Pulling down statues we don’t like reveals the lowered expectations of progressive politics, argues J.J. Charlesworth

By J.J. Charlesworth

Confederate-era monuments being removed in Baltimore, Maryland, USA, 16 August 2017

Following the far-right protests and ensuing violence in the American city of Charlottesville, Virginia – turning on the decision by Charlottesville’s council to remove the statute of Confederate general Robert E. Lee – and Donald Trump’s flailing, bad-tempered press conference, in which he backtracked on his condemnation of white supremacist protesters to berate elements of the ‘alt-left’, the calls for the removal of historical monuments glorifying the Confederate side of the American civil war have only intensified. Unsurprisingly, the events in Charlottesville backfired badly on the alt-right’s, matching-haircut weirdos. While one poll indicated that Americans are broadly against the taking down of Confederate statues, artworld commentators have been mostly positive of the take-down campaign, swept up by the momentum of events and the heat of the rhetoric. But the US statues controversy points to a wider tension in the politicisation of culture and history that is far more about present divisions than past injustices.

In a comment piece for The New York Times, the paper’s art critic Holland Cotter declared that ‘I take the move to isolate and banish Confederate nationalist images as a healthy one. The citizen in me — daily witness, like every other American, to viral racism, the national disease — embraces the possibility of unloading traces of its history.’ Cotter’s choice of words is revelatory. His anxiety that a culture should ‘unload traces of its history’, as a ‘healthy’ move is loaded with the language of purging and purification, of a ‘viral’ racism and a ‘national disease’. Cotter’s logic of inoculation – that America should ‘cure’ itself of any last anachronistic stain of its civil war past – leads him to suggest that all these statues should not be destroyed, but rather incarcerated in special museums – gathered together, quarantined in ‘the equivalent of open storage, in conditions accessible but controlled, where they can be presented as the propaganda they are’. In similar vein, the Los Angeles Times’s Christopher Knight calls for the removal of such monuments to Confederate cemeteries and national sites associated with the civil war.

Statue smashing, as many commentators have fallen over themselves to explain in the last week, is nothing new. The deposing of hated dictators is always marked with disposing of their statues. Iraqis were quick to pull down effigies of Saddam Hussein after the Western invasion of Iraq in 2003. By contrast to being free of dictators, other regimes obliterate the old statues to impose their own rule: the Islamist zealots of the Taliban dynamited Buddhist monuments, while ISIS has destroyed statues in museums and bulldozed the ancient monuments of the Iraqi city of Palmyra, to erase all trace of a time that did not conform to the ideals of their delusional and murderous ‘caliphate’.

historical monuments have become charged by a more recent turn in the politics of race

In the West though, different preoccupations have come to bear in the arguments over the significance and power of public statues. With the snowballing anti-Confederate campaign in the US, the current state of race politics in America is the focus. There, the argument goes, monuments to those who supported the slavery in the American civil war and the racist segregation of the ‘Jim Crow’ laws continue to cast the shadow of that oppression over black Americans in the present.

In this regard, the Confederate statues controversy is only one example of how historical statues have become charged by a more recent turn in the politics of race; back in 2016 the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ student activists at universities in the UK and in South Africa mounted campaigns, among whose wider aim to ‘decolonise the university’ included the demand to have the statues of onetime benefactor and British imperialist Cecil Rhodes removed from campuses at the university of Cape Town, and later at Oxford University. The presence of Rhodes’s effigy was, according to campaigners (in an open letter to the head of Oriel College, where the Rhodes statue is mounted) a failure of the university to acknowledge the ‘institution’s past and its effects on the present’, of Rhodes’s ‘brutalities, killing, raping, expropriating and legal exclusion of Black people in Southern Africa’, and whose statue contributed to ‘the University of Oxford being an unwelcoming and hostile space’ for ‘students and faculty of colour’.

Contemporary political critiques rooted in current theories of post-colonialism and the elusive character of ‘institutional racism’ drive the renewed attention to the monuments of the racist, slave-owning, imperialist and colonial past, even as those events recede ever further into history. So Afua Hirsch, writing in The Guardian, last week sparked angry reactions with an article under the title ‘Toppling Statues? Here’s why Nelson’s Column should be next’. Horatio Nelson, the celebrated admiral who died in his victory at the battle of Trafalgar against Napoleon’s fleet in 1805, was commemorated by the monument on London’s Trafalgar Square in 1843. But as Hirsch argues, Nelson ‘was what you would now call, without hesitation, a white supremacist. While many around him were denouncing slavery, Nelson was vigorously defending it.’ Mocking British outrage at the events in the US, Hirsch writes that ‘when it comes to our own statues, things get a little awkward. The colonial and pro-slavery titans of British history are still memorialised’.

What motors the renewed emphasis on these archaic relics that litter the public realm?

Hirsch seems to forget that even by the time his statue was put up, Nelson’s side had lost – slavery had been abolished in the UK in 1833 (even though the British Empire’s colonial oppression was just getting started in earnest). So, what is actually going on here? What motors the renewed emphasis on these archaic relics that litter the public realm of post-imperial, post-colonial and post-civil rights societies, that now have nothing in common with the societies of which these statues and monuments are the last anachronistic traces? And what drives the incessant demands to ‘recognise’ the histories of oppression that these monuments obscure?

In an essay published last year for The Guardian, the novelist and academic Amit Chaudhuri discussed his response to speaking to the Rhodes Must Fall students. Comparing his indifference, as a student in 1990, to seeing Enoch Powell, the rabidly xenophobic conservative politician, speak at Oxford, Chaudhuri asks what, by contrast, ‘has made the Rhodes statue suddenly intolerable?’ Chaudhuri’s answer to himself is illuminating: ‘for an answer to this, we must look beyond the students, the statue, and the colonial past, towards the contemporary historical moment and to Britain today. It is a Britain in which, in the last 25 years there has been an extraordinary narrowing down, a closing of ranks, in favour of class and colour,’ he argues.

In other words, the obsession with old statues is really the anxiety that the past’s inequalities haven’t really gone away. Chaudhuri’s pessimism turns on what he sees as the failure of the ‘multiculturalist’ experiment: ‘about 10 years ago,’ he notes, ‘it began to be apparent that the affirmation of multiculturalism that was noticeable in Britain from the 1970s through the 1990s had failed to evolve in the way one would have predicted’. The political frustrations over the continued underrepresentation of non-white people in British society, even after two decades of positive multiculturalism, has driven critics to see inequality as more profoundly – even subconsciously – engrained and entrenched and infused throughout society. ‘Check your privilege’, the refrain of contemporary race politics, turns on the idea that racism and inequality are so inbuilt as to be imperceptible, even to oneself.

In this new culture, effigies end up becoming totemic – magical artefacts empowered with symbolic energy

In this new culture, effigies end up becoming totemic – magical artefacts empowered with symbolic energy, avatars of a time in which subjection and oppression were so overt that it’s easy to seize on their stark contrast to a contemporary culture that insists on equality and respect for difference, yet which seems continually to fail to fulfill their promise. Perhaps what’s most dismal about the shrill chorus of demands for wiping away the leftover symbols of past injustice is that this is what now passes for ‘progressive’ political consciousness. Because what’s shocking about the statue-smashing campaigns is how they embody a political attitude which would rather blame the political shortcoming of today on the far-distant past, correcting, redressing and erasing its traces to sanitise the public realm of any recollection of it, rather than face head-on the current circumstances of economic and social failure and exclusion. For all the rage over statues, it is a phenomenal act of displacement, and a morbid racialisation of politics which sets white people against people of colour – in failing economies that can’t provide good secure jobs, or access to decent healthcare or free education for everyone, or rising living standards and social and economic opportunity for all, statue-phobia is the worst form of fetishism.

Online exclusive 25 August 2017