Following the debate on toppling statues, Nick Spencer asks if the best way to learn from history is to demolish it.
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The Emperor Caligula, it is alleged, had the heads of pagan gods’ statues hacked off and replaced with his own. The effect, one imagines, is unlikely to have enhanced his imperial dignity. Somewhat more provocatively, he also planned to erect huge statue of himself in the Temple at Jerusalem. His plans were thwarted first by Publius Petronius, the distinctly–nervous Governor of Syria, and then, permanently, by the Praetorian Guard who assassinated him. Petronius foresaw what would happen if Caligula got his way. Indeed, it is pretty much what did happen a generation later when governor Gessius Florus raided the Temple in search of funds for then emperor Nero. Tax and statues: few things more enflame a simmering crowd.
You can see why so many Americans get angry about statues to those fought so hard for the slaveholding states of the South. Salt and wound come to mind. And you can understand the desire to tear down such statues, to wipe history clean, to erect new heroes to replace tarnished ones. Did not Iraqis pull down statues of Saddam Hussein as soon as they had a chance to? Did not eastern Europeans remove statues of Lenin and Stalin as soon as it was safe to? So should we, in Britain, not exorcise our own racist past by de–plinthing some of warmongers who crown our public space?
That was more or less the argument underpinning Afua Hirsch’s article in the Guardian this week, which argued that we should topple Nelson from his Trafalgar column. Albeit inadvertently, the article demonstrated precisely why this is such a dangerous and weak argument.
Hirsh compared Nelson – “who was what you would now call, without hesitation, a white supremacist” – with William Wilberforce (also publicly emtombed stone, albeit less prominently) who was “unquestionably a force for good”. Whereas Wilberforce had every right to his plinth, Nelson had to go.
This is the past à la “Our Island History” or, rather, “Our Island Disgrace”. History is divided into bad guys and good guys, villains and heroes, white supremacists and unquestionable forces for good. We boo the former and cheer the latter.
Nelson was indubitably no saint and his reputation is much mythologized. But he was nonetheless a brave, inspiring military leader and tactician, who defended the country at a time of considerable peril, and was wounded and then killed in the process.
Wilberforce was, of course, a “Saint” and his persistent campaign against slavery rightly earns him great praise and honour. But before we canonise him among Hirsch’s unquestionable good guys, it’s worth recalling he spoke in favour of every single repressive domestic statute proposed by the government between 1795 and 1819, energetically supporting the Treasonable Practices Act and the Seditious Meetings Acts of 1795, the Preservation of the Public Peace Bill of 1812, and the Seditious Meetings Bill and the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1817, and defended the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and spoke against a proposal for an enquiry into the atrocity.
Does that mean Wilberforce doesn’t deserve his statue? Of course not. It simply means that pretty much no public figure from history celebrated in our streets will bear detailed scrutiny and judgment. Duke of Wellington at Hyde Park Corner? No: he was thoroughly opposed to the Great Reform Act, as well as being something of a brute. Boadicea on the Embankment? Achievement: mass slaughter. Cromwell in Parliament Square? Try and persuade the Irish Catholics living in Britain, especially those who can trace their ancestry to Drogheda. John Stuart Mill in Victoria Embankment Gardens? He thought that clever people should have more votes than stupid ones. Gandhi in Parliament Square? That’ll be the chap who advised that the Jews should have gone willingly to concentration camps in an act of mass suicide which would constitute an unanswerable critique of the Nazis. Nelson Mandela at the South Bank? Didn’t he used to advocate terrorism? Churchill? Ha! Do you know what he did to the Kurds?
Our public space is invariably littered with sinful heroes. Our belief – or, at least the belief of some people – that we are in a position to sift the historical wheat from the chaff is worrying, ignoring the tortuous vicissitudes of history and somehow imagining we are sufficiently detached and ethically superior (not to mention culturally homogenous) to pass judgment.
Does that mean the residents of Baghdad or Budapest were wrong to tear down Saddam and Stalin? The answer is no, but largely because they did so as soon as they could, the immediacy of their rage indicating that the monuments had never actually been celebrated, only ever imposed. Once generations have passed, the desire to overthrow and replace statues simply becomes an assertion of today over yesterday, an Orwellian display of controlling the future by eradicating the past.
So does that mean we simply have to live with these things? After all, no matter how justifiable it might be to maintain public statues, that doesn’t mean that some people won’t still find General Robert E. Lee, or Cecil Rhodes, or Cromwell, or even Churchill revolting rather than inspiring.
The answer to this is not to lower our plinths but our standards. The philosopher Charles Taylor wrote in his essay The Politics of Recognition, that:
“it is reasonable to suppose that cultures that have provided the horizon of meaning for large numbers of human beings, of diverse characters and temperaments, over a long period of time – that have, in other words, articulated their sense of the good, the holy, the admirable – are almost certain to have something that deserves our admiration and respect even if it is accompanied by much that we have to abhor and reject.”
This is, in effect, a presumption of respect, judging cultures that are sufficiently widespread, long–lived (etc.) as having something – not everything – in them worthy of recognition. I would suggest we adopt the same approach to public statues. It is reasonable to suppose that public statues that were willingly erected and have been admired by a sufficiently large and broad number of people over a sustained period of time have something in them that is worth preserving. Those, conversely, that were imposed or torn down as soon as was possible, should go. Recognise Wilberforce’s abolitionism, Nelson’s military prowess, Mandela’s magnanimity, Boadicea’s fight, Cromwell’s integrity, rather than any less admirable qualities.
And what do we do with those less admirable qualities? Perhaps sometimes they will overwhelm, and the statue should come down, even generations later. After all, if it was erected generations after the person it celebrates in the first place (Cromwell, Boadicea, Robert Lee), there is already some manipulation of history going on. It’s hardly Orwellian for one later generation to un–highlight something that another later generation chose to highlight.
But such a decision should be taken with caution. Pulling down statues because we no longer (wholly) agree with the person they commemorate (assuming ‘we’ ever did) is simplistic and, in its own way, manipulative. And perhaps such statues, as well as urging virtue through their commendable qualities, can also serve us though their less estimable ones. They might, for example, remind us how we have changed as a society (and, by implication, how far we have come). They might remind us that “Our Island History/ Disgrace” is neither an adequate nor grown–up response to the real world. And they might remind us that all humans, even the heroes, are fallen.
We can put people on statues only if we remember that we shouldn’t really put anyone on a statue.
Nick Spencer is the Research Director for Theos | @TheosNick