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Thursday, 11 June 2020

Statues and Editing the Past

I find attempts to edit our various monuments really quite beside the point and much more about signalling than actually tackling the often complex problems involved.  As with this piece  in the Independent, the author discusses which statues he dislikes rather the far more important issues around racial inequality that he is supposed to be worrying.  It is rather like a fossil fuel company "greenwashing" to distract from dealing with emissions.

Firstly his list is arbitrary, and simply based on his own knowledge.  Since he refers to Colston (died 1721) as contempory with Wilberforce (born 1759), we can assume that this is not extensive.  He also seems not to see why some figures have multiple messages.

For instance Oliver Cromwell is a well established figure for the Irish (although some argue that his massacres were conventional war practices for the time), but he was a complex figure who changed over time.  He can be seen as a champion of Parliament against Royal tyranny or as a man who overthrew Parliament.  He can be understood as an English/ British patriot or as an oppressor of these islands in whole or part. His parliamentary statue was erected as a symbol of non-Anglican Protestantism, a largely forgotten cause now. In other words, like Churchill, how you view him depends on which parts of his life you choose to emphasise.

This is important not least because the judgement changes according to fashion and the individual concerned, yet the statue is there for the whole community.

Does Nelson deserve his place in Trafalgar Square as a national saviour from invasion or should he lose it as a slave owner? Should George Washington be in the same Square despite being a slave owner and as someone who defeated the British in war? Does Henry Havelock get in the same Square as a British champion or should he be removed as a colonialist?

Is it really sensible to try to edit the urban environment in this way to bring into line with current thinking, or should we not just accept that all landscapes are a compendium of decisions made over a long time rather than one particular moment?

If this sort of editing has any place, it is a due process based on accurate information and made by accountable people, preferably (given the subjectivity) elected ones.  The alternative is a rather ugly picture of kulturkampf dominated by violence and the threat of violence.

UPDATE 12.06.20

I see that some of the statues being vandalised have nothing to with the supposed.  This includes Queen Victoria being labelled a slave owner (She wasn't) and Robert the Bruce in Bannockburn as a "racist king".

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