HASSAN: The fury over statues and symbols continues for a reason

Thoughtful reflections by Farzana Hassan. The one element that is missing is how should we balance the negative and possitive  aspects of historical figures. Statues commemorating Stalin and Hitler are the easy cases along with Confederate symbols.

But others, like Churchill, MacDonald, Ryerson and the like, made major positive contributions (winning WWII, creation of Canada, education respectively). In these cases, my preference is always for historical plaques that captures that mixed nature and complexities of character and the times that are important to recognize.

And there is the risk that overly focussing on the easy and symbolic may detract from the hard ongoing work to reduce barriers, discrimination and racism:

One of the several issues that have cropped up in today’s racially charged environment is the tearing down of monuments and statues.

Calls have become louder all over the Western world to destroy these and replace them with symbols that are more in line with today’s pluralistic sensibilities.

But this has also ignited a debate between those who believe even tainted history should be preserved, and those who seek racial equality with symbolism that reflects it.

Symbols are powerful; statues publicly commemorate and celebrate.The ones whose value is being questioned were erected when racial discrimination and bias were accepted in society – either openly or tacitly. Their symbolism informs North American history – the good and the bad, but mostly the ugly, especially the ones that symbolize the Confederacy’s racist past.

The question then is why celebrate and commemorate something as odious as slave-owning and its accompanying brutality?

Visual history, which these statues represent, is important. But what is more crucial in this environment is achieving racial harmony.

Heritage can be preserved in other ways. History books should record unsavoury events and document the changes of attitude that led to the anger towards these monuments.

Soviet Russia was littered with the statues of Lenin and Stalin, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of its Bolshevik symbols were gone as they failed to represent the sentiments of the majority of post-Communist Russians. It has been left to history books to acknowledge this.

The Holocaust was one of the most despicable events in human history. The landscape of Hitler’s Germany was dotted with swastikas and Nazi memorials, none of which exist today. We can still read about the despair of those terrifying years before and during the Second World War.

We must consider whether America’s slavery era can be equated with the atrocities of Nazi Germany and the brutality of Communist Soviet Union. Were its effects on human lives as far-reaching and destructive as the other two more recent examples in history? And if so, what should stop a more enlightened modern government from erasing public celebration of this brutal past, especially when that past evokes anger caused by continuing discrimination?

We should also ask why Confederate symbols have lasted this long. Their persistence may show a kind of reluctance to break away from a racist heritage that divided a country over the issue of slavery.

The statues were actually commissioned post-slavery by Confederate organizations such as the United Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy. One of the strangest outcomes of the American Civil War was the construction of these monuments in the late 19th century, perhaps with the intention of reclaiming a past that was lost after the defeat of the Confederacy.

The racist connotations of these statues cannot be ignored, and the fury over their preservation continues for good reason. They also represent a secessionist era of American history.

Canada has its own monuments to consider.

The name of Ryerson University in Toronto is very much in contention, Egerton Ryerson having forged the move toward residential schools for children of native communities. Supporters of preserving the name of the university point to Ryerson’s contributions to education.

Canada has no history of slavery. Yet the fury behind the move to remove certain symbols is nonetheless understandable.

Source: HASSAN: The fury over statues and symbols continues for a reason

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: