Marking history requires delicacy, not ideology

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, via AP
A state-owned marker in McConnellsburg, Fulton County that was revised during an official review focused on "outdated cultural references" in Pennsylvania's historical marker system.

Locally and across the state, historic markers have recently been revised or removed to better reflect modern sensibilities.

This is a tricky business. It’s arrogant to assume people today have the final and perfect word on the people, places and events before them. It’s worth noting, too, that practices we take for granted today may be considered unspeakable atrocities in a century or two.

Nevertheless, sweeping changes in public sentiment can, rightly, demand changes, especially if celebrations and commemorations extend historical injustices into our time.

Two controversies that confronted Pennsylvania, involving the way we speak and think about colonization and the Civil War, are cases-in-point.

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First, in Point State Park, the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has removed a 1930 plaque indicating the 1758 defeat of the French at Fort Duquesne “determined the destiny of the Great Northwest and established Anglo-Saxon supremacy in the United States.” The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, which owns the plaque, has since officially retired it.

It is a fact of history that displacing the French at this crucial confluence ended the possibility of French domination of the Ohio Valley and beyond. But the words, “Anglo-Saxon supremacy,” reflect an ethos of ethnic and racial superiority, as well as an ignorance of thriving indigenous societies, that is, today, ugly and unacceptable.

That said, the plaque itself is historical. Commemorations of history themselves become part of history, reminding us of how many in past generations regarded our shared past. Rather than remove the plaque, state agencies should have added an explanatory note that would illuminate the blind spots typical of 1930. That would have enhanced the historical, and educational, value of the plaque, instead of simply censoring it.

Second, the PHMC has removed or revised commemorations of the Confederate Army’s time in McConnellsburg, Fulton County. The key change was the replacement of a more neutral, detached tone with a focus on Confederate pillaging, and recasting the force as an “invasion” by an “enemy.”

On this there’s no clearly right answer. There was a lot of good in the traditional practice of emphasizing the brotherhood, and deemphasizing the enmity, between North and South. Not making the moral distinction between the Union and Confederacy too stark or too painful emerged out of a genuine and virtuous desire for ongoing reconciliation.

But it wasn’t without costs. This approach could also shamelessly shroud the horrific suffering of Black Americans under slavery. That was unfair and unjust. While there is a risk, especially in our polarized politics, of recasting our countrymen as 19th century “enemies,” it is also a small step in the ongoing process of racial reconciliation, also among our countrymen.

There is rarely one perfect and politically neutral way to commemorate history. Public remembrances of people and places and events are not value-neutral. They make a statement, or smuggle in certain assumptions, about what the public ought to think about the past, and the present.

This is why memorials, landmarks and plaques have always been potent and controversial symbols. Whether we can learn to agree — or, at least, learn to agree to disagree in peace — is a sure sign of the health, or sickness, of the republic.

— From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, via AP.