Iconoclasm is back. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, progressive activists have pivoted from a narrative that most could unite around—police brutality is wrong and, in the killing of George Floyd, looks very racist—to divisive demands, which allow right-wing politicians to regain the initiative and rile up their bases. Christopher Columbus, King Leopold II and slave-trader Edward Colston are among the high profile casualties of this new wave of statue toppling. Local authorities in the unlikeliest of places have panicked. It is hard to imagine anywhere less politically radical than the upper middle-class, English seaside town of Poole. Yet its council planned to put into storage the statue of Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the scouting movement—until outcry from local residents saved it.
Part of the reason why this debate seems so circular is that protesters and their critics derive competing conclusions from the same premises. Both believe that public spaces belong to everyone. But protesters see this as meaning that every constituency needs to approve of a statue for it to stay up, while their critics take it to mean that unilateral action by a single group is unjustifiable. This is the age-old question of how far the wishes of minorities can and should be respected in a democracy, reframed.
Each side accuses the other of playing with history. Statue defenders argue that reducing historical figures to their worst actions ignores the complexities of the past. But the same objection could be levelled at statues in the first instance, for the images they project are hardly neutral. Is glorification any less reductive than demonization? Some have suggested a compromise: plaques could acknowledge offensive actions and racist views. But do we expect the average passer-by to read a long paragraph on the nuances of the man towering above her? Rather than trying to make statues give a complete picture, we need to decide on a case-by-case basis whether someone is worthy of a statue or not. Admittedly, this is easier said than done. But something resembling a consensus is more likely to be achieved within council chambers—where representatives are forced to listen to one another—than through directionless shouting on social media.
How should we judge historical figures? Progressive campaigners argue for the cultural contingency of Enlightenment values, but then apply them across history. Meanwhile, classical liberals argue that Enlightenment values should be applied across the world—without regard to culture—but then turn into postmodern structuralists when addressing the past. It is obviously true that the values of no era are homogeneous: the slave trade had many contemporary critics. Plenty of figures can be considered abhorrent when judged against the principles of their own times. Yet, as progressives concede when they argue that statues are incompatible with our values today, certain beliefs can still be dominant without being universally accepted. Certainly, we should not infer from precedents that people understood choices the same way we do now. An ordinary Confederate soldier knew that others had decided to fight against the Confederacy—some southerners even joined the North. But it still seems wrong to tear down his memorial. After all, it is likely that most people outside the intellectual elite took their cue more from their families than from abstract ideologies.
One way to resolve this issue would be to have statues of men and women who were progressive by the standards of their own times. Yet historical figures cannot be clearly sorted into progressives and racists. Take British Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809–98). Campaigners at Liverpool University have successfully removed his name from a hall of residence, on the grounds that his father owned slaves and Gladstone advocated for compensation for plantation owners. But Gladstone supported abolition—even if not as forcefully as some—and called for the boycott of slave-produced sugar. Caught between his Christian morals and his father’s plantations, Gladstone held views that were more naive than nasty. He worried that the reunification of the United States after the American Civil War could lead to the reintroduction of slavery in the North. He expressed admiration for Jefferson Davis, but wanted European governments to lobby the Confederacy to abolish slavery. Moreover, Gladstone was more progressive than his contemporaries on many issues. In speeches to the public, he strongly criticized atrocities and abuses committed in the name of the British Empire in the Opium, Afghan and Zulu Wars: “Remember the rights of the savage, as we call him … Remember that the sanctity of life in the hill villages of Afghanistan, among the winter snows, is as inviolable in the eye of Almighty God as your own.”
Despite Gladstone’s equivocations on slavery, then, as well as his prejudice against Jews—an issue which, incidentally, has received far less attention from campaigners—you would struggle to find a prime minister to whom anti-imperialist movements owe more than they do to Gladstone. He also oversaw an expansion of the franchise and the abolition of paper duty, which made it easier for working-class literature to be published. So, when Guardian journalist Owen Jones says that the statues of imperialists and racists should be replaced by those who fought for progressive causes, he will find that the two groups are harder to distinguish than he thinks.
This goes for non-white figureheads as well. Dr Charles Irving recruited the ex-slave Olaudah Equiano—whose abolitionist credentials few would dispute—to help him select slave labourers for his plantation on the Mosquito Coast. Toussaint L’Ouverture led one of the only successful slave revolts in history. But, during the early years of the rebellion, he helped the French repress black insurrections in what his otherwise favourable biographer, C. L. R. James, called an “abominable betrayal.” Gandhi was racist towards Africans in his early life. Progress is not made by angels, but by hypocritical and prejudiced human beings. If those who sometimes compromised their morals are considered too problematic, there will be almost no one left to memorialize.
What about only having statues of present day figures? But then, won’t we be left with the same problem one hundred years from now, when those we thought acceptable have views that are no longer considered appropriate? Let us not even assume that societal attitudes will become more progressive. Nationalism has been on the increase. Maybe we will reach the point where anti-racist heroes have their statues torn down for their ignorant equalitist views, or for not being sufficiently supportive of the nation. Progressive activists might then regret having fed a culture war over statues—creating precedents that could be used to justify a world where the only statues are marble Donald Trumps.
Perhaps we should go back to basics—and simply say that statues are there to memorialize the positive contributions historical figures have made. In countries with an ethnically diverse population, someone whose career revolved almost entirely around trading slaves can no longer be said to have provided a lasting benefit to the people who make up the nation. So down goes Edward Colston. Meanwhile, Gladstone, who was moderate in his opposition to slavery, but helped people in many other ways, stays up. Statues only become an endorsement of all aspects of a person’s life if we choose to see them that way.
Taking down statues does not inherently erase history. No one is going to forget about Colston and the slave trade anytime soon. Indeed, images of statues coming down can encapsulate a moment of history moving forward—as the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad or George III’s in Manhattan centuries earlier did. Yet, while, in a dictatorship, statues are often designed to inspire veneration towards the current ruler, statues in a democracy remind us that our society owes something to a past against which present politicians might be judged. Lord Nelson, Edmund Burke and William Gladstone may have held imperfect views on slavery. But they helped forge the British nation and British democracy, and their statues are there to remind people of that. If taking down statues provides an opportunity for learning via the debate it provokes, so does putting them back up.
Statues populate our histories. Removing one or two probably won’t make much difference. But remove too many, and you weaken the historical memory of the general public—for whom statues hint at heritage. When we no longer recognise past figures for their contributions, the present is easier to manipulate. Those who have seen regimes tear down old statues and put up new ones in their place know this only too well. Milan Kundera writes of the busts of Lenin that replaced the old statues in Soviet-occupied Prague: “They grow like weeds on the ruins, like melancholy flowers of forgetting.” His homeland, he laments, was left with “the ghosts of monuments demolished.”
Get rid of stone men, then, and you leave behind a country of ghosts. Admittedly, some ghosts may be horrific phantoms, which are better exorcised. But, if we create too many ghosts, we will leave a nation cursed, for the erasure of old figureheads facilitates the creation of unworthy idols. Few would support carving Donald Trump’s face next to George Washington’s on Mount Rushmore. It would look too absurd. But a stony Trump face, all by itself? That is far easier to imagine.