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02 December 2015

Statues, and Changing History

George  Orwell is a wonderfully quotable author. Think of ‘1984’, ‘Animal Farm’, ‘Big Brother is watching you’, ‘all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others’, ‘four legs good, two legs bad’, for example. Amongst all the things he wrote, though, to me probably the most perspicacious was this (from ‘1984’):  “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” What made me think of that recently was the reporting of a number of arguments about statues and memorials. 

Just to recap, for a moment. In the summer of 2014, a blue plaque commemorating the birthplace of Chaim Herzog in Belfast was removed by the City Council under pressure from groups who disapproved of Herzog. I wrote an article about that at the time and I was heartened by the number of readers who commented to me that they agreed with my view that those who gave in to pressure and took it down should be ashamed of themselves. Herzog was by all accounts a decent man, he had an honourable record in the British army during the second world war and he was a respected President of Israel in later years. Why shouldn’t his birthplace be commemorated, along with all those others recorded with blue plaques?

But suppose Herzog had not been a decent man. Suppose he had been bigoted and cruel, for example. Would we still have felt that the plaque should be preserved? Precisely this issue has been raising its head elsewhere in recent months, all over the subject of statues.

Cecil Rhodes

First, since the 1930s, there has been a statue of Cecil Rhodes at Cape Town University, which was built on land he donated for that purpose. Now, Cecil Rhodes was a pretty controversial character - colonialist, imperialist, miner, businessman, philanthropist; take your choice. He was also a political figure in a South Africa of racial separation (the actual term apartheid dates from after Rhodes’ era, but the segregation it represented was the policy espoused at his time). If you were outside his own circle, he probably wasn’t a terribly nice man and his ideas are certainly ones which do not sit comfortably with the twenty-first century. There were protests at CTU - by both students and staff - and demands that the statue should be removed, as Rhodes did not fit with the ethos of the University, or indeed the country as a whole. So, a short while ago, down came the statue. Now, Oriel College, Oxford, are getting in on the act. There is a statue of Rhodes on one of the College’s buildings, and parts of the student body are demanding its removal (Rhodes left a substantial bequest to the College, and his philanthropy included the establishment of the Rhodes Scholarships at Oxford). 

Woodrow Wilson

Cross the Atlantic, and it’s Woodrow Wilson being targeted by Princeton. Well, I know generalities rather than about specific detail about Woodrow Wilson; he was the US President who took the country into the First World War, he was an influential figure at the Versailles peace talks and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919. He’s generally regarded as a liberal and - for his time - progressive president. But he was a segregationist, admittedly not unusual in the USA of the time, and that is what causes demands at Princeton for his name to be removed from certain buildings and schools. 

This is a strange issue, because I can see both sides of it. Why would we have statues of, or buildings named after, people to whose views we don’t subscribe? After all, I’m sure most of us in the West felt a degree of satisfaction at seeing that statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down in Baghdad; and possibly even more in 1989/90 when Lenin, Stalin, Dzerzhinsky et al came off their plinths across Russia and Eastern Europe. Why do we need to be reminded of - or even, to take it to the extreme, seem to be honouring - dishonourable people? It’s logical that they should be banished.

Re-writing History?

But there’s another side to it; in some ways, this is the beginning of the process of rewriting history. Rhodes, Wilson, Stalin (and I’m not equating them, by the way) all existed and lived their lives as they did. That can’t change. So think of that Orwell quote. In 1984, Eurasia was at war with Eastasia and allied to Oceania - and had always been. Except that yesterday, Eurasia was at war with Oceania and allied with Eastasia - and had always been. If by removing memorials we are also removing memory, that’s a very slippery slope. On balance, I think we need to be reminded that things have not always been how we would like them to have been, and that knowledge, held by society as a whole, is a better way of stopping them happening again than the pretence that they never happened. You can’t change the past - you can only change peoples’ knowledge and understanding of it. Rhodes and Wilson may have had some unpleasant views, but that doesn’t go away just because you pretend they don’t exist. 

(Back to metals next week, by the way.) 

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