Of pedestals and soapboxes

Statue of Justice, blindfolded, with sword and scales

Back in 2014, I started this blog because something happened which made me so overwhelmingly frustrated and annoyed that I felt I couldn’t not say something. (If you’re wondering what it was, you can read all about it here). For almost a year now, the blog has been silent – a combination of dwindling time between a heady rush of exciting projects and performances, and not having a clear sense of what it was I actually wanted to write about. But here we are, in June 2020, and silence just won’t do any more. So for this week, at least, ladies and gentlemen, I’m back.

What, you might ask, has prompted this return? Well, you can view it right here: Oliver Dowden’s letter to the rest of his Conservative colleagues, regarding his determination not to take down any public monuments in the UK in the wake of international protests about the whitewashing of history and continuous undermining of black history and heritage. I’m not just going to rant, though, because that’s not helpful for anyone. Instead, I want to draw your attention to a few key phrases from Mr Dowden’s letter and do something I’m quite used to doing in my teaching work: offering constructive feedback.

Let’s start with ‘public monuments’ and what that term implies. I refer you to the World Monuments Fund, writing in 2017 about the removal of statues of Confederate heroes in the US: ‘A public monument commemorates a person or event, generally reflecting the sentiment of the individual or group that commissioned it. But opinions and values change over time… As local and national values evolved, these statues have become unacceptable to their communities, and the country as a whole. The decision to remove them reflects prevailing local and national values, and yet it has emboldened hate groups, who claim that history is being rewritten.’ There’s a nice little comment in that same piece later about the literal and metaphorical effect of putting something on a pedestal. It’s almost like we’ve been here before, isn’t it?

Anyway, back to OD’s letter.

In our democracy, if one wishes to change the urban landscape, this should be done through the democratic system.

Excellent, very good. ‘Democracy’ of course comes from the Greek, and means ‘strength of the people’. Not wishing to get ad hominem about this and point fingers at oh, say, a high-ranking Conservative advisor brazenly flouting the rules with no thought to the democratic system, I’d suggest that a significant number of people have sought to show the government that they expect change. So I believe that’s the government’s cue to actually do something, if they wish to uphold the democratic system.

Here’s my one of my favourite bits:

The Government itself does not propose to remove statues of memorials on its property. We believe it is always right to examine Britain’s history, but removing statues and renaming streets does harm rather than good. Our aim should be to use heritage to educate people about all aspects of Britain’s complex past, good and bad, rather than air brushing history.

Most interesting. Speaking as a historian, the idea that we have an unchanging, static preservation approach to the past is, frankly, laughable. Of course we don’t. We rewrite history all the time. And then we forget we’ve done it, and think it’s always been like that. We claim that concert audiences have always sat quietly in the dark and only clapped at the end of multi-movement works, because of a recently-imposed convention that we’ve all forgotten the beginning of. We encourage children to eat their carrots so that they can see better in the dark because we all bought the Ministry of Information’s schtick on it back in the 1940s, which is pure fantasy. We have covered drains because a historically-informed approach to hygiene and sewage would be repulsive. We fix the things that suit us, from urban layout and planning rules to cultural norms and health fads.

And then, there’s the educational aspect. Hurray for education! I’m a fan. Obviously, as previously mentioned, not ‘air brushing history’ is basically impossible. But having public street furniture that is espousing a very particular narrative is about as complex as reorganising Disneyland so that the only character you meet is Goofy. If you want us to understand more of the picture, you have two options: take everything down and make us look elsewhere for important figures, or attempt to redress the balance of the narrative your statues are telling. And what country doesn’t want a series of statues that point to imperial, colonial, military victories and might? Well… ours. Because that isn’t a subtle narrative. It allows no room for discussion. It tells. It doesn’t question.

Later, Dowden quotes the Prime Minister, discussing the Churchill statue in Parliament Square:

The statue of Winston Churchill… is a permanent reminder of his achievement in saving this country – and the whole of Europe – from a fascist and racist tyranny…. Yes, he sometimes expressed opinions that were and are unacceptable to us today, but he was a hero, and he fully deserves his memorial. We cannot now try to edit or censor our past.

Hmmm. I mean, I’ve seen movies about X-men that make subtler points about the nature of heroism and heroes than this. Also, he didn’t save the whole of Europe on his own. Also, he didn’t save this country on his own. I believe the hundreds of thousands of people who died in battle, plus those who survived with all manner of physical and mental scars, might have had something to do with that. Not that I wish to call someone who endlessly, insistently invokes ‘Blitz spirit’ as a rhetorical device as being dangerously two-dimensional, essentialist, and the opposite of subtle, but… oh. No, actually I think that’s exactly what he is.

And last but not least, Dowden’s closing paragraph:

In these challenging times, we should champion what unites our communities – across class, colour and creed. Progress does not need to be an enemy of our collective heritage.

Agreed, 100%. What unites our communities, historically speaking, is a chronic imbalance of power, wars, slavery, bigotry of many different kinds, and an absolute refusal to acknowledge any of these things openly. So for goodness sake, let’s talk about it. Properly. In classrooms, in universities, in cafes and restaurants and homes with friends and colleagues, at work – and in government. Start talking, meaning, critically, and listen to those who are not from the same ‘class, colour and creed’ as you. Oh how little you – we – know. Be humble enough to learn. And then ditch your ridiculous, puff-piece idea of ‘history’, and acknowledge that change is not just what is necessary: it’s precisely what history is.

2 comments

  • Julian Rushton

    You are so right to be angry, Katy. However, much as I dislike being fair to A. B. de Piffle Johnson, as quoted he didn’t say Churchill saved Europe ‘on his own’. And I can’t believe you remember that about eating carrots personally … even I don’t; but it wasn’t quite pure fantasy, but impure, in that it was an underhand way of getting us to take vitamin C. Which was good for us, in the absence of oranges and the like. Sorry, pedantry strikes again …

    • Katy

      Thanks Julian! And no, agreed that Johnson does not claim Churchill’s achievement to be single-handed, but it is yet another presentation of the facts as being focused around a ‘great man’ leading us to victory (surely the parallel he hopes to draw to himself) rather than acknowledging a subtler meaning. It is precisely the opposite of subtle. Glad the carrots story got you some vitamins, but it’s also something I was told as a child, and is pure nonsense – but the adults in my life believed it, precisely because it had been passed on to them by their parents, and trickled down from (mis)information spread by those in power…

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