How we memorialize the past
The most recent racist conflagration in the United States was ignited, ostensibly, by the removal (or threatened removal) of Confederate commemorative statues and plaques. We say ostensibly because it seemed some people were just itching for a fight and this issue popped up.
Each community, or each society, must determine who and what it commemorates. It is understandable that African-Americans, among others, would be offended by statues and other historical monuments that adulate those who defended slavery in the U.S. Civil War. Those who decry their removal as an “erasing of history” seem to be unfamiliar with the concept of libraries and museums, which are among the foremost repositories of history. Remembering history is different from venerating it. For example, a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in front of a courthouse is an affront to equality before the law. The same statue in a museum could provide an opportunity for reflection and discussion.
Outside Budapest is a curious outdoor museum featuring dozens of statues and monuments from the communist era. It is a kitschy museum but it invites guests to ponder the propaganda of earlier eras, even admire some of it from a perspective of artwork, but it is decidedly not a place of veneration. It is a clear statement that such works, if they are to be publicly displayed, should be positioned in a way that does not esteem the ideas that inspired them, but instead invites observers to reflect on their meanings and the often catastrophic outcomes of their ideologies.
Similarly, the preservation of Auschwitz and other places of Nazi terror was not done in honour of that terrible time and the evil that defined it, but for the opposite reason: to ensure that future generations face the reality of that history and to inspire people to seek a better future. Context is crucial.
While Americans battle their demons, some Canadians have taken issue with our history and how it is commemorated. The government of Sir John A. MacDonald, Canada’s first prime minister, was responsible for implementing the residential schools system, a past with which most Canadians are only now beginning to grapple. Last month, the Ontario elementary teachers’ union said MacDonald’s name should be stripped from the nine schools in that province that are named for him. By that logic, we would eliminate his visage from our $10 bills and remove his statues and other likenesses from our public spaces.
Should we? Well, if Canadians had a thoroughgoing national discussion on the subject and a consensus clearly emerged that what was bad about MacDonald outweighs that which was good, then yes. But we should not jump in willy-nilly, thoughtlessly applying the values of today upon people of the past. To be clear: the residential schools system was an atrocity and a national disgrace; we know this now. How we attempt to rehabilitate our country and make amends for this awful history is a discussion in which we are immersed. The veneration of figures who were party to that history invites a legitimate and thoughtful reconsideration – neither those whose knee-jerk reaction is to tear down statues, nor those who reflexively balk at the very idea, are exhibiting the sort of approach we need. Ontario’s elementary school teachers, for example, may have missed the mark. If ever there were a teaching opportunity, it would be to engage young Canadians in critical thinking about why their school is named for the first prime minister, why some people think that’s problematic, and how empathy toward minorities is key to a better future.
But we should be careful in determining the measuring stick we apply. In considering the legacies of any public figure who lived more than a couple of decades ago, we would be hard-pressed to find one who would measure up to today’s standards on the rights and roles of Canadian indigenous peoples, Jews, women, gay people, or really any minorities. One might even argue: Who are we to judge? Are we assuming this generation has reached the moral summit of civilization? The state of the world today suggests we have much left to do to advance tikkun olam. Future generations will not likely give us any great kudos for perfecting humanity.
In the end, we cannot fathom how our descendants will view us and our behaviours. If, as now seems tragically inevitable, human-created climate change wreaks havoc on our world, future generations may look at our car driving, energy consumption and jet vacations as the direct cause and remove the names and likenesses of even the best of our generation from their schools and public squares.
By all means, we should consciously consider representations of our past and whether they are appropriate or inappropriate for our times. It is a discussion worth having, but we should have that discussion before we go racing around tearing down monuments and renaming schools.