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Illustration by Richie Pope

History and public service are both complicated negotiations. Combine the two, and the difficulties increase exponentially.

One of the toughest things about being a part of the monuments commission is coming to terms with public service. On the one hand, as foreign as this may sound to academics like me, public service often requires people divorce their ideas from the general will of the public — listening is critical. On the other hand, the mayor asked the commissioners to bring their expertise to bear on public sentiment — the public needs to listen as well.

This negotiation is, at its core, democratic.

As contentious as the monuments debate has been, it’s grounded in the principles of democracy. Listening is the essential component of this commission’s charge. Democracies derive power and meaning from representation. You can’t neutralize people with whom you disagree; that’s been the problem with American political development for centuries. It’s been too exclusionary. Take Jim Crow, for instance. People used the political apparatus to remove other people from the democratic process. For much of this country’s history, paternalism, oligarchy, and exclusion characterized government. Ultimately, Confederate symbolism represents this impulse in American history — it’s a dark chapter.

As a historian, I advocate for addition more than subtraction. At times, that means coming to terms with sources that are disturbing. I’ve held in my hands letters to politicians from the Ku Klux Klan. Here’s how this experience relates to my charge on the commission, as I see it.

If I allowed my personal proclivities to get in the way of how I read sources or if I refused to read sources because they’re offensive, I wouldn’t be doing my job.

The commission’s charge is similar, in many ways — we’re coming to terms with the sources while trying to facilitate civil discourse. Some people are reluctant to admit their ancestors fought and died for an ignoble cause, so it’s been difficult, yet surprisingly refreshing.

This is really a referendum on optimism in a time of incivility. I think most people are decent, but the voices of reason are being drowned out by a fraction of the American people.

The toughest part? How do you engage in civil discourse with someone who doesn’t believe that Confederates were white supremacists? In my case, I draw on the tools that informed my training as a historian. Instead of mythologizing about the past, I ask people to think about historical actors on their own terms. Negotiating primary sources has become more difficult recently, particularly given the level of misinformation floating around, but it really is the only way to move the conversation forward.

Here’s what the commission is really trying to do — and, while it may not appear as radical as what New Orleans and Baltimore did with their monuments, it has far-reaching implications. We’re trying to recast the story of Jim Crow and the Lost Cause so that people 50 years from now will have a better understanding of the history.

Ultimately, I think most people are on board with this approach. This is 
the refreshing component.

In fact, the fringe voices aren’t even close to a majority of the responses from the public. In the online comments, comparatively few people said either “Don’t do anything” or “Tear them down.” Most people were in the middle, wanting to add more meaningful context to Monument Avenue.

This is really a referendum on optimism in a time of incivility. I think most people are decent, but the voices of reason are being drowned out by a fraction of the American people.

There’s anonymity on the Monument Avenue Commission’s website, and yes, people have been shockingly predictable in their hatred for or support of the monuments. But those in the middle have been shockingly civil. It’s the one thing that has restored my faith in humanity during this process.

That’s where the real debate has been happening, in the middle.

But what context will we be adding? That opens up a Pandora’s box of its own.