Coming to Terms With Our History


Recently on Facebook I saw a picture of a statue of Christopher Columbus in Buffalo covered in red paint.  It is pictured above.  The person who posted the photo wrote “When good things happen to bad people.”  The responses to the post were similar.

I have also seen a variety of Facebook posts by folks who demand that monuments of Confederate soldiers and anyone who owned slaves be torn down immediately.  These folks reject the idea of contextualizing the monuments or deliberating about how they should be handled.  Sadly, many of these folks identify themselves in their Facebook bios as history and social studies teachers.

Perhaps the time for civil conversation is over. Maybe the monuments should come down–Lee, Stonewall, Washington, Jefferson, Columbus, etc….  Maybe as one teacher put it, the “erasing history” mantra is getting old.  Frankly, it scares me that these history and social studies teachers might be bringing such views into their classrooms.  And let me be clear–this is not about white supremacy.  This is about a civil debate how to handle these monuments that bring good history to bear on their meaning and purpose.

I thought about these Facebook posts again after I read Robert Kuttner‘s recent piece at Huffington Post.  Kuttner is the co-editor of the progressive magazine American Prospect, but he is also the guy who landed the last interview with Alt-right policy wonk Steve Bannon before the Trump senior adviser was fired.  Kuttner worries that we are playing directly into Bannon’s hands on this whole monument debate.

Here is a taste:

Last week in Baltimore, some far-lefties took a sledgehammer to a statue of Christopher Columbus. A video uploaded to YouTube declared:

“Christopher Columbus symbolizes the initial invasion of European capitalism into the Western Hemisphere. Columbus initiated a centuries-old wave of terrorism, murder, genocide, rape, slavery, ecological degradation and capitalist exploitation of labor in the Americas. That Columbian wave of destruction continues on the backs of Indigenous, African-American and brown people.

“What kind of a culture clings to those monuments in 2017? Part of our evolution as humans requires tearing down monuments to destructive forces and tearing down systems that maintain them.”

Now, this requires some careful thought. The speaker is not entirely wrong, but he manages to sound like central casting’s parody of a lefty. Unless we all want to “return” to Europe or wherever our ancestors came from, America is our home and Columbus was among the first European explorers.

What’s required is a long-overdue process of truth, reconciliation and healing. Even before the latest outburst of virulent racial hate encouraged by our president, Confederate statues were coming down all over the former Confederacy. That’s a good start.

But do we really want to tear down statues of Washington, Jefferson and Columbus? In some ideal, utopian world, that may feel overdue. But in the real world of politics, will it contribute to healing―or serve as raw meat to the Bannons?

For better or worse, there is no central committee of American progressivism. Most of us may conclude that the right place to draw a bright line is at statutes commemorating the Confederacy and slavery. But that doesn’t stop people acting on their own behalf.

The bitter truth is that half the founding fathers held slaves. And the other half assented to the continuation of slavery under the Constitution. That’s why we had to fight a civil war almost a hundred years later.

We can’t undo that history. But we need to come to terms with it. And we need to  rectify the shameful parts of the legacy that live on in the present. I can’t believe that taking sledgehammers to statues of Washington, Jefferson, and Columbus will help.

Read the entire piece here.