On Erasure

On August 27, Fox News host Tucker Carlson made a rather spectacular accusation. Specifically, he charged “fanatics on the left” with trying to “erase the past.” Remarkably, the host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight” was willing to charge his political opponents with a vast conspiracy to gaslight average Americans into forgetting unsavory parts of their national history. And Carlson is not alone. An agitated Victor Hanson, writing in the National Review, argued that liberals are trying to “erase memory.” Maine Governor Paul LePage asked rhetorically, “How can future generations learn if we’re going to erase history?”

Much of this is criticism of the modern movement advocating the removal of Confederate statues, and none of it is fair. Removing statues simply does not change history. Denazification in Germany involved the destruction of statues, buildings, symbols, and even grave sites. But even that process did not manage to erase the history of the National Socialist movement, which had already been recorded in books, other academic materials, and the collective memory of millions. The same can be said of Destalinization in the late 50s and De-Ba’athification after 2003. No one on either side of this debate claims that slavery and the American Civil War never happened, or that they can simply be erased. Rather, progressives argue against the aggressive valorization of a brief, parasitic, undemocratic, and treasonous nation.

Because this is what statues do, they valorize. In 1939, the pro-Nazi “German American Bund” staged an “Americanization” rally in Madison Square Garden. The rally was attended by 20,000 people, and it registers as a fairly important historical event. The Bund also had 70 regional divisions and 20 youth camps. In the modern day, there are no memorials to the German American Bund because their Nazi ideology is among the foulest in world history and it would be inappropriate to commemorate its American form with a statue. The Bund’s history has not been erased; it is certainly remembered in books and articles. It is, however, not honored or celebrated.

In the same sense, removing statues will not change the history of the United States and the Confederacy, which is studied all over the world. The real gaslighting in this country occurs in our schools, where millions of American children are force-fed falsehoods at an astonishing rate. In 2010, the Texas Board of Education approved a textbook which openly condemns the separation of church and state, minimizes the internment of Japanese Americans, and lists Moses as a founding father. That same textbook refers to African slaves as “workers.” In Alabama, biology teachers are legally obligated to deemphasize evolution.

When Texas conservatives wanted to deemphasize slavery, racism, and authoritarianism in the history of the Civil War, they did not erect new statues. They simply changed their textbooks, which presently refer to chattel slavery not as a cause of the war, but rather a “side issue.” Textbooks are not statues. They are not designed to emphasize the parts of history with which we are most comfortable. They are designed to teach children facts. When they are pumped with ahistorical nonsense, the result is widespread public ignorance. If future generations cannot remember or understand the past, the culprit will be cynical political dishonesty in the education system, not imaginary liberal kulturkampf.

Harvard is by no means isolated from all this. After the University announced a plan to remove the phrase “stock of the Puritans” from the lyrics to “Fair Harvard,” the Internet rang with the anguished cries of aggrieved conservatives, furious at our political correctness. Fox even ran an interview with a Harvard student, going so far as to accuse Harvard of “trying to undo history.” Claims like this are mind-flayingly vapid. Just like statues, songs like “Fair Harvard” are commemorative and memorial. No one at the University is busily tearing the Puritans from the historical record. Rather, the Inclusion and Belonging Task Force reasonably decided that tying Harvard’s future exclusively to the “stock of the Puritans” is unwise.

There is also the question of whether disadvantaged populations even have any motive to delete history. American chattel slavery, for example, destroyed family trees; it is the reason most American black people have only a vague sense of their true heritage. So why would we want our white countrymen to forget that their ancestors worked ours to death? Between 1877 and 1950 there were 3,959 documented lynchings of black people in the United States. None of this can be undone or forgotten. The removal of Confederate statues, renaming of buildings, and changing of faculty titles is an effort to stop the glorification of America’s darkest crimes, not some vast conspiracy to rewrite and sanitize the past.

Kiran O. Hampton ’20 is a Crimson editorial editor in Eliot House.

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