Erasure

by John Quiggin on June 12, 2020

As statues of slavers are pulled down around the world*, we are getting the usual stuff from the political right about rewriting history and so on. This is obviously silly. Less than twenty years ago, the same people were thrilled by (misleadingly edited) images of US forces pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein. A bit before that, Lenin and Stalin had their turn.

Wondering about other cases, I looked at Wikipedia to find out about memorials to the personification of treachery against the United States, Benedict Arnold, who won a number of military victories for the American side in the Revolutionary War, before changing sides. It turns out that there are a couple, but he is never mentioned by name and, in one case, is represented by an empty niche. As Wikipedia observes, this is a striking instance of the practice of damnatio memoriae.

On one view, the idea here is to erase all memory of those whose memorials are destroyed. But this doesn’t happen, at least not reliably. With the exception of Washington, Arnold is probably the only Revolutionary War general most Americans could name. And the effect of the latest protests has to bring attention to the evil acts of men who had long been forgotten.

Thinking more about the example of Arnold, one way to deal with monuments of this kind is to remove the status, but leave the plinth and the original inscription, along with an updated version explaining the history.