We now live in an age where inconvenient, ‘offensive’ history is being forcibly removed by the social justice left in an endless crusade to wipe out the historical and physical legacy of Western Civilisation and national culture.
In the United States, they are in the process of removing statues and memorials to Confederate Generals and those who followed and died for them. So far almost all states have been effected by this regressive desire to rewrite the historical narrative and create even safer spaces for what they perceive to be a traumatised populace. So far, busts and statues to General Lee, Longstreet and Jackson have been removed (usually in the dead of night) and memorials to Confederate war dead have been given the same sharp treatment with no public consultation.
Across on our side of the Atlantic, the UK has been afflicted with its own home-grown version of this with the ‘Rhodes must fall’ movement which tried to remove the statue of renowned (some might say infamous) imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College in Oxford. Luckily this was stopped, largely by the fact that a number of wealthy Oxford alumni were considering keeping their wallets closed.
In a similar vein, a campaign to remove Admiral Nelson from his column is starting to gain traction, all for his supposed role in the slave trade. His real and definitive role in defeating continental absolutism is unimportant.
At the moment, such actions are just the thin end of a potentially very large wedge. They are just a bridgehead in a looming larger conflict and like all American exports, it will make it to good Old Blighty eventually.
No matter where you live, every town in the UK has statues to some Imperial soldier, a war memorial (probably more than one), a tribute to a former monarch or a plaque commemorating some hero. From the smallest rural village to provincial towns to national capitals, we pass countless such places every day. They were erected in the context of a particular time and by a particular people, who possessed a unique mindset that reflected the era they lived in. None of which makes their views or the memorials abhorrent. They were your ancestors and often not that distant from you in time and space.
Such forced removal of our memorials also wrongly interprets history. Some of our greatest historical figures held questionable and outmoded views, at least when viewed through the skewed post-modern, post-colonial eyes of the social justice left. Churchill, in particular, was a staunch imperialist, ‘the last of the Victorians’. But his leadership and determination probably saved the United Kingdom and consequently led to the opening of a large second front against Nazi Germany. Queen Victoria was aghast at the notion of female emancipation and frowned at the Suffragette moment. I don’t know what she thought of pansexuals or otherkin.
In the United States, General Lee believed in gradual emancipation led by divine providence (A view not uncommon for the time, particularly in border states) and led the confederate army because of his allegiance to his home state of Virginia rather than any strong belief that human beings should be treated as chattels. President Lincoln may have deserved the epitaph ‘The Great Emancipator’, but his primary aim in the US civil war was to maintain the United States as a single political entity with the freedom of the slaves of secondary importance.
Closer to my home, former Prime Minister, W.E. Gladstone has a prominent statue in George Square in Glasgow. Should it be ripped from its plinth because he sent General Garnet Wolseley on imperial expeditions into the Sudan in the 1880s?
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Most of these examples concern soldiers, statesmen, and monarchs. What about scientists? When Charles Darwin visited Tierra Del Fuego and upon witnessing the sorry state of the ‘native Fuegians’ he later wrote in his diary: ‘I believe if the world was searched, no lower grade of man could be found.’ Shocking words by today’s standard. But does this mean that his intellectually poised statue in the Natural History Museum should be removed much like ‘dippy’ and replaced with a different one that better reflects our contemporary era?
To put people into binary archetypes of ‘good’, ‘evil’, ‘offensive’, ‘inoffensive’ is to lose sight of what many of these people actually were: human. Neither Angel or Demon, but human. Often this involves holding conflicting views. Something that the social justice left likes to forget with its onus on human perfectibility and equality.
Of course, removing statues, plaques or memorials doesn’t mean that the event didn’t happen or the person didn’t exist. Removing what one group deems to be offensive does us all a disservice in its attempt to expunge history from the records as well as patronising us with the notion that we can’t accept uncomfortable truths about the past. We can. Most of us are adults.
Also, the idea of a single individual elevated above the general populace is anathema to the social justice left. If you earnestly believe in the absolute equality of everyone, which many of them seem to, then how can you have heroes in a society? No one deserves to be venerated above anyone else. You aren’t allowed to have historical and cultural highs to aspire to. Just a uniform insipid, cultural mush; all in the name of ‘equality’.
On a more personal note, I have recently returned from a trip to Poland where I visited Auschwitz. The name itself comes loaded with preconceptions and emotional baggage. It was a heart rending experience and the camp is filled with a sense of deep, lingering sadness and isn’t a place that would warrant a return visit.
It would have been relatively easy after the Second World War to blast the place into oblivion, to try and cleanse its presence from the soil. But I feel that it is best to examine the dark heart of humanity, face our worse abuses and then stare our demons down no matter how difficult this may be. Only through this can we come to an understanding of our nature and try and ensure that such places and atrocities are never brought forth again.
All events, one day, will pass from the realm of living memory and into recorded history, only accessible through some form of media. When that occurs the only physical evidence left will be our memorials, our artifacts, our statues, our plaques, our weapons, our buildings, our tools; this will be all that remains to remind us of events, even if they make us uncomfortable.
What would leave a greater legacy for future generations? Intact plinths, memorials and public spaces where we have to explain the complexities of human history, motivation, culture, politics, and emotion, and then reflect on them? A place where we can ponder the past and perhaps contemplate the future? A place where we can feel that we are just another generation, one out of a multitude, sometimes no better or worse than those before us. A place where we can see that our ancestors bequeathed us with a culture, a civilisation and a way of life; if often messy at times?
The alternative is flat, stark, barren places, where history was physically removed because one generation, far removed from events, deemed their presence to be too ‘offensive’ for them?
I know which future I would choose.