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We should not let sleeping giants stand

Nelson's Column. Photo: PA - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

The special relationship is alive and kicking. White Anglo-American establishments are always there for each other when times get rough, like that bridge over troubled waters.

The statue of 19th century politician Cecil Rhodes on the front of Oriel College, Oxford. Photo: PA – Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

In 1776, the new nation declared itself independent from the old. But like the conflicted fathers and sons in Homer’s epics, the kinship grew stronger. The US and UK are always allies in every war, however misguided and destructive. Trump, volatile, unstable, is going back into Afghanistan. The UK jumps up and goes there with him. With culture conflicts too, the majority of influential Brits stand shoulder to shoulder with their American blood brothers. They did over last year’s (non-violent) protests in Oxford over the imperial chauvinist Cecil Rhodes and again during recent eruptions over memorials to the Confederacy in the USA which brought out vile and violent white supremacists.

The script is the same and entirely predictable. History is sacrosanct and its symbols should be preserved forever. The civilized try to understand history, learn from it; barbarians destroy the bad past and repeat it. These solemn intonements are made by politicians, hacks, public intellectuals and academics. They dissemble. And are duplicitous. Or obtuse.

A consensus is manufactured. Even our liberal newspapers have been full of disgruntled readers who want to let sleeping giants stand, who believe that some successful slavers carved in stone knew that enslavement was evil, who think talking and shouting about Rhodes and Confederacy statues is creating social discord. Afua Hirsch, a challenging and thoughtful British journalist, of Ghanaian/Jewish heritage wrote a column on Britain’s slave traders and their defenders whose statues are all over the land. Nelson is one of them. She called for the removal of the dishonourable men because they ‘energise’ neo-fascists. Outrage swelled up, poured out, burst the banks of rationality. Hirsch was a ‘stupid woman’ who knows nothing. She is dangerous because she wants overthrow ‘glorious British heroes and the past’. She is attacking our most valuable ‘freedoms’. She should be made to shut up. And so on. This is how truths get flooded over.

Within living memory, both these self-righteous states have actively wrecked monuments and erased history. In March 2003, British tanks demolished two of Saddam Hussein’s statues in Basra. More dramatically, that April, American soldiers encouraged a few Iraqis to help them topple a huge Saddam statue in Baghdad. This became a symbol of Iraqi support for the illegal war. Much of it was fixed and used for propaganda purposes. I do not remember private school history boys damning the vandalism then. They stood by too, as, by 1993, Poland had brought down 2,000 statues of communist-era figures. The government is carrying on with this political cleansing. (See Post-Communist Poland: Contested Pasts and Future Identities, by Ewa Ochman, Routledge, 2013). Ukraine got rid of 2,300 statues of Lenin at the end of communism. This stirred no protective instincts in western historians or politicians. So forgive me if I don’t take seriously their preciousness over Rhodes, Nelson or the Confederate champions. Selective moral outrage is simply special pleading.

Statues and paintings of Saddam Hussein suffered damage during the last week of the war in Iraq. Photo: PA – Credit: ABACA/PA Images

Monuments in public spheres are there to impart messages and complex stories. The inert stone object gives off waves, emotional energies. Nelson’s statue in Trafalgar Square is an abiding statement of British victory which today freshly enlivens xenophobic Brexiters.

There is a black sailor at the foot of the column too, close to Nelson. That proves we Britons of colour have long been here, that this is our country. But the admiral ardently supported the slave trade, which complicates matters. Nelson can keep towering over me and the pigeons in London’s most famous site. But people like me cannot and will not buy into the triumphalism. Millions of Americans and Britons cannot bear such realities.

Knowledge to them means disempowerment because it forces them to question their cherished myths and fables, all of which reassure them that white is right and always mighty. They now face mounting rebellions against set narratives. Jewish groups in New York are demanding that the statue of Peter Stuyvesant, the anti-Semite, first mayor of New York City be removed. Christopher Columbus may go the same way, much to the chagrin of Italians. Here, after campaigning by artists and anti-racists, the Colston Concert hall in Bristol is dropping the name of rich slave trader, Edward Colston. His statue still stands. For now. Richard Eddy, a Tory bigwig in the city, is appalled that this ‘great Bristolean’ and history have been betrayed by ‘forces of historically illiterate political correctness’. Do these people hear themselves? Who is really politically illiterate?

I don’t think we should destroy these irksome monuments. But they can’t be left there without challenge. Germans have kept Nazi sites and turned them into statements of regret and forewarning. The Gestapo HQ in Berlin is now a museum where millions go to learn about evil. This is the example Anglo-Americans need to follow. Yes, the Hun has much to teach those who beat them in the war.

Traditionalists who cling to the status quo need to know that insurrectionists are not giving up any time soon. As David Olusoga, the black British historian, writes: ‘This, ultimately, is a battle of ideas, political struggles in which versions of the past that have long gone uncontested.’ Lies, lies and hypocrisies will no longer be accepted. Brave new world.

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