Whitewashing History

The recent protests by white supremacists and openly racist members of the far Right of America in Charlottesville Virginia are an aberration on civil society, interpersonal cooperation and the idea that all are created equal. The latter is reiterated in the American Declaration of Independence which itself holds no truck to racism or discrimination. The slave trade was an abomination of human history, millions of people ruthlessly stolen from their homes and transported by force to another continent, forced to labour under pain of death. This stain on our common humanity should never be forgotten. Opposing views on this action are commonly cited as the main cause of the American Civil War, the leaders of the Confederacy often painted as racists and white supremacists in the process. The majority of these men indeed held immensely racist views though others, for example Robert E. Lee whose statue was the cause of the events in Charlottesville more than likely did not, and instead fought the Civil War on the basis of state independence. Lee himself is quoted as having written to his wife Mary Anna that ‘slavery as an institution, is a moral & political evil in any Country’ 

In recent years however, there have been moves by significant numbers of people to remove all traces of controversial figures and events from our public world. Whether this be the Oxford Union’s petition to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriol College , Edward Colston in Bristol or the subsequent attempts in the USA to remove all statues, plaques or other commemorative items relating to those that fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War. This is concerning.

There can be no doubt whatsoever that in the two named examples the individuals were involved in some of the most barbaric, brutal and inhuman actions imaginable, to celebrate their lives is a mockery of what is means to be a civilised nation. However, that is not to say that by removing the statues or plaques that we are able, or should wish to, whitewash our history. Let’s not forget the numerous other statues of historical figures involved in such terrible actions that have been allowed to be erected or to remain; Genghis Khan stood proudly in Marble Arch despite having been responsible for the deaths of approximately 15 million people, Oliver Cromwell standing in Westminster despite having been responsible for the deaths of over 200,000 people and holding deeply xenophobic and anti-Catholic views and the statue of Lord Salisbury at Hatfield, a man who oversaw the creation and operation of the first concentration camps in history during the Second Boer War. These tributes are not limited to the UK and USA either, they appear in China (Chairman Mao; responsible for 55 million deaths) , Russia (Josef Stalin; responsible for 60 million deaths) , France (Maximillien Robespierre; responsible for 30,000 deaths and the institution of ‘The Terror') and many more. Many of these monuments could be considered to be inappropriate, to be offensive to people of a varying political standpoint, but to remove them would be to attempt to whitewash history. These things happened. To try to forget about them would be to risk repeating the same mistakes.

As many people reading this will be unsurprised to read, my opinion of the majority of these people is not just negative but I find them completely abhorrent. I cannot support what they did or stood for nor would I claim to the right to try to justify or glorify them, and their actions certainly should not be celebrated. However, where will this end? Winston Churchill stands proudly in Parliament Square but his views on empire and the place of the West in relation to the rest of the world are murky at best, Abraham Lincoln has a monumental statue in Washington despite his view that there should not be equality for all races and Thomas Jefferson, the man who drafted the afore mentioned Declaration of Independence was a slave owner. Nobody can deny the positive impact these men had on the development of Western society as we now know it, but I am concerned that once the statues of those on the losing side of history have been torn down, the next targets will be those whose views may not fit into our modern view of humanity.

Were these statues modern phenomena, were they glorifying the work of the founding members of the Nazi Party, the Ku Klux Klan or Al-Qaeda then of course they should not be commissioned or erected; the key point here seems to be time. We are now at a place where there are no (or at least very few) survivors of the times these statues are in memory of, this makes them an easy target. The beliefs of those who protested by torchlight, as though it were a sixteenth century witch hunt, are vile. The groups in general believe that there is an inherent stratification of races on which they assume primacy.

The United States has hideous problems of race inequality and institutionalised racism borne out by an innumerable number of studies relating to arrests, poverty and prison sentences. It has also been pointed out in recent studies that media representations of minorities are disproportionately negative when compared to those of white people, for example, in a study of Hollywood movies in 2014 89% of black women were characterised negatively (swearing and behaving offensively) whilst only 17% of white women were portrayed similarly. Many people see the continued presence of these monuments as being allied to the nation’s inability to confront and rectify it’s race problems. This is a logical step to make but it assumes wrongly that without a statuesque reminder of past events that the negative and destructive opinions of present day people would also disappear. Prejudice is out there, racism exists in and of itself not as a result of people walking past statues of people who held similar views. Take down the statue and these people will still find places to congregate. We will not win this fight by attempting to erase our history. We can only win by confronting the views head on.

It has been said that without the statue of General Lee, who let’s not forget was a decorated servant of his country whom Lincoln himself asked to lead the forces of the North, there would have been no gathering. This is a fallacy. The cause that these people rallied around was a perceived threat to their nation’s history. In the South of America the spectre of the Civil War still looms large, many states would still take, if offered, the chance secede from the Union and the war itself is still within familial memory (i.e. many people will have had great-grandparents who fought in the conflict and will have been raised with the stories of their actions and sacrifices). Think about your family, think about the stories that will have been passed down through generations of your relatives’ experiences in the First and Second World Wars. Now think how you would feel if we had lost those conflicts. How would you feel to be told that your ancestors were vicious racists who deserved what was coming to them? That your country, your people, were propagating evil? That they fought and died for an immoral cause? This is what many in the Southern states experience in their history classes. The history that is taught is, and always has been, one of black and white (excuse the pun). It takes account only of overarching themes and views and all stand accused of the same crimes regardless of individual actions or opinions. This is why the wounds are still raw some 150 years after the end of the conflict.

Slavery was a primary cause of the American Civil War but it was not the only factor. Consider other human conflicts, how often has there been only one cause? There are multiple factors which play into each descent into war supplemented by a ‘trigger issue’ which was in this case slavery. The people who fought for the Confederacy did so because of a sincere belief in their cause, we now know what happened to their cause and many of their views and, thanks to the Nuremburg Trials we know that in the eyes of the law, all are equally culpable for their actions regardless of rank. I would argue that this is a particularly difficult problem to assess. In a military situation, where you are forced to comply, initially through conscription and then by the system you find yourself in through fear and coercion, it is human nature to obey the orders of those above you. The training you are put through removes your natural response to question orders and authority where you otherwise would. In war there is no place for questions. You are taught to act and not think. There will be the noble few who stand up for what they believe to be right and though we all would like to believe that we would be members of that group, I suspect the majority of us would comply. My point here is that yes, the things that many of the high leadership of history believed in were immoral, but by demonising the people they forced to carry out their will we are not doing justice to those who gave their lives in vain. A true humanist and believer in equality should mourn the death of a German soldier in World War One as much as a British one. Neither elected to go to war and if they did, it was on the basis of a tremendous propaganda campaign designed to conflate issues of humanity with issues of nationhood.

The crest of my small hometown of Kettering shows a manacled slave with his chains cut in tribute to the work of anti-abolitionists like William Knibb and yet I worry that if we continue down this road of eliminating from public consciousness anything that runs contrary to the prevailing dialectic we will soon be in a situation whereby even a celebration of the end of a dark chapter in our history will be blanked from the minds and teachings of generations to come. If we remove all statues of all people who to our modern eyes held unacceptable views where would we be? Mount Rushmore would only have the face of Washington (Lincoln and Jefferson have been previously discussed and Roosevelt was known in his time as a jingoist with a thirst for colonial warfare), Nelson’s Column would be empty given his behaviour toward the Irish, attitudes towards the slave trade and his assistance in putting down a Republican uprising in Naples leaving the people to the merciless whim of their monarch and even the statue of Christ the Redeemer would be demolished due to Jesus’ own moral ambiguity and teachings of division (Luke 12:51 ‘Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division’), not to mention the idea of religious insensitivity in a multi-cultural nation.

We have seen what happens when a nation attempts to whitewash its own history, in Soviet Russia, in Afghanistan, in Iran, in countless other nations. It never ends well and almost always results in a more oppressed population unaware of how things could be.

The statues in tribute to overt racists should not be in existence, however, they are. In attempting to remove them all we are doing is giving publicity to their views and giving their supporters a cause. Surely a more socially and culturally profitable endeavour would be to erect statues of those who opposed them, of the people who showed that their opinions were not those of a civilised and grown up world. We must also stop defining the lives of those people by a single issue; as discussed Robert E. Lee was not an overly pleasant character but he was entirely reflective of his time. We cannot erase history and nor should we seek to. This road leads to a worrying conclusion but is one paved with good intentions. Personally, I say leave the statues where they are as a reminder of what happened, of who these people were and as an eternal monument to the battles for equality and liberty which we have won. Without a reminder of what could have been, how can future generations be sure that the result was a positive one?