The Plague of History?

Saw this at this morning:

(Is it necessary to unbolt the historic figures who’ve become an embarrassment? Renaming streets and removing statues of former slavery advocates: the controversy has arrived in France.)

A local city councillor brought this debate to the fore some months ago and it stirred up much debate, a lot of it less than civilized, and raised the whole question of how we perceive and deal with history. In question were the name of a local school and a street that carried the name of an openly racist politician and government agent whose policies did considerable harm to both orientals and First Nations people.

A first thought is the actual history that gets presented, initially at home and at school and the extent to which that history becomes the internal narrative. I know it was instructive coming to Canada in the last months of high school and being subjected to an entirely different perspective on history than what I had absorbed through the school system in the U.S., where I grew up. The cognitive dissonance set up by the new narrative, along with considerable openness and encouragement from parents who had a view of history that often was more nuanced than the textbook version, has lead to a willingness to at listen to “alternate” views of history and a desire to uncover as much of the overall narrative that I can form at least a provisional outlook on history and how that might guide any actions that stem from that outlook.

The second thought is that we all tend to construct our own narratives based on our own experiences and our exposure to whatever depth and breadth of history we have encountered. We’ve likely, many of us, had the experience of connecting with someone who has read the same text as we have, or watched the same documentary, and come away with a completely different take on what actually happened and what might be the consequences of those actions. This phenomenon can really muddy the waters of possible debate and common thought leading to action. Even when we can arrive at consensus about historic events, it’s a bit of a trick to intuit motives on the part of the players, and even trickier to map out a course of action, or inaction, as the case may be.

Is there a reasoned and generally acceptable approach to dealing with the enshrined who turn out to non-conforming when it comes to contemporary mores? Can the enshrined remain atop a pedestal with a degree of opprobrium attached to their notoriety? Can we use these discussions as a jumping off point for acknowledgement and possible redress of past wrongdoing? The evidence thus far isn’t all that encouraging with many not wanting to unearth the past (implying that it’s being kept out of mind to begin with) and others unwilling to acknowledge that some of our forbears acted out of less-than-benign motivation, with some stepping deeply into the pool of racism, sexism and general barbarism. How do those of us alive today square our own attitudes with the deeds of illustrious forbears with feet of clay? Is there sufficient will and resources to effectively redress the wrongs that were done under previous iterations of our societal structures?

All the ideas and questions in play need to be part of the process of dealing with A.W. Neill, with Sir John A. Macdonald, with all the Confederate Statuary that riled folks up at Charlottesville, and all the centuries of French public figures whose likenesses are bolted to pedestals around France. I suspect that there are other jurisdictions where the same discussions will arise, in addition to which, we need to deal more forthrightly that we do currently with the leading figures of our own days and the deeds that they perpetrate in our name.


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