The View From Here – A monument serving as a current symbol of racism ceases to be historical

Tom Henihan

Literary or artistic symbols are suggestive; they evoke the unconscious and are understood subjectively.

Cultural and historical symbols such as flags, insignias, statues and memorials are fixed, their sentiment and message are overt and unambiguous.

Cultural symbols can function as a cautionary device by shedding light on the atrocities and injustices of the past or they can serve to perpetuate them.

We can chose to have symbols that point in the direction of a just society and a more enlightened future or we can chose to have symbols that point us backward to darker and less enlightened times.

In the aftermath of the tragic Unite-the-Right march in Charlottesville, Virginia, when hundreds of white nationalists and neo-Nazis gathered at the statue of Confederate Army general, Robert Edward Lee, the significance of historical monuments has become an important and divisive issue in the US.

Some assert that removing statues of Confederate soldiers is an assault on American history and culture.

Historical monuments are not history; they have nothing to do with the historical record and if the culture they represent is hateful and reprehensible then they have no place in a civilized society and a functioning democracy.

In fact, historical monuments are so often an example of history edited and expunged of inconvenient detail in order to celebrate particular individuals and reinforce specific ideals.

No one should confuse historical sites with historical monuments.

What society would tolerate a statue of Adolf Hitler, which would be a statue of evil personified?

However, no one would advocate leveling Auschwitz because the site gives testimony to the unmitigated evil of the Nazis and the unthinkable suffering of Jews interned and murdered in the Nazis concentration camps.

An historical site has the neutrality to speak for itself; it is profound and eloquent without enhancement or additional contextualizing.

Confederate statues celebrating defenders and champions of slavery are an affront to all decent Americans and of course are especially offensive to African Americans.

And they certainly don’t belong to history when racists such as alt-right neo-Nazis breathe new life into those monuments and resurrected them as contemporary symbols of racism.

Rather that leaving those statues for one faction to come to their defense and another group rallying to tear them down, creating a volatile or even deadly confrontation as in Charlottesville, no time should be lost in having those statues unceremoniously removed.

Such statues do not edify or invigorate the culture; they propagate ignorance, bigotry and violence and if they represent anything of national import, it is the arrested development of the nation.

No just society should afford racial prejudice any qualification or allow it any semblance of legitimacy.

Any doctrine that espouses that one group in society is superior to another, that doctrine in itself has no legitimacy.

The United States has never managed to fully sever its ties to its shameful history of slavery, which is still rooted in racists’ nostalgia for when their cast exercised total control.

Even in recent years, there has always been some tacit acceptance of racism while overtly disavowing the same behaviour.

Racism in the US, especially where African-Americans are concerned has been allowed to foment and now, like a latent virus it has flared up with deadly consequences, having been agitated and inflamed by the presidency of Donald Trump.

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