Opinionista Ismail Lagardien 15 April 2021

Words, memorials, statues, their meanings, righteousness and all that jazz

Who deserves a ‘monument’? There are hundreds of statues and monuments across Europe that celebrate military victories, warriors, soldiers and military leaders. You would have a hard time finding a statue or a monument dedicated to a pacifist, nor non-violence, non-sexism, and with very few statues or monuments dedicated to women.

Several years ago, I punched a friend, Marc… I punched him, and said (something like), “don’t ever do that. Not when I’m around, and even when I am not.”

“No, no. Wait,” he said. “I am gay.” Marc had referred to someone as a “flaming faggot”. Sure, I was being a bit of a twat, but I was sincere. We were in London. It was the early 1990s, and I had over the years become (very) finely tuned to detect bigotry.

Fast forward a few months later. I am at Highbury (what was once the most sacred place in football — don’t @me), we shouted abuse at Tottenham Hotspur fans. After the match, we went down the Nag’s Head for a pint. I overheard someone at a table refer to Spurs as those “@#$%&$% Yids”. I got back on my high horse, but a mate held me back: “No, that’s their nickname. Spurs call themselves ‘Yids’”. After that, I stopped hurling abuse (mainly football banter) at Spurs, because it just felt wrong to harangue a group of “Yids”.

Here we are today, almost three decades later and we are (for all the right reasons, but unreasonably) erasing words, twisting meanings and determining who may or may not say something or another. I’m with them, of course, but as Roy Campbell wrote all those years ago, “They use the snaffle and the curb all right, but where’s the bloody horse?”

To be serious, for a moment, I want to repeat something I said a few years ago, and which was turned against me. Words have meaning, I said. They can be offensive and hurtful. If I called you (insert name), “a bitch” it would be offensive and hurtful. The combination of the word “bitch,” my use of someone to illustrate my point, turned me into some kind of an abusive monster. It did not end well.

Let me go back to the late 1980s or early 1990s. A conscientious objector was invited to speak at Sowetan’s regular “Conversations” gig initiated by the deputy editor, Joe Thloloe. The speaker explained his refusal to serve in the old South African Defence Force, and his willingness to serve the mandatory six-year sentence imposed on conscientious objectors. He explained that once he was in the slammer (with other whites) he was asked probing questions about the “bloody k-word”. David stood up to the thugs, and said, before we continue this discussion let’s first agree on the use of the word (the k-word).

Here we are a quarter-century into the 21st century, and our attempts at interpreting the world are no longer sufficient; the point, after all, is to change it. This change ought to be organic, radical, and rescuing, or restoring the dignity of people who were victims of wars, colonial expansion, slavery and abuse. Our chosen methods include toppling statues, as well as reconsidering words that some may find offensive.

I say “some may find offensive” because there are societies around the world where, for example, Citrus hystrix, is an important ingredient in local cuisine. Colloquially, the Thais refer to Citrus hystrix as “kaffir lime” (leaves). In parts of Uruguay, the name “negrito” is used daily in many contexts, without any malice. Like the way I would refer to a cousin as “slams” or a bra as “bushie”.

Anyway, when the former Liverpool football player, Luis Suárez (not a pleasant person, it should be said) used it, he was sanctioned. When Edinson Cavani of Manchester United used the word, (he said “Gracias Negrito” in a social media post) he, too, was sanctioned.

Sometime in August 1996, while on a walk through a national park, a couple (a woman and a man) from New England were shocked and surprised that I referred to myself as “coloured” (it had become exhausting explaining South African racial politics — especially black consciousness politics over and over). “Oh, no,” the woman said, “we don’t say that in America”. My partner said: “Don’t reply. Please. You know where this will go.”

War, actually

I guess by now, dear reader, you can sense my confusion, consternation — and seriousness. One thing that I have some insights into (sadly) is war, warfare and its impact on social conscience, and on society in general. Yes, I may have studied economics and political economy, but for some reason war, strategy and intelligence were easy-peasy as an elective. This brings me to the toppling of statues of bad people. Let us set aside the issues of remembrance and forgetting, for now. Some of my views on this are well known. Imagine we’re down at the Nag’s Head, having a Nelson.

Anyone who has visited Europe, and who pays attention to these things, may have noticed that there are hundreds of statues and monuments across the continent that celebrate military victories, warriors, soldiers and military leaders. You would have a hard time finding a statue or a monument dedicated to a pacifist, nor nonviolence, non-sexism, and with very few statues or monuments dedicated to women. There is a statue of Marie Curie in Warsaw. And a statue of Florence Nightingale is sort of an addendum to the Crimean War Memorial. It’s always war. The history of Europe, the British historian, Michael Howard says, was shaped on an anvil of war. And, for every war, there is a statue or monument.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, there were large-scale changes of political organisation in the east of Europe, which precipitated mass topplings of public statuary that celebrated leaders of the now-dead communist rule. In Budapest, the city council had by mid-1994 removed more than 20 monuments including those of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. At the time there was some support for the removal of the Red Army Monument, but the mayor’s office resisted. “History should not be re-written again. Despite what happened later, the Russian army played a very important role in the Second World War and actually did free this city from the Nazis. The Russian soldiers who died — and many died — deserve a monument.”

So who “deserves” a monument? Let’s take the example of the firebombing of Dresden, a place that is close to my heart. The firebombing is considered as a historic benchmark of the power of strategic bombing, but in many ways it was unnecessary, and the near-complete destruction of Dresden is also considered by some as having been hugely unjustified. The city could have been spared, like Paris, Rome, and Kyōto.

The firebombing of Dresden — a smouldering hellscape with virtually nothing left of its baroque architecture — was the inspiration for Kurt Vonnegut’s anti-war novel, Slaughterhouse 5. Vonnegut was a US prisoner of war held in a subterranean bunker in the city. His use of science fiction, and his own eyewitness accounts, were a reminder of the brutality and barbarism of World War 2.

Fast forward to June 1992, and the unveiling of a statue to Sir Arthur Harris in London, in part to commemorate the loss of 55,573 aircrew during World War 2, but also in celebration of Harris’ role in the firebombing of Dresden. The mayor of Cologne and Dresden made known their objections — as did the Peace Pledge Union in London. That year, a visit by Queen Elizabeth to the city of Dresden was greeted with a demonstration by local people for the role the British played in the carpet-bombing of their city. She offered no apology, instead using the “both sides” suffering trope. This is significantly different from one of the greatest photographs of the post-war period; of Willie Brandt kneeling as a sign of atonement for the millions of Jews who were killed by the Nazis.

The cult of the monument and statuomania resulted in 36,000 war memorials being erected throughout France and its overseas territories, including Algeria — which was always considered as France’s southernmost province. Let’s leave the last word on monuments and statues to everyone’s favourite commentator on “the greatness” of the US, Alexis de Tocqueville, who said (in 1837) “I have no doubt that we shall be able to raise a great monument to our country’s glory on the coast of Africa.” I wonder what the Africans had to say about all this…

We live in peculiar times. All of the above may or may not be relevant. But it should make us sit up and take note of the meanings of words, monuments and statuaries, and what they mean to different people. In the final analysis (kinda) it’s okay for Beyoncé to write about the size of her buttocks because they’re just too “too bootilicious” for anyone else. And anyway, hip hop artists can use the N-word, the H-word, the B-word — the Spin Doctors got away with singing, “It’s been a whole lot easier since the bitch left town” — but be careful when you ask for a hoe to use in your garden.

There’s a lot above that’s serious, and a lot more that’s absurd. DM

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All Comments 5

  • A glorious take on the ramifications – intentional or otherwise – of words, thoughts and actions. The perils associated with an unfettered or non-reflexive engagement with either !

  • Let us not forget that a battle or a war, is won by the side who makes the least mistakes, but the victor gets to write the history.
    Ismail, your comments are always read with much appreciation as they give many different insights.

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