Jun 142020

In the wake of the tearing down of many US statues of Confederate generals and in the UK, the removal of a statue to a slave trader in Bristol, there is an ongoing debate about the status of statues in the public space.

And some pretty daft things have been said about it.

One of the daftest is the notion that they represent our history and destroying them is destroying our history; no they don’t and no it isn’t. History is a lot bigger and more diverse than the handful of historical (in some cases) so-called heroes.

The best a statue (almost always of an old white dude) can achieve in that direction is to spark an interest in history. And replacing the Bristol statue of Edward Colston with a statue of Paul Stephenson would have very little effect on this “sparking effect”. From a purely ancient history perspective, I might prefer one to Robert Fitzharding, but given that there is no shortage of statues to old white dudes, someone else can take centre stage.

The Bare Family

In the US, it is rather peculiar to say the least that many US cities have statues to traitorous (not to mention racist) Confederate generals. Even ignoring the political question of why they are there, a fair few of them have little to no aesthetic value – if I were one of those dead Confederate generals, I’d be saying “Look, I may have been pretty ugly but at least I looked human!”.

But it gets on to an interesting point – we don’t so much worship the real people depicted in statues as our idealised version of them. In the case of Confederate generals (and ignoring the conscious and blatant racists), some view these as heroes of states’ rights which is more than a little invented – those making up the Confederacy were quite happy trampling on states’ rights when it came to achieving things they wanted (such as the return of run-away slaves).

In some cases the myth of the man (and woman in some rare cases) is enough to justify their statue despite what they were like in life – for instance Churchill was a racist and an imperialist but he also represents anti-fascism, Britain’s war leadership, and the initiation of the European state project.

There are those who would point to the Bengal famine of 1943 as a reason why he should not be venerated in statue form. He certainly deserves criticism for his handling of that famine and bears some responsibility for it, but he hardly caused the famine and there was plenty of other things going on at the time.

Back to the Confederate generals … I don’t think their myth is sufficient to justify the continued existence of their statues in the light of their very real crimes.

In the case of at least some statues, their origin story can be more interesting than expected – for instance there is a statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the British parliament that was put up in the late 19th century. At the time, it was felt that putting up such a statue was rather provocative given the situation with Ireland at the time.

So no public money went to funding the statue; a ‘benefactor’ paid for the statue, but it was put up in the public space anyway – kind of missing the point!

But is the violent removal of such statues justified?

Normally, no. But in some instances, yes.

In the case of the Bristol slave trader, people have been trying to have the statue removed through official channels for over twenty-years! If you do not have a sensible way of handling reasonable objections to questionable statues in a reasonable time frame you can’t get too upset when people resort to direct action.

There must be a sensible, timely, and semi-democratic mechanism by which statues in the public space can be removed – perhaps if 25% of the local electorate vote to remove it, it should go. Whilst this is not properly democratic, if a statue is offensive to a quarter of the local population it seems not unreasonable to remove it.