In the middle of a dark January, nine months into a pandemic, at the height of a second wave, with the consequences of Brexit finally becoming apparent, what was the great, burning issue at the forefront of everyone’s mind last week? According to housing minister, Robert Jenrick, the critical red button issue of the moment was the fate of the nations’ statues.
Last summer, when the statue of Edward Colston was toppled by Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol, there were two clear lessons that could be drawn. One was that Britain was a country that urgently needed to confront the chapters of its history that for centuries have been brushed under the carpet. The other was that those same histories could be weaponised for political gain. It’s not difficult to work out which of those two options caught the government’s eye.
The immediate challenge facing the political strategists, however, is that most of us – locked down in our homes – haven’t even laid eyes on a statue in 2021, never mind contemplated pulling down one. Beyond wars and revolutions, statue toppling tends to be a summer phenomenon. But with so much going wrong and the need for political distraction so acute, the housing minster was sent out to bat, his task to desperately try to kickstart the statue wars of last summer by promising a new law to protect them.
Yet this is not really about statues and never has been. It is not even about history, as the concept of history the government claims to defend is one that most historians would struggle to recognise. What ministers and, more significantly, the government’s campaign strategists are seeking to evoke and champion is something called “Our History”, the sole and sacred property of “The People” – the “us” whose identity is supposedly threatened by “them”, what Jenrick calls the “baying mobs” and “woke militants”. Even one of the Tories’ own peers, the former minister Lord Vaizey, felt compelled to denounce this crude, culture war provocation, describing it as “pathetic”.
While Jenrick was blathering on about statues, another group of culture warriors in Washington was fighting an offensive of its own, or at least it was until 12.01pm on Wednesday. Given the flurry of executive orders signed by President Biden on his first day in the Oval Office, it is hardly surprising that a few passed us by. But among the projects cancelled, with a flick of the presidential pen (there are no Sharpies in this White House), was the 1776 Commission.
Named after the year of the Declaration of Independence, the commission was Trump’s response to the New York Times’s 1619 Project, which attempted to place slavery at the centre of the story of America’s founding. The 1776 Commission’s report had been hastily written and was rushed to press on Monday, which conveniently happened to be Martin Luther King Day, allowing the outgoing junta a final racist dog-whistle – one for the road, as it were. According to the report, the cause of racial division in America was not two and a half centuries of slavery, a century of Jim Crow and lynching, or even systemic racism and racial disadvantage, but the teaching of the histories of slavery, segregation and racism in schools and colleges.
As short on facts as it was short lived, the report was a plea for the introduction of what its authors called “patriotic education”, the sort of totalitarian phrase that, before Trump, was associated with dictatorships such as North Korea rather than the United States. Every reputable historian who could bring themselves to read the report condemned it. As did the American Historical Association, which accused the commission of seeking to “elevate ignorance about the past to a civic virtue”.
In both the US and the UK, these new history wars have the warped logic of a witch trial. Their aim is to convince people that they are being oppressed by the irrefutable facts of their own national histories. Shared histories, such as US slavery or the British empire, are presented as alien narratives, introduced by outsiders in order to pollute the pure waters of “Our History”.
Like men with a guilty conscience, those promoting these history wars accuse others of the crime they are committing, because it is not historians but politicians who are fomenting divisions. This is why Jenrick’s statue wars article was loaded with trigger words – “mobs”, “woke” and “militants”.
The defenders of “Our History” and the promoters of “patriotic education” understand that their vision of the past is simplistic, reductive and ahistorical. Their aim, in both the UK and the US, is to pander to notions of exceptionalism that have for so long prevented us from confronting difficult facts and painful truths about what our nations have done and been and how those histories continue to shape our modern societies.
But many historians, myself very much included, have too often been too slow in recognising the strategising behind this. Blinded by our emotional connection to the past and our professional commitment to evidence, we have failed to see the big picture, which is that the politicians looking for a fight do not care about historical accuracy or complexity. All that matters to them is that struggles over the history, whether real or confected, play well in focus groups.
They understand that the spectacle of a falling statue is more arresting and more politically malleable than the complex, difficult and contradictory histories that led up to that moment. Political theatre trumps historical nuance and it is easy to misrepresent historians – the creators of historical knowledge – as wreckers and portray the legitimate process of research as the “rewriting of history”.
Such attacks work both as headlines and in the polling booths. They are effective, in part, because they play on pre-existing presumptions. The politicians involved understand two things. To those accustomed to privilege, equality can feel like oppression. And to nations accustomed to hearing only comforting myths of exceptionalism, simple, irrefutable historical fact can sound like slander. Enough now, surely, of the comforting myths.