Along with the anti-police brutality protests that erupted across the US after the death of George Floyd last month were another type of protest - against controversial historical figures. Among the statues that have come down, either pulled down or taken down by authorities
- US- Confederate generals such as Robert Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Charles Linn
- UK- slave traders such as Edward Colston and Robert Milligan
- Europe- statesmen and leaders such as King Leopold II of Belgium, the former owner of the Congo
And of course just last week the legislators in Mississippi voted to remove the Confederate emblem from the state flag
The removal of monuments and statues to some pretty reprehensible people is not new of course, it's been going on for decades. What is interesting now is that some of the statues being targeted are those who may have made some considerable contributions to Western society, but had flaws that would be unacceptable in today's era. Examples of these are Christopher Columbus
, who discovered the New World for the Catholic Monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, and opened the way for colonization of the Americas. Of course, the Native Americans, who were decimated by disease and European soldiers, have a very different opinion of Columbus.
Also in the US there has been a push to remove the Emancipation Memorial in Boston
, which depicts Abraham Lincoln seated over a kneeling slave (the original statue also stands in Washington DC and has attracted protests
. The Jefferson Memorial in Washington has also attracted calls for its removal, because Jefferson was a slave owner
. This also goes for statues of George Washington, America's first President, because he owned slaves.
Americans of course do not have a monopoly on dodgy historical figures. Most of Europe's history is wrapped up in the Age of Colonialism, where European empires competed to grab the most foreign land. Britain built an empire on which the sun never set largely by taking land from native inhabitants in India, North America and Asia. A lot of historical figures that are at the forefront of what created the Pax Britannica in the 18th and 19th centuries are now coming in for some stick, like Horatio Nelson, Clive of India, and more recently Winston Churchill, whose statue outside Westminster Hall had to be protected with a box after it was defaced and vandalized
because of Churchill's racist views towards blacks and Indians
Advocates of taking down these statues, both of people who were obviously bad but also those who were more ambiguous, argue that their actions, while acceptable in a less socially conscious era, are not acceptable today, and that having them up causes hurt to those who were disenfranchised as a result of their actions. Defenders say that one should look at the whole of the person and see how much overall good for society they did, just just on their flaws, as flaws are not the sum total of a person.
Predictably, because it is an emotive and divisive issue, President Trump has decided this latest culture war is a winner for him and he has jumped in on the side of preserving the monuments
with a speech defending Confederate (and other) statues. Among his quotes were
: "Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values, and indoctrinate our children...Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials, and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities." Conversely, Joe Biden's view
is that he "has drawn a distinction between preserving statues that honor some historical figures who owned slaves or had racist beliefs and those of Confederate figures who he said had “committed treason.”
What does everyone think? Statues are just the symptom of the larger issue, which is that human history is bloody and unjust. A lot of people who were important to our country and to other countries did bad things in the past, whether it was enslaving others who didn't look like them, owning slaves, taking land from indigenous peoples, committing treason against their country, just to name a few sins. These people also did some good things - like discovering the country we now call home, or defending Europe from tyranny, or writing our Constitution. Of course everything is in the eye of the beholder and victors write the histories.
So where do you guys stand on whether these statues and monuments should stand or fall?