The new iconoclasts

Protestants in the Reformation did it, ISIS do it, and now the new generation of entitled and perpetually offended students are doing it: they want to remove statues of people they don’t like, on the basis that those people weren’t entirely and impeccably pure. In Oxford, the statue of Rhodes has attracted the most opprobrium, with a campaign - led by a student on a Rhodes scholarship - which gained a lot of publicity. Even though “For decades, students walked past the Rhodes statue without a thought,” the students demanded that it must go because Rhodes was racist and colonialist. Since then, they have moved on to Queen Victoria, with a group at Royal Holloway demanding the removal of a statue of her on the grounds that, yes, she was racist and colonialist.

Image: Anders Sandberg, via Flickr

There’s no denying that by present-day standards, Rhodes was an appalling figure, with some decidedly dodgy views about the supremacy of the Anglo-Saxon race. At the time, however, those views would have been considered normal. That, surely, is the lesson we need to learn - rather than trying to obliterate history, we need to understand the forces that shaped the movements and opinions of the past, and ensure that we do not allow them to prevail again. And that will not be achieved by tearing down statues of people whose views we don’t like. Indeed, one might argue that it’s good to have those statues around, as a constant reminder of the failures of the past.

Once you’ve embarked on this programme of destruction, I wonder where you stop. Might the European counterparts of the Rhodes campaign have a go at Charlemagne, for example? There are statues of him all over the continent, despite the fact that he dedicated his life to subjugating most of Europe to create an empire.

Photo: Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8645438

Or what about Hannibal? Another guy whose life’s work was conquering the nations around him, often using his brilliance in military matters to bring about mass slaughter of his enemy?

By Thesupermat (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Closer to home, you need only stroll for a while around London to find some statues of guys (and it’s nearly always guys, Queen Victoria notwithstanding) that it would be easy to hate. Henry VIII must be a leading contender. Quite apart from what he inflicted on his six wives, he was a destroyer of culture through the dissolution of the monasteries (nice iconoclastic parallel there) and loved torturing and executing his opponents. He’s definitely got to go.

Mike Quinn [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Outside the Mother of Parliaments stands a statue of Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector, revolutionary, and really not a very pleasant human being. His exploits in Ireland, where he was responsible for a series of atrocities including the mass killings of civilians, still resonate today in the discourse of Irish politics. So he’s definitely gone.

By Tagishsimon, via Wikimedia Commons

I could go on, but you get the point. It seems to me you’d be hard-pressed to find a public statue of anyone who would pass the various tests that the Rhodes Must Fall campaign want public statuary to pass. The statue-bashing is one element of a wider movement that seeks to remove all that offends it. At its extreme, it leads to a desire to literally expunge history, as these students at Western Washington University wish to do. We need to resist them. Once we start with the statues, the books will be next.

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