This is a response to “Removing statues of historical figures risks whitewashing history: Science must acknowledge mistakes as it marks its past,” a commentary published in Nature. For the most part, the commentary reads like a caution to not un-name things and not remove monuments in at least some if not many cases, though it is a bit more nuanced than that. What is needed, in Nature, is a different position: Find memorials (statues or things named) to scientists who carried out horrible acts such as infecting countless people who are members of repressed groups in order to study disease, and tear down the monuments and remove the names from the buildings, scholarships, and so on. Nature should not be trolling on this issue. Nature should be clear. In any event, the editorial engendered the following thoughts by me:
We have come to fetishize monuments of a certain kind, and the naming of things, but this is not as well supported an approach as it may seem. It is in fact temporary, ephemeral, and named things and monuments have no special right to exist eternally.
At least in the united states, many many things, including rooms, parking lots and buildings, or dates, such as days, weeks, or months, and various other entities, are ever named after any person are named temporarily. Every day is somebody’s day, streets are renamed by mayors to commemorate a visiting dignitary, and so on. I’m sure most naming events are of this temporary nature, often lasting days or a week or so. Often buildings are named after someone, but then a major refurbishing involves a new name or even no name.
Also, we have this thing we do where we name buildings after corporations. So, since Target is the big corporation in Minnesota, you can go to Target Field, or Target Stadium, or Target Center, or Target, or Target Hall, depending on if you want to watch football, baseball, hockey, go shopping, or attend a literary event. (And they are all within walking distance of each other.) In this day and age, corporations shamelessly name everything after themselves.
So, on one hand, we don’t take naming seriously, and on the other hand we have cheapened the process to an embarrassing degree. So, why are people trying to protect the fact that a scholarship is named after the mastermind behind the Tuskegee study? Or that a park downtown is named after someone who ordered the massacre of of hundreds or thousands in order to take their land?
The erection of the sort of monument we make today and the naming of things we name today are practices with historical roots, but not especially deep roots. In fact,it is mainly a western and post-medieval practice, which puts it at only a few hundred years at the oldest. Perhaps we are leaving an era in which we assume stasis of status among the honored elite and occasional special waif, to an era where we realize we can’t trust the present to be quite so demanding of what future history says about us. Aside from the special case of dead or missing soldiers, maybe we are entering an era where we should not name or enstatuefy anything, just in case. And no, I’m not joking. This isn’t funny.
The permanency of something like a monument to Christopher Columbus or Thomas Parran was never in a contract with those individuals or their supporters, and the long term meaning of any such thing is non-existent without subsequent reification. I know a lot of “Gusties” (graduates of Gustavus Adolphus College, in Minnesota) and every one of them can give at least a vague idea of who Gustavus Adolphus was (though at a conference at the college a few years ago few could pick him out of a lineup provided by one of the speakers). They are told about him during orientation and at plenty of other times, just like Harvard students are told about the largely irrelevant historical figure John Harvard during their first tour of the place. But I’ve yet to meet a single Gusty who can identify William Dodd even though they have all walked hundreds of times by the monument erected to commemorate his most important accomplishments. That particular monument is never engaged in a ceremony or pointed at or to, or referenced, by anyone giving a tour or writing a pamphlet about the place, or anything. You can’t even find it on Wikipedia. Therefore, while it (barely) exists, it’s commemoration, as it were, simply does not. Poor Dodd.
For the very reason that the meaning of a memorial is generated afresh every time the memorial is involved in action or ceremony, and otherwise the thing has little meaning at all, when the life and accomplishments of a person or the deeds of a movement or any other aspect of some historical thing are re-evaluated, only the perniciously old fashioned or nefariously motivated seem to lean on the crutch of historic preservation.
The above mentioned editorial in Nature demonstrated Nature’s utter lack of understanding of anything outside the perspective of British Imperialism, which is kind of funny because it is a science magazine and should transcend such things. Even the British are not “immune,” Nature laments, from the world wide efforts to trash history, with a statue of Cecil John Rhodes almost (but not quite) removed from somewhere on hallowed English land! The editorial implies that the removal of some of the statues that are currently being removed in the US erases history. No. The removal of statues erected at the behest and sometimes with the funding of organizations like the KKK recognizes history. It recognizes an ugly history, and it recognizes the fact that finally, even as we have a White Supremacist regime in the White House (or because of it) we will now identify and find that evil act and erase the act itself.
The Nature commentary ignorantly suggests installing a plaque next to offending memorials. The author(s) of the piece did not do their research. This has been done, it didn’t’ work. It could work, it might work, here and there or now and then, but generally, it has not. The statues removed from parks in New Orleans last year had previously been so marked, and in one case, moved to a new location as though that somehow cleansed it of it’s Klan history. That did not stop the statues from being obnoxious and offensive, and they needed to be removed anyway.
Nobody loves historic preservation more than I do. My move many years ago to Minnesota resulted in many happy things and a handful of great annoyances, and one of those annoyances is that preserving the buildings and artifacts of history are acts not appreciated by more than a tenth of a percent of the people here. But preserving intentional insults to repressed people, as is the case with American “Civil War monuments” designed for that purpose, is inappropriate. Monuments to eugenicists and holocaust perpetrators are a little different because they were often erected for honestly good reasons by hopelessly ignorant people. But we know stuff now. Monuments, streets, buildings, and scholarships named after the designers of unethical medical experiments, or imperialist responsible for mass murder, should generally be removed in almost all cases. Save a few special ones, put up the plaques, maybe. But mostly, maybe not.