Toppling tyrants is such an obviously good idea that I find myself unsettled that I have not been sharing in the exhilaration when I see the statutes pulled down by crowds. Statutes are erected to those that we want to honour and remember, it is our way of paying homage for great deeds. It is clearly the case that if we find we have made a mistake that we should rectify this. One of the first steps that any liberated peoples do on gaining their freedom is to destroy the signs of their prior oppression. We all cheered when we saw Saddam hit the dust, and Stalin and Enver Hoxha likewise. We await the day when Kim Jong-un totters and crashes.
I’ll look forward to seeing Sir Thomas Picton’s effigy being removed from Cardiff and Wales as it is clear that he was a sadistic man. It is wrong that a statute of him remains in the “Heroes of Wales” hall; he may have been a successful military man but his admission of the torture of a 14 year old slave girl and his reputation as the “Tyrant of Trinidad” weigh too heavily, overshadow, and obliterate, any positive contributions he may have made in his life. It is similar, though perhaps less obvious, with Edward Colston who’s statue met a watery grave in Bristol this week – it seems agreed that his financial philanthropy can’t outweigh his personal involvement in the slave trade. Like many wealthy he hoped his financial largesse and benevolence might buy him some grace, and for a while his charity did whitewash his reputation. But no longer.
So why my unease ? Why am I not outside cheering ? I suppose because obvious examples are obvious, and these are not a problem. But after these come many more, much more difficult decisions. It is very hard to look back without our views being coloured by our present knowledge and culture; this is as it should be. This allows us to be wise after the event. What was once a generally accepted fact is now known to be wrong, what was once customary and usual is now viewed with revulsion and horror. But we can not rewrite history to make it look as we would have wished it to be, to rewrite it in our present image would be a mistake. We are able to learn from history, to know the mistakes we made, to learn from them and atone for them. We can only do this if we know our history.
That does not mean we need to keep all of the statues and plaques that have been raised. If they are to stand they need to be understood, they need to be seen in their historical context. We might keep the statue of a victor but frame it in such a way as to reveal their subsequent trouncing. We might use the effigy of the wealthy industrialist who sponsored charitable works to remind us that apparent breeding, obvious wealth and social acceptance do not mean that someone may not be party to dreadful deeds.
There are two aspects of statue raising that we should also consider when we are pulling them down. What is the statue celebrating ? Who decided to raise the statue ?
What is being celebrated is important. A slaver who repents in late life and donates all his money, gained through immoral means, perhaps should continue to stand as a reminder that even when society tolerated an evil some individuals did not. So it is quite conceivable that the statute of someone who benefitted from slavery should stand – the obvious case. But there will be many, many more difficult cases. Whole societies benefitted from the process of slavery and whole nations and peoples were complicit in it (some still are). Some of those individuals have have statues erected for other acts or heroism, goodness or charity. It is these acts that are being celebrated and it is right that they are. Occasionally information will be discovered hat casts a previously celebrated individual in a new light and it is felt that their behaviours were so heinous that any honours need to be removed. Another obvious case at the other end of the spectrum. But in the middle we have those whose ‘distinction’ was only the action for which they are being celebrated, in these cases we will have to weigh these on their merits. Does the statue celebrate something we still revere ? Does the memory of the individual help us understand how we should behave ? Does the statue remind us of something we should really forget ? These questions would help us decide what stands and falls. But that leads us to our second question – who decides ?
In private spaces the owner clearly decides what artwork they wish to display. It is a private matter, but, in public spaces it is a public matter and one which needs the publics involvement. However, I mean the public and not ‘the mob’. Thirty or forty aroused individuals with ropes, no matter how well-meaning, do not have the right to take that decision from us. They are no different to the soldiers of an incoming, victorious army that pull down the icons of our old leader and replace them with a new effigy for us to worship. If we are going to make public statements of what is morally correct, what we feel should be revered, what or whom we should respect then we as the public must have our say.
When we start pulling down statues we are rewriting our history in a deliberate fashion. They are part of our memory of what were and what we did. It needs a conscious democratic and careful act to do this. As is often the case, George Orwell knew how dangerous this can be :-
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.”1984, George Orwell.
So I feel queasy when I watch a gang pull down public statues. I may agree that the statue should go, but my agreement is just chance. Next time they might be pulling down something I hold dear. Do I have to go out on the street and fight them to try and keep it standing ? This is the way of chaos. The passions of the street can be correct and seeking justice and just retribution; but they can also be the passions of the lynch mob. We skate around such things at our peril, as the great German director Werner Herzog said :-
“Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.”
My queasiness is the fear that I hear the sound of distant cracking.