History is a negotiation with the past

We can’t form a consensus by executive order or by erasing historical images that don’t fit with our present views.

By Richard D’Abate, Executive Director, Maine Historical Society

Two women operate Jacquard looms at the Pepperell Mills, Biddeford, ca. 1925

Why do we always struggle over historical symbols or argue over monuments, awards, national holidays, commemorations or works of art?

The now-famous historical mural removed from the Maine Department of Labor tells one of the many stories that make up our shared history.

I think it arises from the fact that history is actually a kind of negotiation between the interests of the present and the facts of the past. Out of that negotiation, if we’re lucky, comes a common story, a consensus that helps us understand who we are.

But it’s a political thing, no question about it. Every symbol implies a value system, and for every such system there will be those who feel affirmed and those who feel abused.

In Maine, the argument is about the history of labor and a mural that depicts it.

Politicians are usually in the middle of such controversies. Their self-interest and party interest depends on figuring out how to align history with the values of the greatest number of people. That’s how they get elected.

WEIGHING THE EVIDENCE

But that’s also precisely why we depend on historians to write history rather than politicians. Though not perfectly objective by any means, historians stay tuned to the multiplicity of the past; they know it is inescapable. They weigh the evidence. They move toward certainty, sometimes with, sometimes against the winds of ideology. They tell us what happened.

Their work, together with all the political push and pull, is how we come to understand our history and the values we live by. The consensus is never perfect, but somehow the picture comes into view.

 

Loggers on drive, ca. 1900

So what might historians have to say about the current controversy? I think many would say that if you want to understand Maine history, if you want some inkling about those mills in every town, those rafts of logs, those quarries, those shipyards, those fields of produce, those skilled artisans marching in parades — if, in fact, you want to know something about the United States itself — then you have to recognize the contribution of working people.

You have to accept that many faced and overcame serious obstacles and injustices: men, women and children; immigrants and Yankees too. You have to acknowledge the abuses of an unenlightened capitalism. Finally, you have to note — like it or not — that without leadership and organization, without the union movement, many workers would never have found their way to self-respect and a decent living.

Sardine Company Factory A Employees, Lubec, ca. 1901

Historians would also be the first to add that the old sea merchants, land owners, industrialists and entrepreneurs were a part of the Maine story too. But the point is that you cannot trade one for the other. The history of labor in Maine is not a myth, it’s not optional, and it can’t be ignored.

So, what’s a governor to do? It’s clear that Gov. LePage has no time for what some might call liberal claptrap — pieties about labor, race, immigration and environmental protection that (from his point of view at least) seem to distract us from doing business in Maine. He’s an impatient man.

And yet there’s no question that Maine has serious financial problems that the governor and the Legislature will have to solve. We fully expect that all the intractable issues will be on the table: Cuts, taxes, pensions, contracts and more. But here’s the question: Does the governor need to be an iconoclast — one who disrespects images, blots out history, breaks our essential negotiation with the past — to win this battle? I don’t think so.

In fact, doing such things undermines the whole point of the governor’s election, which, seemingly, was based on an economic rather than a historical crusade, one that might require sacrifices from us, but not amnesia.

ACCOMMODATING DIFFERENCE

It seems a little embarrassing to have to point it out, but we all have to live with contradictions and people who disagree with us. Doing that well — understanding how to accommodate difference and still make your own way — is in fact one of the social graces. It’s also the sign of a good leader.

In a democratic society it is impossible to turn “us and them” into “we” by fiat or command. You cannot erase your way to a consensus.

That’s for a different kind of land than ours. The people of Maine deserve a good leader and we hope Gov. LePage will be that leader, for all of us, throughout his term.

He could start by reversing a hasty, counterproductive and deeply troubling decision.

Originally published as a “Special to the Telegram: Maine Voices” in the Portland Press Herald on 4/10/11.

To view the mural in question, and read a statement by the artist about the mural’s removal, visit Judy Taylor’s website. The Press Herald also published an interview with Judy Taylor on the same day as Richard D’Abate’s op-ed appeared.

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