Events in Charlottesville expose some of the clashes of ideas, values and beliefs which not only are the root of tensions, historically and now, but also expose the multi-faceted make up of some of those at the centre of the tensions. A fuller understanding of history, as ever, can help to understand the issues and could also prevent them.
The Charlottesville protests started first and foremost with attempts to remove statues to Confederate Civil War generals. In particular the removal of Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee and the renaming of parkland around the site as Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park) has sparked controversy. Both ante bellum and post Civil War America are complex at best. Whether Lee was a racist, by modern standards, as much of standards of the day, is ripe for debate, just as the racism or otherwise of ‘The Great Emancipator’ Lincoln in equally not clear cut. (I know that for sure having undertaken my CSYS Dissertation on Lee and then studied and Edinburgh University Course on the American Civil War).
What is clear cut is that protesters were clearly carrying and waving Nazi and neo Nazis flags and symbols. The irony of this extends to many levels. First and foremost the fact that these protesters can reconcile being American and neo Nazi is one strange conundrum. America along with almost the rest of the world (eventually) fought against the Nazis. Moreover the conundrum extends to pre 1939 activity. For swastika waving things to protest at the removal of statues and history is ironic given the Nazi’s attempts to re-write history and destroy our knowledge of many areas. Perhaps that part of the Nazi’s eradicating history has been blindly forgotten by the protestors.
If we are looking at America in distain and pointing the finger at Trump we would do well to take a multi-perspective approach, both looking back to history but also looking for trends in other settings in the current day. For in Scotland too we have altered what is taught in history classrooms, we have seen freedom of speech attacked on twitter and elsewhere and we have seen flag waving protests and animosity. Thankfully we have not seen deaths as a result of nationalist outpourings. However, as Edmund Burke warned “The Rise of Evil happens because a few good men do nothing.” We must keep in our guard to curb the ever present potential excesses. Everyone has a role to play in this.
Reconciling our history will always prove challenging, not least as all of our history is never clear cut. With many layers it is often complex, changing and sometimes even enigmatic. And so to solutions to the Charlottesville sad saga:- Like entrenched work issues such as Israel and the Middle East, these will not come about quickly or simply. However they will also not come about without suggestion, though leadership and influence. A start for ten would be to leave the Lee statue where it is. Removing it is akin to the burning of books carried out by the Nazi’s in the 1930s. Secondly, proceed to rename the park Emancipation Park goes some way to recognise progress. The change of name reflects the prevalent culture and trends and our greater understanding and acknowledgment of period in history and shifts in how we have shed light on it. Leaving the statue shows some conciliation to commemorating the past whilst renaming the park shows progress and potential for change. Many many places across the world have had multiple uses, names and influences. Charlottesville would be no different in this regards.
Meantime, the biggest challenge now is how to protect freedom of speech and freedom to protest and marching alongside charging those responsible for crimes during the bloody events. Diplomatic but firm and consistent leadership at ground level will be required. At a more senior level political leadership sets the tone and the ‘thought leadership’ as we move forward. In America and elsewhere we need to be careful not to trust those whose conflicting messages promise “all things to all men.” They are likely to be the source of ongoing tensions. Closely interpreting their messages and greater understanding of history will be vital if we are to progress as society, as civilization, as humanity. Hopefully many places in the world can return to the latter sometime soon. It is humans after all that make history –for better or for worse! If we are to agree with philosopher Hume on passion rather than reason informing human behaviour and experience cementing our knowledge base, then it is time for the “good guys and girls” to step forward- whoever they are?
Neil McLennan is a former Institute of Contemporary Scotland, Young Scot of the Year and also a former President of the Scottish Association of Teachers of History.