Monuments and the “old patriotic narrative”

Historian Jeremy Adelman (Princeton) and Andrew Thompson (Oxford) offer some excellent insights into our debate over monuments. Here is a taste of their piece at Project Syndicate:

Now, we face an impasse. Entrenched defenders of the old patriotic story feel their world slipping away, while advocates of a new pantheon view the previous one as a source of arbitrary hierarchy rather than unity. Feeling bruised and victimized, each side has weaponized history, creating a my-story-versus-your-story, winner-takes-all standoff.

The Great Statue Reckoning has served as a lightning rod for wider societal frustrations. Even without the COVID-19 pandemic, the last decade had snuffed out any sense of progress toward a new, brighter future as political, generational, and geographic polarization deepened.

How can we break the impasse? The purpose of museums, like universities, should be to promote an open and inclusive yet critical dialogue about the past. Because this requires the exchange of competing narratives, it is not a “safe space.” But nor can such an exchange occur without a mutual recognition of others’ grievances and losses.

If we are to avoid becoming prisoners of the past, we must acknowledge that what some see as a tale of conquest and discovery, others see as a story of domination and exploitation. It is no coincidence that the contested statues are overwhelmingly white and male. For black people, indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups, living under the stony gaze of asserted superiority is now simply intolerable.

As long as the old patriot narrative endures, critics and challengers will forever have to ask to be admitted and tolerated, and to request monuments of their own, provided there is space for them. Far from representing recognition, such accommodation serves as a cunning way to leave the symbolic hierarchy intact.

Read the entire piece here.