Friday, June 12, 2020

Revision lesson

The next time you see or hear someone bollocking on about "erasing history", please direct them to this Guardian article by Charlotte Lydia Riley, who - by virtue of being a historian rather than a grumbling gammon - is actually worth listening to on the subject.

Her piece points out, with commendable clarity not to mention restraint, the fundamental irony in that position - namely, that "this country's relationship to its imperial history is built more on erasure and forgetting than on remembering - it is a series of silences from the past". What the toppling of the Colston statue and other recent protests have done is to amplify some of those silences - much to the annoyance of those who buy into the whole Rule Britannia Union Jack bunting bullshit.

If the complaint is that pulling down statues means history is being rewritten, though, Riley is happy to concede. After all, history isn't a monolithic, unchanging entity; as she puts it, "The past may be dead but history is alive, and it is constructed in the present". Not only is new evidence continually emerging; so too are new theories. It would be very odd indeed if we weren't constantly rewriting history. That one's view of the past inevitably changes depending upon one's vantage point was made abundantly clear in this episode of A Timewatch Guide on Roman Britain that we watched the other night, which traced how understandings and interpretations of the period have shifted dramatically over the decades.

But back to Riley's article, and her argument that many British people are simply ignorant of "the dark side of imperialism". As long as that remains the case, positive change will remain a pipe dream, and the damaging myths of Britain's benevolent colonialism will perpetuate - damaging not only because they erase the suffering of the colonised but also because they continue to fuel a sense of exceptionalism evident with regard to Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic.

What's needed in the long term is a history education that actually tackles the issues head on. In the meantime, though, iconoclasm will do: "Every time a statue comes down, we learn a little more."

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