How much should we hold onto the past? How much should we try to forget the past? And how much should we try to make those pasts that we’re not happy with disappear?
It’s common to frame discussions of societal transitions by focusing on the new skills… [new statues… the new becoming essential]. But instead of looking at [the new}… perhaps we should consider the obverse: what becomes safe to forget?
Gene Tracy, Aeon, 2019
Protesters gathered in Emancipation Park Saturday morning, August 12, 2017 in anticipation of a noon rally to be held by “Unite the Right” in protest of the projected removal of a statue from Lee Park honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Later on the same day, a car driven by a member of the alt-right plowed into a group of counter-protesters. A 32-year-old woman crossing at an intersection was struck and killed, and the suspected driver was arrested.
Instead of coming to blows the question that the marchers and counter-marchers ought to have been addressing, without violence, was should the statue of Lee be removed? And how should the past, in the form of monuments, and yes ideas, and in this instance statues, be protected and preserved?
Some of you may remember reading George Orwell’s book, 1984 (first published in June of 1949). In that book Orwell, while describing the conditions in 1984, wrote that, “every book had been rewritten, every picture had been repainted, every statue and street and building had been renamed, every date had been altered. And that the process of redoing and actively forgetting was continuing day by day and minute by minute, with the result that history had been stopped.”
I’m pretty sure that Orwell’s words were not at all in the minds of the counter-protesters, the Antifa or anti-fascists, or in the minds of the white supremacist members of Unite the Right, those who were defending the Lee statue.
While the counter protesters may have been looking to clean house in the South, doing away with some of the worst parts of our history, in particular slavery and the monuments to the murderous war between the states, they were certainly not looking to do away with the past, they couldn’t, only some parts of that past.
But when you think about it, about cleansing the past of some of the terrible things some of us really don’t want to remember, there is really no end to the process. Once you start it’s likely that the process won’t be stopped. Might it not be better to keep the past, in this instance the statue of Robert E. Lee in Lee Park in Charlottesville?
For who among us do not have things that we would rather make disappear, such as in this case when the Antifa would make the statue of Robert E Lee disappear? Yes the South was mistaken and has been and is still being corrected. But who among us has not made mistakes, terrible mistakes in some instances, but the mistakes of the ones are not the mistakes of the others, and by allowing the statues, memorials for many of us to an ugly past, to remain aren’t we doing what we should be doing, allowing the past to remain and history to be?
Without the defending the white supremacists, and without defending the Antifa or anti-fascists there is, it seems to me, a legitimate difference of opinion in respect to what should be done, if anything, with General Lee’s statue in the Robert E Lee Park in Jacksonville, Virginia, also the home of the Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia.
Probably what should have happened is something other than what happened in Orwell’s 1984, and is still happening in today’s world where ISIS members are gleefully destroying the antiquities of past civilizations that they no longer accept let alone believe in.
But in both instances, in the antebellum South and in Dur Sharrukin, a former capital of the Assyrian empire in Nineveh that dates back to the 8th century BC, the pasts are real, involved thousands of people. Shouldn’t both pasts be preserved, and no matter how terrible they may have been for the lives of many who were there and lived through them shouldn’t we remember them, not forget they ever occurred?
What we choose to remember, and not to remember, demands a certain kind of wisdom that we no longer seem to have in great abundance. And if there had been wisdom present that day on August 12 in Charlottesville, what did happen may never have happened.
So as with so many things that are happening today we need wise leadership, and instead we have Donald Trump who about Charlottesville, did say there was blame and there were good people on both sides. Regarding what of the past should be defended, what should be if not treasured held on to, he had nothing to say. So without presidential leadership Charlottesville has become whatever the various opposing sides what it to be.
And it continues, the attempt to have the past live up to our notions of virtue. Read this from the Boston Globe this morning: –Parents and supporters of children lost to opioid epidemic urge Harvard to change name of Sackler museum. Early Friday morning they marched in front of the Arthur M. Sackler Museum and the Fogg Museum early Friday afternoon, holding photos of their children.