Monday, June 08, 2020

About statues

The simple action of pulling down a statue is, in and of itself, morally neutral; it’s the context that matters. Most of us would have regarded the destruction by the Taliban of the Buddhas of Bamiyan as a bad thing; the toppling of Saddam’s likeness in Firdaus Square as welcome. So the damp demise of Edward Colston in Bristol yesterday should be viewed in the same context. Ultimately, if we believe that Colston’s egregious sins as a trafficker in live human flesh outweigh his endowment of a few entertainment venues, he should have been toppled many years ago.

Interestingly, a compromise had long been available; for the statue to remain, but a plaque putting Colston’s deeds in context to be affixed. This option was foolishly rejected by the good citizens of Bristol but an ad hoc variant was yesterday applied to Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square with the helpful addition of the words “WAS A RACIST” to the plinth.

Well, yes, he was, by modern standards at least (although it shouldn’t be forgotten that his greatest achievement was to save his country and the world from someone who made him look pretty woke by comparison). It could of course be argued that “Churchill was a racist” should be added to the pervasive “#AllLivesMatter” in a list of comments that are empirically true but not particularly helpful in the current circumstances; and the same could apply to the misdeeds of Nelson, Wellington, Cromwell and plenty of others who are still celebrated in bronze.

Not just Dead White Males either. Gandhi expressed some pretty nasty views about Africans; and many of the leaders of the American civil rights movement were less keen about extending said rights to gay people. And doubtless if we dig deep enough into the lives of recently commemorated figures such as Millicent Fawcett or Mary Seacole we’d find something that would at least spark a bit of a Twitterspat if it were said or done today. Doubtless one day there will be a JK Rowling statue in Edinburgh, accompanied by strident demands for it to be tossed unceremoniously into the Firth of Forth.


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