Thursday, June 18, 2020

Statues, monuments and the need for real action

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."
Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley

The destruction of the statue of Edward Colston (1636-1721) in Bristol as part of  Black Lives Matter protests is part of a continuing process of destruction or removal of historical monuments that interfere with current sensibilities. By all accounts, Colston was a man who contributed greatly to Bristol and to philanthropic more broadly. Some of his foundations survive to the present time. He also made money from the slave trade, money that helped support his later philanthropy.  

As an historian, I may bewail actions such as the removal of the Colston monument. However, both the creation and destruction of monuments are political acts that form part of history. I am defining political acts in the broadest sense to include religious institutions and actions. 

In a very real sense, there is no distinction between the destruction of Buddhist relics by the Taliban in Afghanistan, the destruction of cultural heritage by ISIS, the dissolution and destruction of the monasteries by Henry VIII, or the removal of the Colston monument today.  I am sure that you could give many more examples.

I recognise that this may cause some people to bristle. How can you compare the destruction of monuments and historical relics by ISIS or the Taliban with removal of statues associated with slavery or the American Civil War?  That's crap, some might say. 

It's simple. In both cases you have monuments, structures that reflected beliefs and values at the time. Now you have a different set of beliefs that dictate destruction or removal. In both cases, you are dealing with absolutes. How one responds to those absolutes depends upon one's personal views and values. And that is affected by time. 

A Pharaoh may have been evil, a king evil, but we still flock to see their sites. Indeed, the worse they are the more the more we come. The further back in time things go, the easier it is for us to do this. Monument destruction occurs when monuments or sites gain current relevance. The Buddhist monuments may have been ancient, but to the Taliban they represented a current threat, something that had to be removed. To the demonstrators who want the statues removed, they represent symbols of a past that needs to be expunged. 

History just is, a far country that we seek to understand. Historiography, the writing of history, is always entangled in the present. If you look at national historical narratives across the globe you will find that they reflect national perspectives in ways that can confuse and distract to the point that the same events might have occurred on different planets. Even the "facts" themselves, things that you might think were certain, become blurred. 

The same things hold for particular historical schools and movements such as the debate about recent colonialism and the post colonial world. Other examples include childhood, the family, feminism and the role of women, family life or the sometimes convoluted debate linked to class and power structures. 

As an historian, I find the varied debate is helpful in highlighting different aspects of the human past, although it's difficult too. The history I am writing now is very different from that I was writing thirty years ago. Now I struggle to work out how I might fit all the new bits in!

At a personal level, I do struggle with the continuing changes that have taken place over my life time. I can agree with people on particular issues, but also reject the way that those different bits are strung together in new purportedly historical narratives that I think are fundamentally wrong. 

This links back to the question of monuments. The debate here has, to my mind, only a limited connection to history.  History is important, but it's really about perceptions and values. This doesn't make it easier to manage, but it does help a little. 

One of the things that has, I suppose, caused me most concern is the polarisation. I am a member of a Facebook group of past and present history students. It's a good group, a civilised group, that plays a significant role in student support where so many students are learning remotely. Yet here the question of statues and other monuments has become so contentious. so issue and value laden, that the administrators have had to terminate one member and then ban statues and monuments as a topic of discussion for the moment. 

I am fortunate that my friendship group spans from the far left to far right. Sometimes that's difficult. Do I let some views go without comment even when I greatly disagree with them?  I have noticed that friends on both sides have started unfriending others who disagree with their views. I have also noticed that one side effect is the hardening of attitudes. As part of this, views that were once peripheral on both left and right are becoming mainstream.

I think that this is unfortunate. It will be no secret that I think that we need a new compact with Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. That requires the capacity to listen, to accept hard truths on both sides. I wonder now if that is possible. Have we become so polarised, so locked into questions of right and wrong, that the twain cannot meet? I fear that might be the case.     

How to handle? 

To begin with, there is no point in getting entangled in macro value debates. The canvas is so broad, so value and emotion laden, that much discussion and argument lacks actionable content. Better to disentangle and deal with specific issues. 

Consider this. Most people agree that Aboriginal incarceration is a problem, with 28% of adult prisoners from indigenous backgrounds coming from 3.3% of the population. So what can be done? 

The first step is to actually scope the problem and this involves statistics. If we look at the statistics, we find that the growth in ATSI prison numbers is especially concentrated in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, Queensland to a lesser degree. These are also the areas that seem to have had the greatest focus on law and order, on things like truth in sentencing, three strikes policy. These things affect socially deprived communities in particular.

If I'm right, is is possible to change the basis approach to law, criminology and incarceration? If we cannot do that, how do we reduce the vulnerability of ATSI people to the application of the laws. Is that even possible given views and attitudes in the broader community in each jurisdiction? 

We have to ask these questions. They are hard questions. We cannot answer them by pap, I say pap advisedly. Arguments based on generalisations, on value assertions, just won't wash. At best, they may provide a climate for reform. At worst, they may actually impede reform. We actually need action, Do we want to reduce Aboriginal incarceration rates, recognising that this may be a slow process? 

I don't have answers to this. I just want to see us taking action, 




Tikno said...

Primordialism culture in the era of the kingdom, the distinction of the position of certain groups in the era of colonialism, white supremacy, still carried over to the present day. It must all be removed in the digital age.

Justice and racial equality. Start from ourselves by asking whether I'm feel racist or look down on other races. Act now. Educate our childs since born about that.

Anonymous said...

The story concerns a massive bonfire in which the people of the world, convinced that their modern society has reached a state of near perfection, determine to burn up all the outdated old knowledge from Man's dark past. It begins:

Once upon a time - but whether in the time past or time to come, is a matter of little or no moment - this wide world had become so overburdened with an accumulation of worn-out trumpery, that the inhabitants determined to rid themselves of it by a general bonfire.

The above is the opening sentence of a lengthy essay, "Earth's Holocaust" by Nathaniel Hawthorne, published 1844


Watching current events in America - destruction of statues; the banning of wrong-thought; etc - I am reminded of the above.

And to save you the time of a full read, it is noted at the very end that the one thing the mob has not consigned to the fire is "the human heart" -

“And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery — the same old shapes or worse ones — which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes"


ps: it is actually worth the time to read in full - antiquated language and all.

Anonymous said...

Jim this link is of no relevance to your post topic but I thought it might be useful for some later analysis:


Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Tikno and kvd. I'm sorry for my very slow response. I have been distracted on other things.

Tikno, the problem with the digital age, i suspect, is that it has revived or accentuated distinctions that I thought were dead or at least dying. This includes various forms of racism including the concept of the "white race" Ironically, this has come especially from the left. An associated problem is the growing confusion about and conflation of ethnicity, religion and race. A further problem is the continuing misuse of history through the application of false constructs. I was looking back over some of the things that I have written here and its probably worth re-visiting because my changing reactions over many decades provide a perspective on current arguments.

kvd, those quotes from Hawthorn are very good. I have bookmarked the essay to read properly. I have also bookmarked your second link. It is worth discussing.

Tikno said...

But the "dead history" is not easy to be burried in the land because history will always be told for generations.

Jim Belshaw said...

That's one of the problems, Tikno, I guess. When I went to the UK for the first time I found the sense of history oppressive as compared to Australia's relative youth outside Aboriginal history. History is always reinvented to meet current needs. In so doing it can reinforce past grievances, past divisions, provide a base for new sins.

We can see this at present in Russia (Putin), China (Imperial power, territorial claims), the US (President Trump, removal of monuments)> Greece looks to the Byzantine Empire, Turkey to the Ottoman Empire and never the twain shall meet. Mussolini wanted to recreate the Roman Empire, Hitler used historical grievances to support attacks on Jews and the creation of a greater German homeland, Australia promotes Australia Day and the country's perceived military traditions. And so it all goes on.

As an historian, I understand all this and indeed have used history to try to bring about change. But when working as an historian, I am bound by evidence and the canons of the craft. This can be very uncomfortable when you find yourself challenging deeply held views. It can be even more uncomfortable when your own views are challenged!