Stephen Miller

AI researcher, startup cofounder, podcaster, person, etc.

Thoughts on Civil War Monuments

I’ve been seeing a lot of “even-handed” posts, lately, about the dangers of trying to erase history. The Civil War happened, it is what it is, and by taking away flags or monuments America is trying to blot it out of its collective memory.

Here’s the thing though: history isn’t going anywhere. We have immediate access to details which, a few decades ago, would have required years of independent research (if discoverable at all). The Indonesian genocide of the mid-60’s? You can watch tearful stories from the victims, and laughing re-enactments from the perpetrators, on iTunes right this second. With one click you can have a massive Robert E. Lee biography delivered to your pocket. Or Mein Kampf. Or the complete works of Shakespeare, Salman Rushdie, and Rush Limbaugh. Or hear Obama narrate his own childhood. Or view literally weeks’ worth of footage devoted to proving that JFK’s death was a government conspiracy. Or pro-slavery propaganda. Or abolitionist poetry. Did you know Charles Manson released a folk album before going on his murder spree? You can stream it.

Our ability to erase anything, on a global scale, is lower than it has ever been. It’s so low, voices which used to be silenced — the history which “winners” always overwrite — have finally been given a chance to speak. I can watch beautiful films about Hiroshima from the perspective of Japanese children. I can read eye-witness accounts of both sides of the Iraq/Iran war. I can, alongside that Robert E. Lee biography, read countless stories about how the legacy of slavery continued long after abolition; about the vicious cycles it spun off, or the ways it lived on in symbols and language, wielded like a blunt instrument against people with minds I could never fully know. I can stack up those truths against the weight of a statue, and if the scales tip, I can choose to act accordingly. It isn’t an erasure, but a deepening, of history. All that sadness is still there, forever encoded in literature and art and museums. But we get to choose what subset we worship. We get to reserve our public pedestals for things we’re proud to display. And when each of us has a pocket-sized Library of Congress and megaphone our disposal, we have a moral obligation to make that call.

What the absurd Alt Right coverage of Charlottesville demonstrates, though, is that for a specific subset of the population it is indeed possible to rewrite not only history, but the present. If you choose to burrow yourself into the narrowest of unsourced media, to surround yourself with only likeminded people, it’s possible to erase absolutely everything that matters. Erase the reality of current events. Erase the definition of hate even when it holds up a swastika and sieg heils at you. Erase the meaning of a Holy Book that doesn’t give a damn about “States’ Rights” but has plenty to say about mourning with those who mourn. None of this gets erased from the rest of the world, of course, but you get to opt in to a pocket-sized universe that no longer sees it. A universe where you’re right about everything, unchallenged, forever.

So how do we actually inoculate history and culture? Step outside that tiny universe. Leave your homogenous group. Diversify. Listen to people who hurt when you don’t; people who look nothing like you, who didn’t always have a platform to speak. Take their pain as valid and honest, rather than assuming some elaborate ploy. And when their experience conflicts with your own way of seeing the world, use that knowledge to deepen and grow. Ironically, the very thing the Alt Right is fighting — the “White genocide”, the supposed erasure of culture — is the antidote to what they claim to fear. More voices, more growth. Less of whatever inward ideology would rush to the defense of Nazis and klansmen; would consider racist and anti-racist protesters as “equally wrong”; would erase the spirit of our shared history. That side of protest, for all the pseudo-philosophical Ayn Randian justification in the world, doesn’t get to be a valid side. Hate — or whatever knowingly emboldens hate — isn’t a valid side.

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