Misunderstanding History

Recent events and issues have many people bandying the word “history” about, and when this occurs, it is often accompanied by a healthy dose of ignorance about what history actually is.  In the United States, the matter of what to do with Confederate statues and monuments was the pretext for the violent confrontation in Charlottesville, Virginia earlier this month.  Closer to home, a debate has been instigated by an Ontario teachers’ union that believes schools should not be named after John A MacDonald in light of his treatment of Indigenous communities.  As expected, some politicians, including Donald Trump, have been highly critical of these efforts.  John Baird, former Conservative foreign affairs minister called the union’s stance on Macdonald “just simply trying to erase Canadian history in the guise of an extreme and radical political correctness”.  Conservative MP, Erin O’Toole has tweeted that the teachers’ union “needs a lesson on how to teach history”.   But is a changing view of the past synonymous with an attempt to wipe out history?

It is important to understand that history, like science, is a human activity, and, therefore, subject to the strengths and limitations of humans.  Historians review primary and secondary sources to develop an understanding of past events.  In doing so, they will employ intuition, emotion, perception and language, all of which are highly inexact and subjective.  Not that we would want it any other way; an account of the past that was totally void of emotion would leave us feeling that the past had been reduced somehow to statistics and chronology.  The point is though that no historian or group of historians is capable of producing a purely objective account of the past.  One or many may succeed in producing a history that is most widely accepted, but the accepting is being done by other humans, who themselves have personal biases, agendas and partly shuttered perception.  This is something to bear in mind when politicians and others refer to history as if it is an objective totality that is vulnerable to tampering.

Another key point is that historians live in a present age, different from the one they are studying, and frequently different from those of the historians who came before them.  This is no small point.  It is impossible to look at the past without viewing it through the lens of the present.  This is how history evolves.  In fact, historiography is the study of historical writing.  Such a field would not exist if the accounts of the past were static.  Our understanding of the past is intricately linked with our present culture, politics, economy and technology; it could hardly be otherwise.  A well known example can be found in historical accounts of the origins of the Cold War.   Fear of Communism and atomic warfare in the 1950s and early 1960s dictated an understanding in most of the non-Soviet world that was rooted in containment of an ideology bent on world domination.  After Watergate and American involvement in the Vietnam War, historical accounts of the Cold War were more interested in looking at motivation that was less ideological and more connected to securing American political and economic advantage.  After glastnost and the collapse of the U.S.S.R., there was even less emphasis placed on the conflict’s ideological underpinnings and a growing willingness to look at the factors associated with individual leaders and internal power struggles.  And it is highly likely that the history will change again in response to future shifts in the balance of power and reaction to various influential events.  A Canadian example can be found in the reaction to Louis Riel who was widely understood to be a rebellious traitor by many in English Canada for decades, but has since the 1960’s been identified with minority rights and largely seen as a victim of narrow minded government.  So history, or our understanding of the past, is not immune to change.

Let’s return to the two attention getting cases mentioned earlier.  Statues and monuments do not simply appear spontaneously; they are a reaction to someone or something rooted in the period in which they are erected.  As New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu has accurately pointed out, the Confederate monuments in his city were established not so much to remember war leaders, but rather as a reminder as to who was still in charge.  And yes, Landrieu himself has his own understanding of the monuments’ history rooted in his embrace of diversity.  But taking down or covering Confederate Monuments is not an attempt to erase history.  Erasing history is what Winston Smith was employed to do in Orwell’s 1984.  It’s what Holocaust deniers are all about.  No one is saying the Civil War did not occur, that these generals never fought a battle.  What Landrieu and others are saying is that in our current society, certain statues and monuments are hurtful and inappropriate.  We change and modify past laws all the time.  Why shouldn’t we have the right to say that a monument no longer reflects our community values?  At that point, the statue may be placed in a museum which offers suitable context in an effort to understand how people thought in past times.  We don’t currently have statues of physicians known for using leeches to bleed patients outside of hospitals.  Why would we?

Now to the matter of naming.  It too reflects the time period.  Look at how sports stadiums are currently named.  The move from SkyDome to Rogers Centre is typical of sports arenas around the globe that were named based on a geographic feature of some kind and are now named for a business interest that buys the right to the name.  What better example of changing values is available?  Money has replaced geography in terms of tribute.  Some might not like to face that fact, but that says more about them than it does about our world.  Now to John A MacDonald.  No doubt he was an important force in forging our country and guiding the early direction it would take.  Should he be part of the history curriculum?  Absolutely.  No one ever argued that he was flawless or should be removed from the ten dollar bill because he abused alcohol.  But in a society that sees reconciliation with our Indigenous peoples as a priority, maybe re-examining who our schools are named after is reasonable.  Our schools promote inclusivity.  Can they truly teach that if there are students who feel the name on their gym shirts is associated in their culture with oppression?

Societies evolve and our values change.  This affects how we understand the past.  Monuments and names reflect current understanding.  That’s not an erasure of history but rather part of the historical process.

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