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When Monuments Fall

Moral complexity may be an argument against unthinking iconoclasm. It is not, however, an argument for never taking down statues.

... Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson built as late as 1948. They were not commemorating the history of Maryland, or of the Civil War, but rewriting the history of the war as a just and moral struggle, to justify the present-day denial of rights to African Americans as also just and moral.

... Generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson built as late as 1948. They were not commemorating the history of Maryland, or of the Civil War, but rewriting the history of the war as a just and moral struggle, to justify the present-day denial of rights to African Americans as also just and moral.

What statues of Colston and Lincoln, of Churchill and Lee, tell us, then, is less about these figures themselves than about how later generations wanted to retell their stories in a way that buttressed the demands and desires of a particular elite. The fact that statues are not straightforward expressions of history, but ways of shaping memory, is not, though, an argument that necessarily makes their removal more valid. The arguments for taking down statues are often as ragged as those for retaining them.

Histories and biographies are both complex narratives, rarely cleaving to “good” and “bad.” On both sides of the statue debate, there is a reluctance to acknowledge that complexity, and a tendency to look only upon one aspect of a historical figure, whether good or bad, and to make that the only issue worth discussing. Figures such as Churchill or Jefferson have long been celebrated for their great deeds, while their despicable acts or immoral views were overlooked or ignored. Many in Britain have still not heard of the Bengal Famine, or of Churchill’s role in it, or know little of the brutal reality of the British Empire. More people in America probably know of Jefferson’s slaveholding, but until recently, it has barely figured in national discussions.

National and imperial history has long been whitewashed, and the sordid, immoral aspects of the lives of revered historical figures have often been airbrushed. That does not mean, however, that critics of such history should themselves adopt a one-eyed view—that we should damn Churchill or Jefferson for the deplorable aspects of their lives or views without also considering either the historical context or their other qualities that might make them historically significant.

Even those usually seen as progressive figures often held deeply regressive attitudes. William Wilberforce, for instance, is generally celebrated for his campaigning against slavery, yet he was also hostile to working-class suffrage and believed that trade unions should be suppressed. Leading Suffragettes such as Emmeline Pankhurst supported eugenics. Gandhi expressed racist views about black Africans during his early career in South Africa: because of this, a statue of him was removed from the University of Accra, in Ghana, in 2018, and there have been calls for another statue of him to be removed from Leicester, England, and for one not be erected in Manchester. The demand that we should only celebrate or honor those without moral stain is a demand for a fantasy world expunged of all moral complexity.

There is nothing wrong in principle in removing statues: icons are created, icons are torn down—this has happened throughout history. Moral complexity may be an argument against unthinking iconoclasm. It is not, however, an argument for never taking down statues. What we should avoid, though, is ...