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Toppling an odious past from its plinth

World

Talking About Revolution

Toppling an odious past from its plinth

A handout photo made available by the Bristol City Council shows the statue of Edward Colston being retrieved from the harbour in Bristol, Britain on 11 June 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Bristol City Council / Handout)

The sounds of thudding statues as they are overturned or broken up helps underscore the possibility that the United States is poised at a moment of great social change as a result of the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police. But it may also be a moment whose impact transcends the US.

 

Teach Your Children

You, who are on the road,
Must have a code
That you can live by.
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a goodbye.

Teach your children well.
Their father’s hell
Did slowly go by.
And feed them on your dreams.
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them, “Why?”
If they told you, you would cry.
So, just look at them and sigh,
And know they love you.

Can you hear and do you care
And can’t you see
We must be free
To teach your children
What you believe in,
Make a world that we can live in?

And you, of tender years,
Can’t know the fears
That your elders grew by.
And so please help them with your youth.
They seek the truth
Before they can die.

Teach your parents well.
Their children’s hell
Will slowly go by.
And feed them on your dreams.
The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them, “Why?”
If they told you, you would cry.
So, just look at them and sigh
And know they love you.

Teach Your Children, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
(Music and Lyrics by Graham Nash)

Ozymandias

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said – “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley

There is that astonishing moment in the German film by Wolfgang Becker, Goodbye Lenin, that takes place in a world turned upside down in the aftermath of German reunification. As the film’s protagonist is with his bedridden mother who is recovering from a coma that began before the fall of the Wall, out through the bedroom window, the audience can see a helicopter wheeling across the sky with a giant bust of Vladimir Lenin suspended from the body of the copter. The bust is being carried off to the knacker’s yard, or perhaps a metal recycling centre.

Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square in London, Britain, 11 June 2020. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andy Rain)
The boarded-up Churchill Statue in London, Britain, 12 June 2020. London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, said the capital’s landmarks would be reviewed by a commission to removing those with links to slavery. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Facundo Arrizabalaga)

Even though the film is fiction, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union really were drowning in statues and busts of those big figures and the official iconography of triumph from the Russian Revolution, along with the founder figures of communism. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many of these works were removed from their very public places and, now, unwanted, unloved, they have either been melted down or placed in some out-of-the-way field, a “scrap heap of history.” Still others were left in place for the pigeons to loiter on, because even the removal of such things is an expensive undertaking, and there were so many other uses for the money.

Over the years, this faux-heroic statuary has also become common throughout what we used to call the Third World. Sometimes it was even provided to countries to be the focal point on traffic circles or in front of public buildings as part of the USSR’s foreign aid package. (One unusually flamboyant example in Jakarta, Indonesia portrayed an outsized, muscular man, bearing a flaming tray overhead, presumably the flames of liberty meant to inspire young Indonesians. But, true to local humour, the work was quickly dubbed “the flaming pizza man”, instead of its intended inspirational meaning.) In time, countries like North Korea have even built up an indigenous industry to make these overblown objects – although the North Korean government doesn’t give them away, choosing the profitable sale of such works to earn scarce foreign exchange for the northern “hermit kingdom”.

The statue of Dutch lieutenant admiral and commander of the West India Company Piet Hein is daubed and smeared in Rotterdam-Delfshaven, The Netherlands, 12 June 2020. All over the world, statues of controversial people are being toppled in protest against racism. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Robin Utrecht)

Statues – their meanings and the growing discontents about them – are very much in the news now. Christopher Columbus has lost his head in the US several times now. Edward Colston has been pitched into Bristol harbour, and Belgium’s King Leopold II has been toppled and defaced, and the push is on to remove him permanently. Meanwhile, Winston Churchill’s likeness in London was boarded up once it became the centrepiece for some pitched street battles between pro- and anti-Churchill forces. Back in the US there is a growing movement to remove all of the many hundreds of images of Confederate generals and anonymous soldiers alike all across the South. And, of course, South Africa has also been the scene of a struggle over Cecil John Rhodes’ legacy – and thus his bronze likenesses – on the University of Cape Town’s campus or in Kimberley.

People look over the plinth of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol, Britain on 9 June, 2020. Merchant slave trader Edward Colston’s statue was pulled down during a Black Lives Matter protest on 7 June. Protesters across the UK continue to demonstrate in the wake of the death in police custody of George Floyd in the United States. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Andy Rain)

In the ancient world, it was routine for rulers to have their names and likenesses carved on the walls of temples, or names and likenesses put on plinths and pillars dedicated to their victorious ways and the annihilation of their opponents and enemies. When new rulers came forward, when ruling dynasties changed, or as new conquerors rode into town, the old images were defaced, erased entirely, or the stone and brick was recycled as raw material for yet newer, still more glorious monuments to the newest top dogs, like Ozymandias, perhaps, until they, too, perished.

These memorials were not constructed by the Confederate government. Instead, they were largely the efforts of white citizens’ groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, once the remaining elements of the Reconstruction era governments had been swept away by the segregationist “Jim Crow” governments that pushed their way back into control after all Union troops had been withdrawn from the South. (In many areas, the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan had been instrumental in that process.) These memorials were a part of a conscious effort to build a mythology of an honourable cause that had been ground down but which still lived on in the hearts of white citizens.

The newest spate of campaigns for defacings, beheadings, and removals seems to have drawn energy from the now-global protests that evolved out of more spontaneous demonstrations following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Together with the momentum generated by the anti-police violence and equal rights advocacy group “Black Lives Matter”, a long-simmering campaign to rid the nation of those Confederate memorials as remembrances of those who had fought on for the South (otherwise known as maintaining slavery as a repressive economic and social system) has now caught fire as well. Protesters are pushing for the removal of all of these Confederate memorials from their places of honour.

Scholars calculate there are around 1,700 still-extant memorials and statues erected in memory of the Confederate dead, or to honour generals and political leaders of the South during the American Civil War. They are scattered throughout the cities and towns of Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee that comprised the Confederacy between 1861-65.

These memorials were not constructed by the Confederate government. Instead, they were largely the efforts of white citizens’ groups in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, once the remaining elements of the Reconstruction era governments had been swept away by the segregationist “Jim Crow” governments that pushed their way back into control after all Union troops had been withdrawn from the South. (In many areas, the establishment of the Ku Klux Klan had been instrumental in that process.) These memorials were a part of a conscious effort to build a mythology of an honourable cause that had been ground down but which still lived on in the hearts of white citizens.

As The Washington Post had reported back in 2017, after the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, “In the case of the Confederate statues that have turned into powerful and, to many, disturbing symbols more than 150 years after the war, the Southern women who paid for most of the statues between 1880 and 1920 said they wanted a place to honor their fallen husbands and fathers. But the communities that erected those statues were also looking for a way to assert their doctrine of white supremacy at a time when they were passing Jim Crow laws to codify the separation of the races.”

The irony of this movement for monuments was that most of the works were actually cast in foundries in the North in either zinc or bronze, as individual town committees ordered them from catalogues of generic heroic soldiers, the so-called standard “standing sentinel” model. For a relatively modest fee, a town could obtain a rather generic one, but if enough money had been raised, a group could order individualised characterisations, a bigger memorial, or even something carved out of much more durable marble or granite.

In Richmond, the capital of the Confederacy, an entire downtown avenue was decorated with statues of leading Southern generals. And as we wrote about it five years ago, an effort to add native son, tennis great Arthur Ashe to this boulevard provoked an enormous political fight in Richmond, with opponents arguing Ashe’s presence would defile the sacred memories of “the Southern cause”. 

Now this argument has spread well beyond the US. In recent days, British protesters have thrown into the harbour a statue of Edward Colston, the hometown philanthropist and civic benefactor in Bristol, not out of annoyance with his charitable works, but because he made his money through the then-legal yet morally repugnant slave trade, in which his business was to supply involuntary, lifetime forced labour from the west coast of Africa to the plantations in British colonial outposts in the Caribbean and North America.

In Italy, meanwhile, according to news reports, “Protesters have scrawled ‘rapist’ and ‘racist’ on the statue of a late Italian journalist who had acknowledged having had a 12-year-old Eritrean bride while stationed in the Italian colony in the 1930s.

“The statue of Indro Montanelli, inside a Milan park that bears his name, has been a flashpoint in Italy’s Black Lives Matter protests, which have put renewed focus on Italy’s colonial past. Activists are also pushing for Italy to grant automatic citizenship to those born in Italy to parents who are permanent residents.

“Montanelli, who died in 2001 at 92, was one of Italy’s most revered journalists, honored by the Vienna-based International Press Institute in 2000 as among the 50 World Press Freedom Heroes. A noted war correspondent, he chronicled contemporary Italy from its colonial era through fascism, Italy’s postwar reconstruction and the anti-corruption scandals that overturned Italy’s political class in the 1990s. In 1977, he was shot four times in the legs by the Red Brigade domestic terror group. He also mentored many of today’s top Italian journalists.”

Across the southern states in the US, there are 10 major military bases named after Confederate generals. For generations, members of the military have been assigned there and then deployed from those bases to combat. Just by the way, around 20% of the US military now happens to be from minority groups and so it must be galling to be sent into harm’s way after having spent time training or living at a base named after a general who helped establish the Ku Klux Klan or to have been responsible for fighting for the right to enslave hundreds of thousands of black Americans and keep them in that status. But there is now a move afoot in Congress, despite the president’s vigorous public rejection of such an effort, to rename these bases to honour genuinely national military leaders – or, perhaps, after Congressional Medal of Honour winners.

And in London, competing groups pushed to remove a very prominent statue of Winston Churchill by virtue of his racial attitudes (and charges he chose not to do anything to relieve suffering during a particularly horrific famine in Bengal during World War II), even as others chose to oppose those protesters. Not everyone agrees about the possible fate of Churchill’s statue. As has been pointed out by a veteran British journalist, “Churchill is a thornier case. As Bill Maher noted, if you’re saying he’s a racist, did you see the other guy? I’d say he deserves a statue for winning the war but there should be a panel beside it setting out his crimes.” That, of course, could lead to a much larger conversation about how to teach the history of the men whose statues are in disgrace, and whether or not they should be moved to a museum somewhere, somewhat like the way satirist Pieter-Dirk Uys has done with the artefacts of apartheid at his Boerassic Park.

Simultaneously, protesters, either out of real or feigned anger, and, a cynic might say, perhaps from FOMO, have defaced and beheaded statues of Christopher Columbus. The argument is that by virtue of his voyages to the Western Hemisphere at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th centuries, he opened the floodgates for the conquest and subsequent decimation of Native Americans throughout the hemisphere and, then, the wholesale importation of slave labour from Africa as well. In fact, in parts of the US, the traditional October holiday of Columbus Day has been replaced by a new designation, Native American Heritage Day, although the physical effects of his exploration remain.

But the newest manifestation of a growing national change of heart in the US, however, is coming from within and about the military on the part of senior officials. This seems to mirror a national shift in public opinion as there is growing support for the broad goals of the protesters and Black Lives Matter in addressing racial inequality in the US.

Across the southern states in the US, there are 10 major military bases named after Confederate generals. For generations, members of the military have been assigned there and then deployed from those bases to combat. Just by the way, around 20% of the US military now happens to be from minority groups and so it must be galling to be sent into harm’s way after having spent time training or living at a base named after a general who helped establish the Ku Klux Klan or to have been responsible for fighting for the right to enslave hundreds of thousands of black Americans and keep them in that status. But there is now a move afoot in Congress, despite the president’s vigorous public rejection of such an effort, to rename these bases to honour genuinely national military leaders – or, perhaps, after Congressional Medal of Honour winners.

Maine Senator Angus King (Independent) wrote on social media earlier in the week, “Ulysses S. Grant [the leader of the Union armies in the Civil War] standing guard this morning in the Capitol Rotunda. West Point graduate, military genius, savior of the Union, and scourge of the Ku Klux Klan as president – but no military base bears his name.

“Instead, we have ten Army bases named for Confederate generals, most of whom violated their oaths when they abandoned the U.S. Army to take up arms against their country in service to the preservation of slavery. (If you have any doubt about what the Civil War was all about, Google ‘South Carolina declaration of secession’; the word ‘slaves’ or ‘slavery’ appears no less than a dozen times and is at the heart of the document.)

“One of these bases is even named for a confederate officer who became a leader of the KKK after the war. This week, retired General David Petraeus, described his journey in considering this question and concludes, ‘These bases are, after all, federal installations, home to soldiers who swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. The irony of training at bases named for those who took up arms against the United States, and for the right to enslave others, is inescapable to anyone paying attention. Now, belatedly, is the moment for us to pay such attention.’ 

“Yesterday, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted on a bipartisan basis to begin the process of changing these names; I voted aye. Now, indeed, is the moment.” Indeed it is.

But we would be remiss if we failed to note a long past of removing offending statues in the US. Relatively few Americans may be aware of it now, but back in 1776, on 9 July, just days after the Declaration of Independence was adopted, it was read in front of George Washington and his troops in New York City. Thereafter, a crowd that included soldiers, sailors, and ordinary black and white citizens surrounded the statue of the British monarch, George III, pulled it off its pedestal in Bowling Green Park and then broke it up into pieces. In a bit of revolutionary poetic justice, the lead of the statue was turned into exactly 42,088 musket balls for use in the rebellion. Apparently, some very detailed records were made of this, according to the 1981 article “The Statue of King George III in New York and the Iconology of Regicide,” in The American Art Journal. The statue had been in place for just six years, having been commissioned to celebrate the repeal of the odious Stamp Act in 1766, the regulation that had required the colonists to purchase official stamps for every legally binding document, with the resulting funds to help defray the costs of Britain’s war against the French in North America.

With this history of defacing statues – or worse – in pursuit of deeply held political objectives in mind, such actions seem to have roots that reach right back to the beginning of American independence – and are almost as American as apple pie. DM

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