There has been a lot of mentions of history in the last week. In arguments in favor of keeping statues of the Confederacy, history is intrinsically connected to these physical monuments, and to tear them down (or, more realistically, remove them from public spaces) would be to erase our history. In arguments in favor of removing those statues, history is also painful and detrimental to people who view those statues as relics of oppression.
History is being fought over so much, you’d think it was the First Impression Rose on a premiere of The Bachelor. And yes, that is the second time I’ve mentioned The Bachelor franchise in as many articles. It’s a cultural touchstone, people.
People are so obsessed with history: preserving it, protecting it, acknowledging it. In a Twitter statement of his response to the Charlottesville tragedies, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) admonished President Trump and mentioned history:
“Mr. President, like most I seek to move our nation, my state, and our party forward – toward the light – not back to the darkness…Your tweet honoring Miss Heyer was very nice and appropriate. Well done…However, because of the manner in which you have handled the Charlottesville tragedy you are now receiving praise from some…you are now receiving praise from some of the most racist and hate-filled individuals and groups in our country…For the sake of our Nation — as our President — please fix this…History is watching us all.”
History is watching us all.
But here’s the problem with this whole “history is watching” tactic. “History” isn’t a person; history is a collection of memories, sanitized and blurred into something cohesive and palatable. Don’t do the right thing because in one hundred years from now, you want people to think you were a good person. Do the right thing because TODAY, right now, people are suffering and you have the ability to change that.
The whole notion of “history is watching” is ultimately self-serving. It exists to try and nudge people in power to do the right thing because they want to preserve their own legacy. You don’t want to look like a racist because in one hundred years, you don’t want people to think you’re a racist? You’re dead, what do you care? People like Frederick Douglass, or Rosa Parks, or Harvey Milk, or John Brown, did not stand up and do the right thing – the hard thing – because they wanted to look good. They did it because it was morally right.
Putting the impetus for good deeds – and not even good deeds, just human decency – on history and future perceptions is faulty because history is written by the winners. And so by its very nature, history – the tidbits that people, generation after generation, choose to remember – is biased. It’s impossible to remember everything, so the things you do remember are in their very essence not entirely correct.
The other issue is that history exists passively; history does not watch, history does not reach out and tap you on the shoulder and say, “Hey, don’t do that.”
We have white supremacists marching in Charlottesville in 2017, and people are defending or minimizing them. Clearly they don’t remember or heed the history of the Holocaust. If history was truly so important, people would remember that the Confederacy fought to keep the institution of slavery. But they acted in spite of it, and we still have people making excuses, because history is passive.
History is pointless until you make a point to act in accordance or in spite of it. Statues of Confederate leaders did not teach people about the Civil War – books and lectures and teachers did. Confederate statues do not teach history, they serve as a relic of oppression.
Don’t do something because you fear how you’ll be viewed in one hundred years because if the last week has taught us anything, it’s that there are ignorant people who will refuse to acknowledge you. If we heeded history, we wouldn’t have elected Trump into office. We would’ve remembered what happens when someone rides a wave of fear-mongering, racism and hate into a position of power.
Do the right thing because you can, because it will create something better for the people in the present.
History is warped, cracked and imperfect. Our past was. Our future will be. So all you can do, instead of worrying about your image or your perceptions, is act in the best way you know how.