A World of Statues (and Why You Should Help Tear Some Down)

Friday, June 26, 2020

Rome, Italy
Amid the wave of protests that have followed George Floyd's killing, the US has seen Christopher Columbus beheaded in Boston, Confederate generals toppled nationwide, Washington and Jefferson felled in Portland, and other public statues targeted by Americans protesting the country's longstanding racial injustices and inequities. Recognizing the writing on the wall, even some southern Republicans are dropping their opposition to the dismantling of these symbols. Also, statues aren't the only symbols under attack: pushback is growing against the Confederate flag, which was recently banned at Nascar rallies.

The trend has spurred action beyond the US, too. Across Belgium, statues of King Leopold, brutal oppressor of the Congo, have been defaced or torn down. In Bristol, England, protesters wrenched a statue of slave trader Edward Colston from its pedestal and flung it into the harbor. Oxford University suddenly relented to a longstanding campaign to remove a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes. And on the non-statue front, the Netherlands may finally be giving up its absurd and anachronistic justifications of its national blackface tradition.

Those who oppose dismantling these symbols claim that our shared history is being attacked—or even erased. Some of these arguments are simply misguided; others are disingenuous attempts to preserve emblems of oppressive hierarchies. All of them are flawed.

A statue is a highly visible, unambiguous expression of who and what a society values, devoid of any context or nuance. It proclaims in hard stone or cold bronze who a society venerates as a hero, who we put on a pedestal. Sure, most days we walk past them without noticing. But if one percent of people who pass them on a given day notice them, and one percent of those bother to wonder who the person is, then inquire of a friend or Google, it nonetheless extends the hero's legacy, denoting in clear, public terms the values that the society has chosen to elevate and celebrate.

Even the worst and dumbest among us can grasp the symbolic importance of statues. That's why in 2001 the Taliban (a totalitarian cult intolerant of diversity) dynamited the Bamyan Buddhas, or why in 2003 US military units (steered by the same administration that overthrew the government of a traumatized nation without any rebuilding plan) assembled reporters before felling a Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad.

For nearly as long as we've been erecting tributes to today's heroes, humans have been tearing down yesterday's. In ancient Egypt, successive kingdoms often destroyed the relics of their predecessors (as when a certain boy king named Tutankhamen destroyed his father's short-lived sun temples and reinstated the old gods). The French Revolution was famed for its rowdy mobs that attacked statues of royals and saints. In 1991, Russians marked the USSR's collapse by tearing down the statue of the KGB's founder in Moscow. And in Algeria—a place dear to my heart—upon independence in 1962 exuberant locals set about removing statues of colonial-era oppressors and renaming streets for liberation heroes. (For a fascinating glimpse into that period, see this thread by historian Dónal Hasset. Note: His thread quotes Fanon's description of colonial Algeria cited in the title above.)

Zagreb, Croatia
So, amid the current wave of statue-toppling in the US and elsewhere, what's a reasonable person to do?

Lend a hand.

That's right, I suggest you roll up your sleeves, set aside qualms about legality for a moment, and go help tear down any statues that celebrate immoral values with no place in today's society. Sure, some will gripe and say it's wrong. But here's three good reasons to join in despite their objections:

1. No, we don't need statues to prevent us from forgetting our history. We've got history books, history classes in school, historians, and history museums for that. Statues are symbols of veneration, not sources of learning.

Here in Germany, where I've spent the last three months, no rampaging mobs have torn down statues. Why? Because the statues worth removing are already long gone. As part of its extensive effort to move forward responsibly from the horrors of the Nazi-era, the country removed public celebrations of Hitler and his regime. And despite what some Confederate fantasists might argue, Germans haven't forgotten their past. If anything, their attitude toward it is much more evolved than we Americans' own reaction to our Civil War—even if we've had a century more to sort ourselves out. Although celebrations of the painful past are gone, reminders of it still stand: here in Kassel, where I've spent the last few months, at the end of our street stands a hulking brown building that, during the Nazi era, housed the regional Gestapo headquarters. It has been left intact ever since; a plaque out front explains its history plainly and lists it as a "state memorial site."

2. No, the fact that street action sometimes goes awry isn't a reason to soft-pedal. Should that statue of Ulysses S. Grant in San Francisco have come down last week? Probably not. Although Grant's legacy on racial issues was complicated, many have argued that he was on the right side of history in this regard. Fine, we've all learned a few things about Grant's legacy in the past couple days, now go put the statue back up and let's get back to work.

Hoping to head off such events in their own locales, these days many political leaders are appointing committees to review local statues. While well intentioned, those efforts may prolong more harm than they prevent. The Colston statue in Bristol illustrates why: Bristol residents had campaigned in vain for years to have the statue removed. But no matter how many op-eds, petitions, and proposals they floated, conservatives in the mayor's office, local council, and the town's elite managed to block action. Recently, a committee was formed to take input from schoolchildren and write a new, more "woke" plaque for the statue, but it collapsed into bickering over wording. A shady group called the Society of Merchant Venturers, which proudly (!) traces its heritage back to the town's original slavers, often managed to block progress. In short, efforts to use the democratic process to fix this problem were going nowhere, because that process was in the grips of people disinterested in progress, and because the statue was already up. But this month, when local residents flung Colston's statue into the harbor, they instantly reversed that status quo. Suddenly the onus was on the reactionary elites: You want that statue back on its pedestal? Then you go use the rusty levers of democracy to convince a majority of us to spend public money to fish it out of the harbor.

Too often in our society, the status quo endures for too long because those in power make excuses for not changing it. Was the Bristol protesters' solution crude? Perhaps, but sometimes that's what it takes to move things forward.

(Side note: British artist Banksy reportedly suggested a compromise for Bristol: "We drag him out the water, put him back on the plinth, tie cable round his neck and commission some life-size bronze statues of protesters in the act of pulling him down. Everyone happy. A famous day commemorated.")

3. No, we don't "owe" it to historical figures to maintain their statues. You know who is actually owed? The people those "great" figures oppressed. Not much we can do about that today. But we also owe something to those who suffer from the continued legacies of that oppression. Those people are alive, and these days most of them are calling for the statues to come down.

They are the minorities and traditionally marginalized groups in our societies, and they want change. The heroes we place on public pedestals symbolize our values, as explained above, so where better to start? Just as statues symbolize a society's values, toppled statues symbolize something, too: the intent to forge social change.

In the book I'm currently writing on modern Algeria, I am exploring several themes around popular revolution. I keep returning to one critical distinction: In every revolution, there are revolutionaries who want to tear down the system and build a new one based on better ideals, and there are other revolutionaries who want to keep the system in place but make sure they're the ones running it. So much of a revolution's course and ultimate outcome is determined by which of those two currents predominates.

Just as they have throughout human history, today those two currents are dueling in the streets and public parks of America, at the foot of pedestals bearing bronze men on horseback. And they're dueling around the world, wherever statues still stand as monuments to antiquated values. This moment is too important for us just to swap out some officials and reshuffle the deck chairs. If you, too, want real change, not just a changing of the guard, toppling statues of immoral figures seems like a great way to signal grand ambitions for what's coming next.

Not convinced yet? Consider this: the current occupant of the White House thinks it's awful that ordinary Americans are tearing down statues of Confederate generals. And when has he ever chosen to stand on the right side of a historical issue?

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