Making History

We should learn from our mistakes. This is something of which historians are keenly aware. James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association addresses the recent concerns raised on campuses throughout the world of removing monuments to historical founders who’ve fallen from grace. The dead white man has been out of favor for some decades now, but Grossman, as an academic, is keenly aware that we can’t take only the good from history. Who would ever read it if it was all sweetness and light? History is who we are, and there are unlit corners in every soul and although we prefer to think of ourselves as victims, we sometimes find ourselves asserting our will over that of others. It’s only human. The related question Grossman addresses is that of monuments. The winners of the moment, after all, incise the figures in stone and cast them in bronze.

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As an example, he notes, Stone Mountain in Georgia commemorates leaders of the Confederacy. Knowing that slavery is, was, and always has been wrong, casts a strong shadow of emotion over such monuments. The question is how to handle them ethically. I recently mentioned female figurines from ancient Israel in a post. Although they offend some, we know not to destroy them because they tell us something of how we became who we are. We have a moral obligation not to run from the darkness. We need to be willing to face who we really are.

History is interpretation. Everything that has ever happened is potentially a part of it. None of us has the scope, the breadth, the depth, to understand where any of this may be ultimately leading. We can only interpret. Religions, often positive, but also often negative, play an important part in that history. We can be assured they will continue to make history in the future. We have, as a society, decided religion isn’t worth our time to learn about. Our institutions of higher learning can less about history or religion than about business and economics. Ethics? Isn’t that somewhere in the philosophy department? You’re welcome to it, if you can find it. Meanwhile monuments are raised to trump the naysayers, and history becomes what we decide to make it.

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