24 January 2008

Contextualizing History

Earlier this week, I received the following email inquiry from a correspondent of a well-respected national publication:

“Hello Mr. Williams:

I stumbled upon your blog, and was glad I did. I’m a reporter with the _______, and I’m working on a story about states and the federal government looking harder at whether or not to rewrite statue and monument plaques to more accurately reflect history as we know it today, not as we saw it back then. The current debate in Columbia is whether or not to “contextualize” the plaque describing the statue of **Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman to not just reflect on his achievements as a SC Senator, but his virulent racism. (This all comes a few years after Strom Thurmond’s monument was altered to list the illegitimate daughter he had with a black mistress.) I’d love your thoughts on this trend. My big question is: Doesn’t everyone have enough information to contextualize these monuments themselves? Clearly, just about every American, by now, has to be able to rationalize chiseled sentiments against the age of the monument, or is that, in fact, too much to ask? I’m also curious if you have heard of other similar anecdotes? Thanks in advance for your help. My deadline is Wed a.m.” (Emphasis mine.)

This gentleman called me Wednesday morning and we had a very interesting conversation. Originally from Sweden, he was a little perplexed by the issue. Basically, we agreed that “contextualizing” plaques on monuments is rather silly. The place for a full explanation of the views of 18th, 19th, and early 20th century Americans is the classroom, books, and articles. To be consistent, we would have to contextualize ALL statues and monuments; including comments regarding Abraham Lincoln’s views on race, Washington & Jefferson as slaveowners, etc., etc. There are very few historical figures, especially those of the 18th & 19th century, whose views today would not be considered racist. If this kind of thing catches on, plaque makers are going to be very busy.

This is nothing more than political correctness run amok. Proponents of this type of thing either believe that most Americans are too stupid to know these things themselves, or their real purpose is to diminish the contribution that these persons made to our nation’s history. (I speak here specifically of men like Washington, Jefferson, Lee, etc. Tillman would not be included in that description as he is a rather extreme case.) The other problem with efforts like this is the fact that many (though not all) of these monuments were privately funded. The PC police at Vanderbilt found out that some courts just won't allow you to alter the property of others without compensation and/or permission. This isn't the old Soviet Union - yet.

I’ll link to the article once it’s published—next week I believe.

** Just to clarify - Ben "Pitchfork" Tillman was by all standards a despicable racist who hated African-Americans. Nonetheless, this is the proverbial slippery slope and again, to be consistent, would require the contextualizing of just about every statue in the United States. That would be a very divisive, distracting, and expensive undertaking. Perhaps a better and more positive way to address the issue would be a new memorial or monument to those who suffered from Tillman's actions.

No comments: