On Not Toppling Statues

Fallen statue of William Rolleston, Christchurch, New Zealand. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Wikimedia

Food for historical thought this Labor Day week and US election season, from Jeff Shaara’s preface to Rise to Rebellion (Ballantine Books): “It has become fashionable in our modern, more cynical time to re-examine our history, to throw a supposedly new light on those who are famous for their accomplishments, to instead expose their faults, to topple the statue of the hero, to replace the honor and respect with the sensational and the shameful, as though it were the only meaningful way these characters can be relevant to today’s world.

“I most adamantly disagree. That we know so much about these characters today is a testament to their accomplishments, their extraordinary achievements, and, yes, their astounding heroism. That they can so easily become targets is a testament to their humanity. They are, after all, so very much like us. Measuring their behavior with the crystal clarity of hindsight, with 21st century standards and judgments, is a convenient and cynical shortcut to learning history, but it does little to help us understand their character and why they deserve to be not only remembered but revered.”

This quote is a keeper for speechwriters, corporate communicators, and all of us who care about history.