On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists

All this has made me muse on the idea that there might be public and private forms of freedom of expression

President Trump seems determined fan the flames of the Charlottesville controversy (and tragedy). He was criticised for his failure to condemn the behaviour of far-right groups that led to the death of a counter-protestor, and this week he doubled-down on his initial “on many sides” statement that drew moral equivalence between racist groups and their opponents. Today he has been lamenting the fact that public statue of General Robert E. Lee are being removed, citing ‘history’.

It is incredibly irritating when people declare the removal of statues, or the changing of a syllabus, as a destruction or erasure of history. I think that is 180 degrees wrong. As I said in my Cambridge Union speech about political correctness, these calls for change come about because more historical events are being remembered.

Mitch Landrieu, Mayor of New Orleans, made this point eloquently in a speech delivered earlier this year, as the last Confederacy statue in his city was taken down:

America was the place where nearly 4,000 of our fellow citizens were lynched, 540 alone in Louisiana; where the courts enshrined ‘separate but equal’; where Freedom riders coming to New Orleans were beaten to a bloody pulp.

So when people say to me that the monuments in question are history, well what I just described is real history as well, and it is the searing truth.
And it immediately begs the questions; why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame… all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans.

So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission.

There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.

Landrieu’s speech is a fantastic explanation of why it was right for a city to remove such statue and is worth reading or watching in full.

I wrote about a similar issue on this blog last year, when there was a protest against the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford. The pithy, Tweetable essence of the post was this: removing a racist statue is not censorship but curation.

There is a distinction between public monuments erected to commemorate someone or some event, and ‘public art’ Modern residents of a city do not need to accept the decor choices made by their forebears, decades or centuries ago!

All this has made me muse on the idea that there might be public and private forms of freedom of expression. When a monument is raised and maintained on public land, it is the city or the polity making a form of collective expression about what it values. That statement must surely be open to periodic debate, review and rejection if needs be. That is very different from an individual exercising their right to freedom of expression.

To be clear, the key consideration here is the public nature of the work. I would never object to a person erecting a statue of Robert E. Lee or Cecil Rhodes on their own property.  I just wouldn’t visit! In the private sphere, I may hate what you build, but defend your right to build it. 

2 thoughts on “On This Nasty Business About Statues of Racists”

  1. Oh well, I rather find it sad that people feel the need to resort to destruction to relieve any angst that they have built up. Honestly, I hope they never visit Florence or any area where they feel the need to make a statue pay for the sins of who it represents. If they are willing to go there, what’s next? Oh look that’s a painting of so-and-so, rip it up and let’s not forget the most common method to spread evil… let’s grab some marshmallows and have a good old-fashioned book burning. Funny thing is that I don’t have a stake in this one way or the other. Go for removing those pigeon dropping collection devices, seriously, go for it. I will get upset over the destruction of paintings and if you even get near any of my books… well, you will not survive the encounter.

  2. I think there is a rather different kind of approach that can be taken in the UK context as opposed to the USA. In the USA, the statues are very often live symbols of an ongoing racist undercurrent, for instance in relation to the Confederacy. Thus the battle over statues is part of a public debate about the meaning of history, and the symbols relate directly to the public understanding of power.

    I rather doubt this is true over statues of imperial figures including Rhodes. There are only a handful of people who would really care to celebrate Rhodes. This would be very different if we were talking about a statue of William of Orange located in Belfast, for instance. Cromwell is different: he is hardly celebrated, and is often despised, yet his statue can hardly be said to be a rallying point for anti-Catholics or anyone else.

    Thus I suspect in many cases in the UK, the better approach might be to use these public artefacts as a means to readdress their role in history. Why not add a further monument that juxtaposes their role? That would have the added benefit of reminding people that the original was a work of propaganda, witting or unwitting. If that is not possible, then a plaque that addresses what they did might be another way to highlight what will be for most people an unknown or partly remembered part of our history.

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