History is written by the winners, they say. But that’s not entirely true. Living in the South proves that. The Lost Cause narrative sustained, even if it’s not the national narrative. There are still Rebel flags and monuments to Jackson and Lee and reenactments of Confederate victories. The reasons why these persist are varied, and yes, many of those reasons are rooted in racism. The war was lost, the cause was wrong, but no one wants to say that their boys died in vain. Losers write history too.
How historical times or events are remembered and interpreted say more about the current times than those of the past. How interpretation of the past shows how we want to connect the present to some larger narrative. We want our times to make sense. We want to connect to moments of victory or morality or innovation. We want assurances that we are moving humanity the way it ought. So we fit our values and missions into the larger historical context. We align past heroes to ourselves, obscuring context. And when the stories don’t fit, they get reinterpreted or replaced entirely.
After the Civil War, President Johnson pardoned the Confederates. This was so that Southerners would not be punished by Northerners thus continuing the division. Rather, Confederates were reabsorbed as Americans, accepting the union and the label of American. That’s why in the South, the Confederacy is often remembered as part of America—Americans fighting Americans, i.e., a civil war. The regional memory is different than the national memory, and the fight over statues is really a fight over the story. Every group wants their story told, their memory validated. Collective memory is at the core of a group’s identity. It is worth fighting for. So the struggle to dictate the story can lead to violence and destruction.
Whether the statues should stay or go should be debated. Personally, I think there are cases for some to stay and some to go, and it would have to be determined on a case by case basis, factoring in the intent when it was erected and the community’s past and present situations. Baltimore city government decided to remove its statues before they became foci of conflict. And they had a point. The statues have become tangible beacons of the division of narratives. Letting a frenzied mob tear down or vandalize property legitimizes chaos; it allows emotional outbursts to win over civil social discourse. Politics becomes not about rationalized ideology but about brute force.
Iconoclasts seek to erase history. They want to distance themselves from a dark past and create a new utopia, free of any tainting, residual influence. They want to purify themselves by sanitizing the landscape. In doing so, they disregard the past, destroy art, damage buildings, desecrate burial grounds.
We see iconoclasm in ISIS blowing up ancient sites, smashing some of Christianity’s oldest churches and even Muslim holy places to dust. We see it in the Red Guard destroying the Four Olds during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. During the French Revolution, the heads of the statues of Notre Dame were decapitated, and the cathedral became a Temple of Reason.
In the sixteenth century, the iconoclastic Protestants smashed stained glass and statues and threw out relics. This was beyond a reformation; it was obliteration. The Church, her art, and her contributions were sought out to be erased. Along with political power, the iconoclasts wanted control over the community memory, to shape history as they wanted.
There are narratives that are truer and more just than others. There are reasons to remove images that represent oppression. But we must be careful from becoming iconoclasts, from believing that a purified landscape and erased history will lead to a pure, new society. There are no pure societies. There is nothing new under the sun.
In 1984, George Orwell says, “Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”