature of his era. For most of his career, he saw slaves as rival laborers for white wage-workers and thought they should go back to Africa. Frustratingly, our instinct to sanitize history ensures that we are always looking backward for our better angels, struggling to meet a standard that remains forever out of reach.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/11/21/feature/good-riddance-americans-need-to-aside-icons-like-robert-e-lee-to-live-up-to-our-potential/?utm_term=.2d7c7ab31918

See other posts related to this one about historical monuments