Lotus Ruan and Gabrielle Lim have a terrific piece in Just Security which strongly makes the case that, “fears of Chinese disinformation are often exaggerated by overblown assessments of the effects of China’s propaganda campaigns and casually drawn attributions.”
The two make clear that there are serious issues with how some Western policy analysts and politicians are suggesting that their governments respond to foreign influence operations that are associated with Chinese public and private parties. To begin, the very efficacy of influence operations remains mired in questions. While this is an area that is seeing more research of late, academics and policy analysts alike cannot assert with significant accuracy whether foreign influence operations have any real impact on domestic opinions or feelings. This should call for conservatism in the policies which are advanced but, instead, we often see calls for Western nations to adopt the internet ‘sovereignty’ positions championed by Russia and China themselves. These analysts and politicians are, in other words, asserting that they only way to be safe from China (and Russia) is to adopt those countries’ own policies.
Even were such (bad) policies adopted, it’s unclear that they would resolve the worst challenges facing countries such as the United States today. Anti-vaxxers, pro-coup supporters, and Big Lie advocates have all been affected by domestic influence operations that were (and are) championed by legitimately elected politicians, celebrities, and major media personalities. Building a sovereign internet ecosystem will do nothing to protect from the threats that are inside the continental United States and which are clearly having a deleterious effect on American society.
What I think I most appreciated in the piece by Ruan and Lim is that they frankly and directly called out many of the so-called solutions to disinformation and influence operations as racist. As just one example, there are those who call for ‘clean’ technologies that juxtapose Western against non-Western technologies. These kinds of arguments often directly perpetuate racist policies; they will not only do nothing to mitigate the spread of misinformation but will simultaneously cast suspicion and violence towards non-Caucasian members of society. Such proposals must be resisted and the authors are to be congratulated for directly and forcefully calling out the policies for what they are instead of carefully critiquing the proposals without actually calling them as racist as they are.
Jason Healey and Robert Jervis have a thought provoking piece over at the Modern War Institute at West Point. The crux of the argument is that, as a result of overclassification, it’s challenging if not impossible for policymakers or members of the public (to say nothing of individual analysts in the intelligence community or legislators) to truly understand the nature of contemporary cyberconflict. While there’s a great deal written about how Western organizations have been targeted by foreign operators, and how Western governments have been detrimentally affected by foreign operations, there is considerably less written about the effects of Western governments’ own operations towards foreign states because those operations are classified.
To put it another way, there’s no real way of understanding the cause and effect of operations, insofar as it’s not apparent why foreign operators are behaving as they are in what may be reaction to Western cyber operations or perceptions of Western cyber operations. The kinds of communiques provided by American intelligence officials, while somewhat helpful, also tend to obscure as much as they reveal (on good days). Healey and Jervis write:
General Nakasone and others are on solid ground when highlighting the many activities the United States does not conduct, like “stealing intellectual property” for commercial profit or disrupting the Olympic opening ceremonies. There is no moral equivalent between the most aggressive US cyber operations like Stuxnet and shutting down civilian electrical power in wintertime Ukraine or hacking a French television station and trying to pin the blame on Islamic State terrorists. But it clouds any case that the United States is the victim here to include such valid complaints alongside actions the United States does engage in, like geopolitical espionage. The concern of course is a growing positive feedback loop, with each side pursuing a more aggressive posture to impose costs after each fresh new insult by others, a posture that tempts adversaries to respond with their own, even more aggressive posture.
Making things worse, the researchers and academics who are ostensibly charged with better understanding and unpacking what Western intelligence agencies are up to sometimes decline to fulfill their mandate. The reasons are not surprising: engaging in such revelations threaten possible career prospects, endanger the very publication of the research in question, or risk cutting off access to interview subjects in the future. Healey and Jervis focus on the bizarre logics of working and researching the intelligence community in the United States, saying (with emphasis added):
Think-tank staff and academic researchers in the United States often shy away from such material (with exceptions like Ben Buchanan) so as not to hamper their chances of a future security clearance. Even as senior researchers, we were careful not to directly quote NSA’s classified assessment of Iran, but rather paraphrased a derivative article.
A student, working in the Department of Defense, was not so lucky, telling us that to get through the department’s pre-publication review, their thesis would skip US offensive operations and instead focus on defense.
Such examples highlight the distorting effects of censorship or overclassification: authors are incentivized to avoid what patrons want ignored and emphasize what patrons want highlighted or what already exists in the public domain. In paper after paper over the decades, new historical truths are cumulatively established in line with patrons’ preferences because they control the flow and release of information.
What are the implications as written by Healey and Jervis? In intelligence communities the size of the United States’, information gets lost or not passed to whomever it ideally should be presented to. Overclassification also means that policy makers and legislators who aren’t deeply ‘in the know’ will likely engage in decisions based on half-founded facts, at best. In countries such as Canada, where parliamentary committees cannot access classified information, they will almost certainly be confined to working off of rumour, academic reports, government reports that are unclassified, media accounts that divulge secrets or gossip, and the words spoken by the heads of security and intelligence agencies. None of this is ideal for controlling these powerful organizations, and the selective presentation of what Western agencies are up to actually risks compounding broader social ills.
Legislative Ignorance and Law
One of the results of overclassification is that legislators, in particular, become ill-suited to actually understanding national security legislation that is presented before them. It means that members of the intelligence and national security communities can call for powers and members of parliament are largely prevented from asking particularly insightful questions, or truly appreciate the implications of the powers that are being asked for.
Indeed, in the Canadian context it’s not uncommon for parliamentarians to have debated a national security bill in committee for months and, when asked later about elements of the bill, they admit that they never really understood it in the first place. The same is true for Ministers who have, subsequently, signed off on broad classes of operations that have been authorized by said legislation.
Part of that lack of understanding is the absence of examples of how powers have been used in the past, and how they might be used in the future; when engaging with this material entirely in the abstract, it can be tough to grasp the likely or possible implications of any legislation or authorization that is at hand. This is doubly true in situations where new legislation or Ministerial authorization will permit secretive behaviour, often using secretive technologies, to accomplish equally secretive objectives.
Beyond potentially bad legislative debates leading to poorly understood legislation being passed into law and Ministers consenting to operations they don’t understand, what else may follow from overclassification?
Nationalism, Miscalculated Responses, and Racism
To begin with, it creates a situation where ‘we’ in the West are being attacked by ‘them’ in Russia, Iran, China, North Korea, or other distant lands. I think this is problematic because it casts Western nations, and especially those in the Five Eyes, as innocent victims in the broader world of cyber conflict. Of course, individuals with expertise in this space will scoff at the idea–we all know that ‘our side’ is up to tricks and operations as well!–but for the general public or legislators, that doesn’t get communicated using similarly robust or illustrative examples. The result is that the operations of competitor nations can be cast as acts of ‘cyberwar’ without any appreciation that those actions may, in fact, be commensurate with the operations that Five Eyes nations have themselves launched. In creating an Us versus Them, and casting the Five Eyes and West more broadly as victims, a kind of nationalism can be incited where ‘They’ are threats whereas ‘We’ are innocents. In a highly complex and integrated world, these kinds of sharp and inaccurate concepts can fuel hate and socially divisive attitudes, activities, and policies.
At the same time, nations may perceive themselves to be targeted by Five Eyes nations, and deduce effects to Five Eyes operations even when that isn’t the case. When a set of perimeter logs show something strange, or when computers are affected by ransomware or wiperware, or another kind of security event takes place, these less resourced nations may simply assume that they’re being targeted by a Five Eyes operation. The result is that foreign government may both drum up nationalist concerns about ‘the West’ or ‘the Five Eyes’ while simultaneously queuing up their own operations to respond to what may, in fact, have been an activity that was totally divorced from the Five Eyes.
I also worry that the overclassification problem can lead to statements in Western media that demonizes broad swathes of the world as dangerous or bad, or threatening for reasons that are entirely unapparent because Western activities are suppressed from public commentary. Such statements arise with regular frequency, where China is attributed to this or to that, or when Russia or Middle Eastern countries are blamed for the most recent ill on the Internet.
The effect of such statements can be to incite differential degrees of racism. When mainstream newspapers, as an example, constantly beat the drum that the Chinese government (and, by extension, Chinese people) are threats to the stability and development of national economies or world stability, over time this has the effect of teaching people that China’s government and citizens alike are dangerous. Moreover, without information about Western activities, the operations conducted by foreign agencies can be read out of context with the effect that people of certain ethnicities are regarded as inherently suspicious or sneaky as compared to those (principally white) persons who occupy the West. While I would never claim that the overclassification of Western intelligence operations are the root cause of racism in societies I do believe that overclassification can fuel misinformation about the scope of geopolitics and Western intelligence gathering operations, with the consequence of facilitating certain subsequent racist attitudes.
A colleague of mine has, in the past, given presentations and taught small courses in some of Canada’s intelligence community. This colleague lacks any access to classified materials and his classes focus on how much high quality information is publicly available when you know how and where to look for it, and how to analyze it. Students are apparently regularly shocked: they have access to the classified materials, but their understandings of the given issues are routinely more myopic and less robust. However, because they have access to classified material they tend to focus as much, or more, on it because the secretive nature of the material makes it ‘special’.
This is not a unique issue and, in fact, has been raised in the academic literature. When someone has access to special or secret knowledge they are often inclined to focus in on that material, on the assumption that it will provide insights in excess of what are available in open source. Sometimes that’s true, but oftentimes less so. And this ‘less so’ becomes especially problematic when operating in an era where governments tend to classify a great deal of material simply because the default is to assume that anything could potentially be revelatory to an agency’s operations. In this kind of era, overvaluing classified materials can lead to less insightful understandings of the issues of the day while simultaneously not appreciating that much of what is classified, and thus cast as ‘special’, really doesn’t provide much of an edge when engaging in analysis.
The solution is not to declassify all materials but, instead, to adopt far more aggressive declassification processes. This could, as just an example, entail tying declassification in some way to organizations’ budgets, such that if they fail to declassify materials their budgets are forced to be realigned in subsequent quarters or years until they make up from the prior year(s)’ shortfalls. Extending the powers of Information Commissioners, which are tasked with forcing government institutions to publish documents when they are requested by members of the public or parliamentarians (preferably subject to a more limited set of exemptions than exist today) might help. And having review agencies which can unpack higher-level workings of intelligence community organizations can also help.
Ultimately, we need to appreciate that national security and intelligence organizations do not exist in a bubble, but that their mandates mean that the externalized problems linked with overclassification are typically not seen as issues that these organizations, themselves, need to solve. Nor, in many cases, will they want to solve them: it can be very handy to keep legislators in the dark and then ask for more powers, all while raising the spectre of the Other and concealing the organizations’ own activities.
We do need security and intelligence organizations, but as they stand today their tendency towards overclassification runs the risk of compounding a range of deleterious conditions. At least one way of ameliorating those conditions almost certainly includes reducing the amount of material that these agencies currently classify as secret and thus kept from public eye. On this point, I firmly agree with Healey and Jervis.
Sabat Ismail, writing at Spacing Toronto, interrogates who safe streets are meant to be safe for. North American calls for adopting Nordic models of urban cityscapes are often focused on redesigning streets for cycling whilst ignoring that Nordic safety models are borne out of broader conceptions of social equity. Given the broader (white) recognition of the violent threat that police can represent to Black Canadians, cycling organizations which are principally advocating for safe streets must carefully think through how to make them safe, and appreciate why calls for greater law enforcement to protect non-automobile users may run counter to an equitable sense of safety. To this point, Ismail writes:
I recognize the ways that the safety of marginalized communities and particularly Black and Indigenous people is disregarded at every turn and that, in turn, we are often provided policing and enforcement as the only option to keep us safe. The options for “safety” presented provide a false choice – because we do not have the power to determine safety or to be imagined within its folds.
Redesigning streets without considering how the design of urban environments are rife with broader sets of values runs the very real risk of further systematizing racism while espousing values of freedom and equality. The values undergirding the concept of safe streets must be assessed by a diverse set of residents to understand what might equitably provide safety for all people; doing anything less will likely re-embed existing systems of power in urban design and law, to the ongoing detriment and harm of non-white inhabitants of North American cities.
Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.
I put together, and self-published, another photobook that is entitled “Pandemic Chronicles: Book I”. Each week that my city has been in (functional) lockdown, I’ve gone out once or twice and made images while just stretching my legs outside.
Over the past four months it’s often been hard to figure out how, exactly, I’ve been processing the life changes that have been imposed as a result of the pandemic. My life has, in many respects, reverted to that of my life during my PhD. So, lots of time inside and rarely leaving leaving my home, and having considerably less social contact than normal.
I think that it’s through my photos that I can best appreciate how I’ve felt, in retrospect, and understand how those images reflect how I see the world. The book that I made isn’t particularly dark: it’s just…lonely. It showcases the city that I live in, without the people that make it the city that I love. It shows people living their lives, often alone or separate from others, or while engaging in ‘safe’ behaviours. And, towards the end, it shows the light returning to Toronto, though in a format that differs from prior summers.
Photography has, and remains, a way for me to engage a creative part of my brain that otherwise would lie fallow. And, also, it’s operated as a meditative process that uncovers how I have been in the world, and how the world has been presented to me. As someone who has struggled with the idea of a ‘narrative’ in image making, I think that this book is a breakthrough because it ‘says’ something in aggregate that is more than just a presentation of visually pleasant images: it speaks to where I live, and how it has endured in the wake of the city’s closure. Is it the height of art? No. But it’s the closest I’ve come in this medium so far!
“Good” can be a stifling word, a word that makes you hesitate and stare at a blank page and second-guess yourself and throw stuff in the trash. What’s important is to get your hands moving and let the images come. Whether it’s good or bad is beside the point. Just make something.
(Photos included in ‘Pandemic Chronicles: Book I’ by Christopher Parsons)
Music I’m Digging
This month has been packed with a lot of listening, with some alternative and R&B pretty tightly mixed in with hip hop. The best of what I listened to in June includes tracks from Yung Tory’s Rastar (including Mizu, Water Pt 2, and Netflix & Chill), Kali Uchis’s TO FEEL ALIVE (EP), HONNE’s no song without you (Single), and 6LACK’s 6pc Hot(EP).
Neat Podcast Episodes
I’ve been listening to a pair of new podcast shows over the past month that I’d recommend. From the CBC, there’s This Is Not A Drake Podcast, which uses Drake as a way to talk more about the history of rap and hip hop. So far I’ve really appreciated the episode on mixtapes, as well as the connotations of Nice Guy rappers.
Very differently, I’ve also been listening to the Globe and Mail’s series, Stress Test, which is about money issues facing millennials in the time of Covid. The episodes haven’t been staggering brilliant (a lot of the advice is pretty time tested) but the caution and suggestions are all helpful reminders.
Reflections from an “Accidental” Mentor// Prof. McNamara’s discussion of what it means to be a mentor— first and foremost modelling who we are, as individuals, rather than fitting within a particular narrow category of who we are normatively expected to be—is good advice, and important if we are to expand what is ‘normal’ within academia. She also focuses on celebrating the commonality across scholars; we’re all nerds, at heart, and so should focus on those attributes to create community. I agree, but for myself it’s more than that: it’s also about ensuring that the structures of professional environments are re-articulated to enable more junior persons to experience their jobs and professions in ways that weren’t possible, previously. It’s not just about focusing on commonality but, also, assessing baseline principles and values and ensuring that they conform in theory and practice with welcoming, creative, equitable, and inclusive environments. And, finally, it’s about accepting and making clear that as mentors we are fallible and human, and creating workspaces where others can also betray these inherently human (and humanizing) characteristics.
Jon Stewart Is Back to Weigh In// Jon Stewart’s comments throughout this interview are worth the read; his assessment of the problems of contemporary political media—centred around the ‘need’ for content to fuel a 24/7 media environment—as well as for the media to engage in structural assessment of practices, are on point. Similarly, his discussion of the nature of racism in American society (but, also, Canada) strikes to the heart of things: even if someone isn’t deliberately malicious in deed or thought, they are conditioned by the structures of society and power in which they live their lives. And those very structures are, themselves, racist in their origin and contemporary design.
Hacking Security// Goerzen and Coleman do a terrific job in unpacking the history of what is secured by computer security experts, and why certain things are within or outside of bounds for securing. Critically, while experts may be involved in protecting ‘assets’ or combatting ‘abuse’, where threats to assets or abuse arise from the underlying profit mechanisms associated with large technology companies, those mechanisms are seen as outside of bounds for security teams to engage with. Similarly, the failure of security teams to consider, or address, ‘political’ issues such as abusive speech, harmful video content, or propagation of racist or white supremacist content all showcase the need to critically interrogate what is, and isn’t, made secure, and to expand security teams by adding social scientists and humanities scholars: technology is political, and we need security teams to have members who are trained and competent to consider those politics.
Once Safer Than Gold, Canadian Real Estate Braces for Reckoning// Canadians have been doubling down on their debt-loads for over a decade to the point, today, that on average Canadians owe north of $1.76 per $1.00 of income, with that number rising in the country’s largest cities. Housing is particularly vulnerable and, if it is destabilized, can be devastating to the Canadian economy more broadly given that it accounts for around %15 of GDP; slowdowns in housing will delay the revival of the Canadian economy, while simultaneously threatening the ability of Canadians to stay in their homes—now—or retain their savings to invest for their retirements—in the future. If anything good comes of this, maybe it will be a reminder that allocating the majority of your savings into a single asset is, indeed, not a good long-term investment solution which could have knock on effects if investors decide they want to move to their next bubble, and let the housing bubble deflate as gracefully as possible.
You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument// “I have rape-coloured skin.” Not only is this perhaps the most poignant lede I’ve come across in an opinion piece in years, it also sets the stakes for the Williams’ article; the very skin of many Americans (and Canadians) is a testament to violent and racist actions taken against women who were forced from their homes to live as slaves. That testament continues, today, and not just in the monuments that were established in the Jim Crow era to deliberately attempt to continue subjugating Black persons, but in the very skin inhabited by the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of enslaved people.
Vladimir Putin’s war of fog: How the Russian President used deceit, propaganda and violence to reshape global politics// I take issue with some of MacKinnon’s choice of language in the first ¼ of the article—he suggests that truth is substantively confused and that Putin’s tactics are more successful that I think are appropriate to concede—but beyond that he’s done a masterful job in creating an overview of who Putin is, what he’s done, and how he’s come to (and held onto) power. If you’re a long-time Russia watcher you may dispute where MacKinnon puts some of his emphasis, or in his assessment of some events, but I don’t think that you can deny that this is a helpful article that provide the broad contours of Putin’s life and career. And, after having read it, it will hopefully inspire people to learning more of the financial, military, or other scandals that have happened throughout Putin’s leadership of Russia.
iPad OS + Magic Trackpad 2// Lots of people already have figured this out but…the new version of iPad OS + a Magic Trackpad 2 and a keyboard is a really, really compelling combination. I’ve using this as my writing and work system for a little while and it continues to prove to me how robust the iPad actually is, and how many of the pain points have been, or are being, ground away with each version of the operating system. That said, some of the gestures are very, very opaque—in particular those associated with the slide over window—and so you may want to review how, exactly, those gestures really work to get the most out of the process (and not get frustrated when certain windows just won’t go away!)
Welcome to this edition of The Roundup! Enjoy the collection of interesting, informative, and entertaining links. Brew a fresh cup of coffee or grab yourself a drink, find a comfortable place, and relax.
When you give something, you’re in much greater control. But when you receive something, you’re so vulnerable.
I think the greatest gift you can ever give is an honest receiving of what a person has to offer.
– Fred Rogers
Great Photography Shots
Some of the photos for the 2020 All About Photos Awards are just terrific.
Music I’m Digging
My April best-of playlist features some classic alternative and a lot of not-so-new rap and R&B. I guess this is the first full playlist I’ve created purely when in self-isolation?
Neat Podcast Episodes
Lawfare-Jim Baker in FISA Errors // Baker previously was responsible for, in part, reviewing the FISA applications put before the FISC. Recently, the DOJ IG found that 29 of 29 applications they reviewed had errors, including a seeming failure to document or prove the facts set out in the applications. Baker assessed the legal implications as well as the normative implications of the deficits, and the need to develop stronger managerial control over all future applications.
CBC Ideas—The Shakespeare Conspiracy // Using Shakespeare as a kind of distancing tool—he’s long dead and so unlikely to enliven contemporary political passions—Paul Budra explores how different scholars and public intellectuals have asserted who Shakespeare ’really was’ and the rationales behind such assertions. In an era where the West is increasingly concerned about the rise of conspiracies this espisode provides a range of productive tools to assess and critique new and emerging conspiracies.
NPR throughline—Buzzkill // Mosquitos are, without a doubt, responsible for more human deaths than anything else on earth. This superb short podcast goes through how mosquitos have been essential to empire, warfare, and changes to humans’ genetic makeup.
The Weirdly Enduring Appeal of Weird Al Yankovic // Anderson has done a spectacular job showcasing the beautiful humanity of Weird Al. In tracing his origin story, and explaining the care and time Al puts into his work, and the love he has for his fans, you really appreciate just how lovely a man he is. If anyone is a Tom Hanks for the geeks, it may end up being Weird Al.
There Is a Racial Divide in Speech-Recognition Systems, Researchers Say // It’s as though having engineers of particular ethnicities, building products that work for them, while also lacking employees of other ethnicities, has implications for developing technology. And the same is true of when developers do not include people with diverse socio-legal or socio-economic backgrounds.
The chemistry of cold-brew coffee is so hot right now // God bless the coffee-obsessed scientists who’ve taken a deep dive into the way that coffee beans respond to different extraction methods, as well as provide their own cold brew recipes. I can’t wait to see what research percolates out of this lab going forward!
What’s the Deal With False Burrs? // Having only recently managed to properly clean my home grinder, I was curious to learn a bit more about the differences in burr grinders. While I’m satisfied with my current grinder I can predict—based in owning a ‘faux’ burr grinder—that a Baratza Encore or Virtuoso is in my near future.
LIDAR: Peek Into The Future With iPad Pro // The recent release of the newest iPad Pro iteration has been met with a lot of yawns by reviewers. That makes a lot of sense, given the combination of the ongoing crisis and relatively minimal changes over the 2018 iPad Pro. The only really major new thing is a LIDAR system that is now part of the camera bump, but no mainstream reviewers have really assessed its capabilities. Fortunately the folks from Halide—a smartphone camera company—have dug into what LIDAR brings (and doesn’t bring) to the floor. Their review is helpful and, also, raises the question of whether professionals who do modelling should be consulted on the utility of these kinds of features, just as photographers—not gadget reviewers—should be asked deep and probing questions about the cameras that are integrated into smart devices these days.
The Mister Rogers No One Saw // Fred Rogers has had a number of films made about him and his life, but this essay by Jeanne Marie Laskas is different because it is so deeply personal about the relationships Fred had with those around him, and with the author. He inhabited a world that was just a little bit different than our own; his creativity was drawn from this place. But it was also a creativity linked with a deep ethic of work, where he focused on ensuring that his art was as perfect as possible. And left unstated in the article is one of the real testaments to his work: he would re- edit episodes, years after they had first been produced, when he found there were elements he was unhappy with or that no longer adequately represented what he had learned was a more right way of thinking about things. Also left unwritten in this piece was Fred’s belief that children we resilient and could be taught about the world; his shows dealt with issues like the Vietnam war and nuclear war in ways that were approachable to children who deserved to be involved in understanding their world, and always knowing they weren’t alone in it, and that it was perfectly ok to have feelings about it.
New York and Boston Pigeons Don’t Mix // The sheer size of pigeon populations–they extent across vast swathes of urbanized (and road connected) land–is pretty amazing. But, equally interesting, is how rural environments seem to, effectively, segregate populations from one another. It’s just another example of how genetically diverse groups can exist all around us, without our ever realizing the distinctiveness.
I Miss the Office // If you want office sounds for your work at home, then this site has you covered. (Also, if this is what you’re missing you’re kinda weird!)
The Slow Fade of City Life // When the last two images are accurate, you know it’s a lot easier to get through the lack of the city.
Campari and Orange Juice // I have to say, this is my new favourite brunch drink. It tastes almost like grapefruit juice, though the real secret—not in this recipe—is to aerate the Campari and OJ in a blender before mixing in a cocktail shaker. The aeration really opens up the Campari and gives the whole drink a level of creaminess it otherwise wouldn’t have.
Apathetic white people who groan when athletes of colour get political, or who suggest as Crosby did that politics and sports do not mix, are in need of a reminder that for most, political activism isn’t a choice or a hobby. People don’t usually consider it fun or interesting to put their jobs on the line to speak out against a bigger power. The marginalized do not go looking for politics. It seeks them out. In this context, it sought them out when the President of the United States openly flirted with a racist ideology that would very much like to destroy them.
Monuments and plaques do not necessarily represent ‘history’ so much as a particular interpretation of certain events or aspects of a person’s life. A recent episode of 99% Invisible, originally produced for The Memory Palace, explores what should be on the plaque for Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest was a lieutenant general in the Confederate Army who built a fortune off the labour of slaves and who was, allegedly, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. The episode is noteworthy for outlining the rationale for creating Forrest’s monument in the first place, the significance of reinterring Forrest’s remains, and for what should go into a plaque that is dedicated to his place in the world, today.
In listening to the episode it’s shocking just how the monument’s creation and erection were laden with racist overtones, and the episode is instructive in explaining what these monuments were (and are) meant to do: act as assertions of white supremacy in increasingly multicultural and diverse societies. The history of such monument is not linked to the events or persons for which they were erected, but in the rationales for which they were created and erected. Their history is inexorably linked the history of white supremacy, and this is a history that we can safely stop lionizing. Rather that destroying such monuments, however, they should be relegated to open museums and parks, which can be used to remind us of the horrors and inequalities associated with past ideological positions that we now acknowledge as being harmful and dangerous to the members of our societies.