“My main point was to warn against the weaponization of history.”
"The ‘first step in liquidating a people,’ he [Kundera] wrote, is ‘to erase its memory. Destroy its books, its culture, its history. Then have somebody write new books, manufacture a new culture, invent a new history.’”
“There is a demon named ‘Numbness to Nuance.’ And it can only be cast out with subtlety—and the scholarly equivalent of fasting and prayer.”
"The key question for me is ‘Can we learn from the imperfect dead?’”
I’ve read the material provided and listened to the podcast with interest. There is little I could add to what Burton and Warfield have already said, but I will attempt a few points.
First, the “weaponization of history” did not begin with those Anderson characterizes as “angry iconoclasts,” “zealots” and “statue topplers.” It began with white people who used their power to shape a national narrative favorable to their ambitions. They were the first “weaponize” American history. Indeed, African Americans know first-hand the “liquidation” of which Kundera speaks They know what it means to have the memory, culture, and history of their people erased and to have new books and a new history written overtop their suffering and accomplishments. “Mint julep” versions of American history books did just that. How could a historian could express alarm over the “erasure” of history and not once mention attempts, both past and present, to do that very thing with BIPOC history? It is stunning, really.
Second, I applaud Spectrum’s choice of a title image for this article, which offers a helpful critique. Anderson seems to hold to an outdated “great man” view of history. I am certain he realizes that history is about more than great men doing great things, but that gets lost in his presentation. To his credit, he does acknowledge that the statues of these “great men” have their own distinct history, apart from the men themselves. I wish he had explored that further. In my view, monuments as a form of memory lack the nuance and subtlety Anderson calls for. They do an injustice to the many “minor” characters and non-dominant narratives that hold up Suh’s monument.
Third, to Anderson’s question, “Can we learn from the imperfect dead?” I would answer unequivocally, yes. However, learning from an imperfect life and memorializing it are not the same thing. Indeed, the idealization involved in the latter may make the former more difficult. Furthermore, there is a pedagogical ethics that must be considered when working with “imperfections.” For instance, those who have experienced racial or sexual trauma in their past may be more affected by interacting with the history of those who have perpetrated these acts. We must be sensitive to that reality. An excellent reading for those who are interested in exploring Anderson’s question further is Karen Guth’s Ethics of Tainted Legacies: Human Flourishing after Traumatic Pasts (Cambridge University Press, 2022).
Finally, Anderson quotes an unnamed editorial: “A society that rummages through history
to hold those of the past to the woke standards of today will soon have no heroes to honor.” Should we really fear the loss of heroes to honor? Perhaps, we should thrill at the prospect of discovering new, unsung heroes. Indeed, If we were to “rummage through history” with “the scholarly equivalent of fasting and prayer” (as Kevin Burton has admirably done in his research), I believe that is exactly what we would find.
P.S. If you wish to read some nuanced historical journalistic prose from another perspective, I highly recommend Clint Smith’s How the Word Is Passed (Little, Brown & Co., 2021)