As someone who studied History to an MA level, I often find myself dismayed and a little disappointed at the trivial and reductive nature by which certain historical figures and events are popularly surmised. This includes the Clinton and Nixon legacies being arraigned around scandals, the morality of the Atomic Bomb drop, and the retrospective reassessment of leaders such as Churchill.
So let’s make something clear as quickly as possible. I do not admire people like Churchill and in his case, think revisionism as related to his treatment of India is in dire need of being taught more expansively at school-level. It is true to call a man a monster on one end and an inspiring leader on another however. For generations, he was held as a key figure of inspiration for Britons, primarily for the speeches he gave during their darkest hour. That should not be disregarded as we move forward in tackling our understanding of history. In fact, I think it’s even important that the pendulum of scholarly and popular opinion swings the other way, so that we might arrive at a more reasoned disposition.
In this particular scenario, I think I’m against statues of Churchill being taken down and that is with full knowledge of him being a dick. While his legacy will continue to darken as we adopt more liberal viewpoints, his importance within his period will never change. Indeed, most statues commemorate leading figures who were at one stage beloved or felt representative of an ideology or cause within a specific framework. For that reason, I felt for quite a long time, that history should be kept on the long finger, examined but without emotional plea or reckoning from a modern viewpoint. Naturally, I’ve learned it’s not that simple.
First of all, it’s rather easy and insensitive for another white man to dismiss concerns over historical monuments and statue for the sake of preserving heritage and culture. In the US, Black people’s lives are affected by a deeply ingrained, systemic racism that branches out to government, employment, and pretty much everything, including statues. Seeing the likes of Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee memorialised is a sickening kind of reminder that while, yes, the Confederates lost the Civil War, they’re very much still the boss. I can try and do my best to be an ally but being frank and realistic, I can never fully appreciate how difficult that must be to face.
So why keep Confederate statues up then? Well, you could argue history comprises the good and the bad, that both interweave in the fabric of American culture but the legacy of the Civil War and slavery is still pertinent to today. So, maybe certain statues should be removed. Let’s face it, people are unlikely to forget these historical figures and if what they stood for is largely discredited or maligned, then what exactly are we holding them up for. Churchill, at least, fought against the totalitarianism of a greater racism in Nazism. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy, led the defected states in an effort to defend slavery. He was an important figure, yes, but one, only the very ill-nerved would try to defend.
What about Christopher Columbus then? Here’s a figure more removed from the current climate of racism and division but whose lasting imprint on American history is just as deadly, if not more so, in the eyes of Native Americans. Several statues of his have been targeted in recent weeks, including a decapitation in Boston (as the above picture). These instances have given me more pause for thought because they raise the question of just how far back we can go in our quest for reappraising history. I’ve no interest in defending his character, of course, but to cast judgment on the imperialist and colonist mindset of 15th century figures just strikes me as bizarre. Should we target everyone from the past who committed unspeakable atrocities or put aside our distaste at some point? I do not mean to be glib on this but to what extent can we remove our emotions from the past?
Again, history is complicated and the “greats”, even more so. A statue of Thomas Jefferson was toppled in Portland, Oregon recently; a founding father, who owned nearly 200 slaves, had relationships with several but who was also one of the most notable opponents of slavery in his time, calling it a “moral blot” that was the greatest threat to America. How can we reconcile such hypocrisy? You could argue that slavery was central to the American economic system but even then, you’d then have to face the fact that that system thrived because Black people were dehumanised so whites could justify their fortitude. Unfortunately, even the noblest of historical figures (like Lincoln) held views we’d be deeply offended by today.
Context is key in our appreciation for the past. We should not judge harshly but we should not ignore clear violations of human rights, atrocities, and their lasting legacies, especially when they’re still so prescient today. In this sense, I think there’s reasonable doubt for both sides on the argument of whether statues should be kept or removed. The question which then arises is who gets to decide and when petitions are ignored or not given proper evaluation (as felt with the Cecil Rhodes statue), can we not expect others to take a stand?
I’m fully willing to accept my viewpoint on this is at best limited but when history is devalued to base analyses, I think it’s important to take a step back and think. Maybe there are better ways to memorialise our leaders or reflect on past events. In Berlin, they’ve done this with the Holocaust memorial and other centres which acknowledge their darkest chapter without trying to erase or sweep over it. Maybe that’s better or maybe we do need to take on each statue with a specific lens as to what it represented, what it represents now, and will, in the future.