I met a traveller from an antique landWho said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stoneStand 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 readWhich 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 decayOf that colossal wreck, boundless and bareThe lone and level sands stretch far away."
Thursday, June 18, 2020
Statues, monuments and the need for real action
Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelley
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,