Saturday, 13 June 2020

Rewriting history

Those who have complained about attempts to ‘erase’ or ‘rewrite’ history, in relation to the campaign to remove outdated symbols from their locations across the UK, are in effect saying only that they prefer the version of history which is familiar to them. The PM himself yesterday said that we should not attempt to ‘edit’ or ‘censor’ our history – what does that mean, if it isn’t about freezing one (i.e. his) interpretation of what happened in history for all time, and dismissing other interpretations as ‘wrong’? It’s a deliberate attempt to mislead and distract from the underlying question in order to maintain a version of history which suits a particular world view. And although the issue has been brought to the fore as a result of a specific problem it’s a much more general question than one about slavery or race – there are other examples much closer to home of the way in which history has long been interpreted to serve a particular viewpoint.
The PM claims that statues and symbols teach us about ‘our’ history. That is just about the last thing that they do. Without interpretation or nuance, and often carrying only limited information about the individuals represented, they tell us next to nothing about those thus commemorated or those who chose to erect the statue in the first place. His statement that “…those statues teach us about our past, with all its faults. To tear them down would be to lie about our history and impoverish the education of generations to come” is a classic piece of Johnsonian nonsense. I doubt that anyone has ever learned very much about anything from looking at statues (most of us find  books rather more useful), and simplistic labels of the sort found on monuments (often just a word or two such as ‘philanthropist’) are more misleading than educational. Take the now infamous Colston statue as an example. The inscription read "Erected by citizens of Bristol as a memorial of one of the most virtuous and wise sons of their city." The first part isn’t entirely accurate (the statue was erected at the behest of a tiny group of people, and appeals to the public failed to raise enough money to pay for it leaving the main instigator to pay most of the cost himself) and the second part, for anyone who knows anything about the man’s background, effectively declares that slave-trading was a ‘virtuous and wise’ calling. That isn’t ‘history’, it’s propaganda. I don’t think that anyone is asking people to ‘lie’ about our history – the lie is in presenting only a partial view in the first place.
There is, of course, scope for debate about whether the best form of action is to
·        remove such statues completely,
·        cart them off to a museum where they can be accompanied by a much fuller explanation of who the memorialised individuals were, what they did, and why the statues were erected, in a nuanced way which reflects changing mores,
·        or simply add interpretative material at the sites which provides context and a fuller and more rounded description.
But simply leaving things as they are – which seems to be the PM’s desired course of action – isn’t about respecting history at all, it’s about perpetuating existing myth and half-truth in support of a particular perspective.
In reality, ‘rewriting history’ is precisely what historians do, as one of their number explains here. It’s their job; it’s what they’re for, and if history were something immutable and inarguable, we wouldn’t need any more historians. Whilst the facts of the past don’t change, the importance ascribed to them does, along with the way in which those facts are interpreted and contextualised. Opponents of changing interpretations often argue that we need to accept that ‘values were different then’. It’s true, of course it is – but that’s precisely one of the main reasons why ‘history’ changes; as values and perspectives change, so too does the interpretation of facts and events. It isn’t just what some call historical revisionism, it’s more that the passage of time allows a considered re-evaluation. But the real question is this: if different people – and even different historians – can legitimately interpret the past in different ways, how do we decide between those histories? Even debating that question will help us all to a better understanding of our own history than we’ll ever get from looking at any statue and have much more impact than any insistence on the past remaining unchanging for ever. That’s probably why people like Johnson want to close down any debate. They are attached to their own view of ‘our great history’ and would prefer that the rest of us took the same view. We should be asking ourselves whose interests that might serve.

No comments: