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Historians discuss study of history, monuments controversy

| Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Historians Ciaran Brady of Trinity College Dublin, and Peter Onuf of the University of Virginia participated in a discussion of historicity and how the past is remembered entitled “Arguing with History: Memory, Monuments and Making Sense of the Past in an Era of Fake News” on Monday afternoon in Jenkins-Nanovic Halls. The wide-ranging discussion focused on the current state of historical study and dealt with questions related to controversies over historical monuments, particularly those related to the Confederacy and the Civil War.

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Introducing the two men, Notre Dame history professor Patrick Griffin noted the importance of history given the current historical and societal climate.

“What is the role of history today? Even though we seem to value the study of history less than we used to … we seem today to be addled by the past more than ever,” Griffin said. “We seem, in the United States especially, to be addled with the question of who we are, and this question is inextricably bound up in history. We see our place in time as somehow distinctive, judging from the spirit of the times we see ourselves today in the U.S. at a moment, or a critical juncture. … Every generation has its moments, every generation has its junctures, but this one is ours.”

Griffin noted the present day is closely related to history and the study of the past.

“Our job, I think, is to understand all of this,” he said. “Not only interpreting the past on its own terms, but also to help us see the relationship between us and that past. This is what professional historians do, or at least they used to.”

Griffin then introduced the two speakers before he gave the floor to Brady. Brady focused his remarks on the importance and deficiencies of history as an academic discipline, quoting a passage from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes which discussed the “making of many books.” Brady complained that history today is beset by the problem of too many books, Ph.D.s, journals and journal articles.

“Who can read all of this stuff? I stand in admiration for people like Patrick Griffin who have written wonderful syntheses of the American Revolution, but I bet you didn’t read everything about the American Revolution, did you?” Brady said. “No, not all the journal articles, not all of the recently published ones. It is impossible to do. And that’s how I feel an awful lot of the time. That’s how I feel on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday of every week. What is the point of all this? And on Monday, Wednesday and Friday I feel slightly different.”

He then explained that he thinks the amount of academic journalism about history is excessive, but ultimately necessary.

“On Monday … I feel, ‘God, I don’t like this, but what can we do without it?’” Brady said. “If you are thinking history, if you are researching history, writing history, expressing history is of the essence of what we do.”

Brady said he disagrees with the sentiment that it is possible to teach history without researching it. He said that the two tasks cannot be separated, and that it is impossible to teach history without “testing it … in the public marketplace.” Later, he stated similar sentiments when he said that he thought that historians should always feel the need to “express” history. He also said readers should not simply be content to hear about history from experts, but to also use history to judge themselves.

In closing his first set of remarks, Brady said the modern study of history is confronted by two problems, “one bad, the other worse.”

“The bad thing is the establishment of us professional historians as authorities,” he said. “The people who tell you what we’ve done, what you should know, and how you should get it from us. And we do that at all levels of things. Whereas actually we live through history, we move through history, we encounter the same existential questions of living through time that everybody else does and we haven’t made that explicit. That’s bad.

“What’s worse is the rejection of our meager, imperfect, deficient but absolutely sincere protocols of how we do our business by those who think that kind of history is dull, insignificant and not at all exciting. Those who want to read Bill O’Reilly on killing Lincoln, killing Kennedy, killing you like or want to kill. And there is our dilemma.”

Onuf then made remarks about his work on American history and the situation in Charlottesville, Virginia. He said it is important for students studying all disciplines to engage in a civically minded study of history.

“There is a real audience for history right now, and we are in the midst of what you might call a problematic moment in which there is a demand for history,” he said.

History is an ever-present part life, Onuf said, saying people talk about history “all the time.” He then transitioned into a discussion of the controversy surrounding the monuments in Charlottesville and across the country.

“It was all about the effort to take down, in more ways than one, Robert E. Lee,” Onuf said. “What could be more of a hot button issue? Why would Steve Bannon be so excited about this saying, ‘Do it, go for it, Lefties. Take him down and my people will be there for me, and you’ll be sorry,’ he says gleefully, as if having these kinds of fights is what we should be doing.”

The reasons that the monuments were erected are complicated, Onuf said, but for him they stem from the fact that the Union won the Civil War itself, but the South “won the peace” in the sense that the true reason for secession, the preservation of slavery, was forgotten after the war. Instead, Onuf said Southerners insisted that they had fought to preserve “authentic” American values, such as self-determination and states’ rights.

“Here’s the paradox: Southerners mobilized their effort, in the run up to the Civil War, to justify their secession movement … based on authentic American principles, based on the ideas of the Declaration of Independence, forget the equality business,” Onuf said.

The Southern view of the cause of the war, Onuf said, was able to take root as part of postwar reconciliation. The South was forced to acknowledge its wrongdoing and allowed to rejoin the Union, as long as “the memory” of what really started the conflict, slavery, was “obliterated.” At this point, he also noted that the North had also benefited from slavery and thus had another reason to quietly forget the issue.

The final part of the event involved a dialogue between the two professors. Brady provided some Irish insights on the subject of the monuments, while Onuf discussed other myths of American history.

Discussing the removal of statues of British heroes, such as Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington that remain from Ireland’s time as a British territory, Brady talked about the debate surrounding the statues that has taken place in Ireland.

“What we had is a silent debate,” he said. “Once Nelson was blown up [by members of the old IRA in 1966] that expiated all of these things for a while … and Queen Victoria’s statue was removed from government buildings, it ceased to be a point of tension … Why would you go on about it? Why don’t you think of something else?”

Onuf said that among other myths about American history is the idea that the United States was founded to bring freedom to the world. Though he critiqued that idea, he said that we need to separate ourselves from “historical subjects.”

“We need to think of our historical subjects not as people who control who we are, and that our possibilities are only as far as they could see them, but we have to understand that any workable notion of community has to be forward looking,” Onuf said. “And only, paradoxically, only a historian can tell you that. Because history as we take it is taken as a given that we are the products of it and we have some kind of stewardship relationship to it. You can be freed from the past and think towards the future by knowing history.”

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