Thanks to Newsnight for the TL; DR version:
Here’s the discussion that followed:
One striking aspect of this conversation is the degree of anxiety about the precedent value of statue removal: as Kirsty Wark asks, ‘where do you stop?’ Donald Trump wondered the same thing in a tweet that, I suspect, he hoped would be a conversation stopper:
In a recent piece for The New Yorker, Jonathan Blitzer tells the story of a remarkable group called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective. The Collective was formed in the aftermath of the 2015 murder of nine African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina. Bringing together clergy from across different denominations, the multiracial Collective has been in the frontline of the struggle against the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville in the wake of the City Council’s decision to remove the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee from its once eponymously named park (now, Emancipation Park). Among other people, Blitzer interviews the Reverend William Peyton of the predominantly white St. Paul’s Memorial Church, ‘a native Virginian whose great-great-grandfather lost his arm at the First Battle of Manassas.’ He quotes Peyton as describing Thomas Jefferson as a white supremacist. ‘How far was Robert E. Lee from Jefferson in terms of world view? But we deify Jefferson in this town.’ Clearly Jefferson ranks lower in the hierarchy of egregiousness, seeing as he didn’t take up arms against the United States to defend the institution of slavery despite being a slave owner. But clearly, he’s not off limits in the eyes of people far more knowledgeable than I about the possibilities for change in Charlottesville.
Closer to home, my inbox—like America—is divided between responses that are supportive and critical of the movement to bring down racist statues. Here’s an instance of the latter that asks an interesting question:
cultural marxists like you dr rahul rao want to eradicate and destroy all white history and identity in america,next on your list will be the uk and then europe on your cultural marxist pograms against white identity,i am surprised you are not asking for the statue of winston churchill to be pulled down in london,do you know who the are only group apart from the cultural marxists of america who are pulling down and destroying statues at the moment in the world,yes, isis,i will leave you on that thought dr rahul rao……m***** from new york
Remember that time when Barack Obama returned a bust of Churchill to the British Embassy in Washington and Boris Johnson flew into a tizzy over ‘the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire’? It turns out that the truth was more complicated. Still, when the cultural-marxist-in-chief replaces a bust of Churchill with one of Martin Luther King Jr in the name of reducing office clutter, it does come across a bit like his own private Churchill-must-fall moment. At the time, commentators rationalised the gesture as a response to the memory of his Kenyan grandfather, who had been arrested and tortured for participation in the Mau Mau insurgency in a period that overlapped with Churchill’s postwar premiership. In 2012, a British court vindicated the claims of survivors of the insurgency, awarding them compensation for torture perpetrated by the British colonial administration in Kenyan detention camps. The lionisation of Churchill relies on an astonishingly narrow temporal view of his leadership of wartime Britain in what remains the nation’s ‘finest hour’ because—as Paul Gilroy explains—it offers perhaps the last moment of moral clarity and heroism in which the nation’s culture is, for its white majority, comprehensible and habitable before it commences its long decline. Absent from this frame is Churchill’s wider career as a man of empire—the famously blasé attitude towards the Boer concentration camps in South Africa, the unleashing of violence in Ireland, Iraq and elsewhere, the wilful exacerbation of the Bengal famine, the unabashedly pro-imperialist chauvinism considered antedeluvian even in the Tory circles of his times. It is difficult to reconcile all of this with the soaring wartime rhetoric on liberty till one remembers that Churchill’s liberalism was not far off from that of John Stuart Mill: one rule for the civilised, another for the savages. All this to say that in the statue wars, no one—yes, not even Churchill—is off limits.
But there is something more interesting going on in the whataboutery that surrounds discussions of statues. What is it that sceptics are doing when they ask ‘What about X?, What about Y?’, circling ever closer to figures at the heart of national identity, as if hoping to discover some red line beyond which everyone will fear to tread? Or do they secretly wish to discover no limit, in the hope that this will show up anti-racist protesters for what the trolling twitterati think them to be: snowflakes, cretins, ISIS-like nihilists, to mention only those characterisations at the more quotable end of the spectrum? Clearly a radical anti-racism should do nothing to assuage conservative and liberal anxieties that the core of national identity will escape unscathed, for this is exactly the point of its protest. It cannot stop short of triggering a fundamental questioning of the values at the heart of national identity, a meaningful redistribution of resources and a more honest reckoning with both pride and shame in the nation’s affective balance sheet.
And yet, while all the foundational ideas and figures should be up for scrutiny, it’s also worth pointing out in response to conservative/liberal whataboutery—in the spirit of clarification rather than reassurance—that social movements agitating against racist statues have not run amok, attacking everything. Instead, the most consequential of these movements, which is to say those that have attracted the most support, have typically been ones struggling for the removal of symbols of a continuing violence or oppression. Conversely, statues of figures whose violence remains safely locked in the past, typically because the conflicts to which they were central have been resolved or superseded by other more significant faultlines, tend not to arouse demands for their removal on account of their historic misdeeds. This makes it crucial to attend to the temporality of the relationship between the symbol and its violence.
The first suggestions in Charlottesville that the city should consider taking down its Confederate monuments came a month after the 17-year old Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman in 2012. Black Lives Matter was formed that same year to protest Zimmerman’s shocking acquittal and the narrative of blame that had begun to attach to Martin during the trial. The alarming number of young African American men dying in violence at the hands of the police and white vigilantes has come to feel like the latest manifestation of an unbroken line of violence stretching from the eras of slavery and sharecropping through the prison industrial complex into the present. Throughout this history, the symbols of the Confederacy under which the southern states fought to preserve slavery, have functioned as a banner of racial intimidation and white supremacy. While the struggle against these symbols is long-running, it gained particular traction in June 2015 when the white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine African Americans in Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The discovery of photographs of the 21-year old Roof posing with Confederate flags and other memorabilia spurred a grassroots movement to remove the flag from public spaces and triggered a number of incidents of vandalism against Confederate statues, including in Charlottesville.
Roof posted these pictures of himself on a website called ‘The Last Rhodesian’ in an apparent reference to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), the colonial territory founded by Cecil Rhodes’s British South Africa Company and named after Rhodes himself. The website features a manifesto-like diatribe in which Roof claims to have been radicalised by the Trayvon Martin case, which he describes as having made him ‘racially aware’ that blacks were ‘the biggest problem for Americans’. In a number of photographs, he is wearing a jacket decorated with flags of apartheid-era South Africa and the white supremacist state of Rhodesia. Historian Peter Cole places Roof’s infatuation with these symbols in the context of the well documented affection with which tens of thousands of white Americans, especially in the South, looked at Rhodesia in the 1970s after its white settler residents had issued their Unilateral Declaration of Independence from British colonial rule. Citing the work of Gerald Horne, he reminds us of the existence of organisations such as the Friends of Rhodesian Independence, which claimed 25,000 members in the US. As Cole puts it, writing from the US in the immediate aftermath of Roof’s heinous act: ‘That a racist mass murderer would embrace the flags of Rhodesia, apartheid South Africa and the Confederacy should end the debates about whether or not the Confederate flag can mean anything other than racism.’
From the other side of the Atlantic, we should surely flip that statement around. If the British commentariat has been relatively unanimous in condemning the violence of neo-Nazis defending Confederate memorials (and Trump’s moral failures in responding to it), it has been far more divided on questions concerning the memorialisation in Britain of architects of colonialism, slavery and apartheid. But as Catherine Bennett points out, Trump’s concerns about free speech and the slippery slope of monument removal were exactly the grounds on which Chris Patten, as Chancellor of the University of Oxford, objected to the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the facade of Oriel College (‘And how would Churchill and Washington fare if the same tests were applied to them?’). Still, the stakes are somewhat higher than Bennett’s comparison lets on. To paraphrase Cole’s conclusion, that a racist mass murderer should draw as much inspiration from the ideologies and regimes that Cecil Rhodes spawned as from the symbols of the Confederacy should inform the debates about whether or not Rhodes can stand for anything other than white supremacy. We know of course that those debates were ended less by the triumph of reason in impassioned public discourse than by the pressure of Oriel College donors, presumably horrified by the prospect of their own posthumous prosecution.
If you read one article about Rhodes Must Fall Oxford that is also about a great deal more, it should be this extraordinary memoir by Tadiwa Madenga. Writing in the aftermath of the massacre at Charleston as a Zimbabwean student living in the US and going to university at Oxford, Madenga traces the strange connections between her three countries that Roof’s radicalisation had brought to light. ‘No one knew what the Rhodesian flag looked like except for Zimbabwean immigrants like my mother and father who remembered skipping over bombs that had been planted by the Rhodesian army on the way to school’, she says. Madenga’s powerful meditation on race and identity forces us to confront how close in time Cecil Rhodes must feel to Zimbabweans from the earliest generations not to have grown up under white minority rule, which ended only in 1980: ‘There are eleven statues of Rhodes and hundreds more of men who hated Africans, yet Oxford stays beautiful even as something creeps beneath my skin, staying there until I realize that I am not cold and I am not happy.’
For South Africans, of course, the past is even closer. In a particularly telling admission, the fifth volume of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s landmark report notes, in a section on the TRC’s shortcomings, that ‘The Commission should … have investigated … educational institutions (in particular universities) … [which] should have been subjected to the same scrutiny as the business, legal and other sectors.’ As Jacqueline Rose remarks of South Africa’s post-apartheid scrutiny of itself, ‘The university was, one could almost say, the only institution that escaped.’ In the space for more militant reckonings with the past opened up by Mandela’s death and growing disenchantment with the governing ANC, it is not difficult to appreciate why movements such as Rhodes Must Fall erupted in South Africa at the time that they did, before finding fertile soil in the eternal ‘race problem’ of the upper echelons of the academy in Britain and elsewhere.
If the racism that inspired Dylann Roof was transnational in its inspiration, connecting many of the symbolic controversies with which we have recently been preoccupied, the resistance to it has also drawn strength from these different flashpoints. I am reminded by Madenga that when Bree Newsome, in a stunning act of civil disobedience, tore down the Confederate flag from a flagstaff on the grounds of the South Carolina statehouse, she explained her action as being motivated by a shocked realisation that current events seemed to be reprising scenes from the film Selma. (At an impromptu memorial for Heather Heyer, the woman who was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into her at the protest in Charlottesville, student activist Montae Taylor said: ‘I have a great-grandfather who literally has told me the same stories of what I’ve experienced today.’) But Newsome also said ‘I did it in solidarity with the South African students who toppled a statue of the white supremacist, colonialist Cecil Rhodes. I did it for all the fierce black women on the front lines of the movement and for all the little black girls who are watching us. I did it because I am free.’
In the wake of the Charleston massacre, the Southern Poverty Law Centre catalogued and mapped 1,503 public spaces bearing Confederate place names and symbols, finding the largest number of these in the state of Virginia. In addition, it dated the vast majority of these sites of memorialisation to two periods: the first two decades of the twentieth century, when Southern states were enacting Jim Crow laws to disenfranchise newly freed African Americans and re-segregate public space (the statue of Lee in Charlottesville was erected in 1924); and the 1950s and 60s, which saw a white supremacist backlash against judicially mandated desegregation and the civil rights movement. These periods coincided with the 50th and 100th anniversaries respectively of the Civil War.
Political scientist Joseph Lowndes has argued that the Jim Crow phenomenon was an attempt to disrupt incipient alliances between poor whites and blacks that had begun to form against the rich white planters. Like the Jim Crow laws, the statues were an integral element of what W. E. B. DuBois called the ‘wages of whiteness’—the public and psychological boost that white workers derived (without any alteration of their material condition) from being treated on par with whites of other classes and better than blacks. Trump’s defence of the Confederate memorials might partially be explained as an analogous disbursement of the wages of whiteness as a means of preserving his core electoral base even if, especially if, he fails to improve their material prospects through a revival of manufacturing. It is worth underscoring the cross-class nature of this base: analysts of the so-called alt-right have defended the use of this term because it captures the relatively novel entry of legions of college-educated young (mostly) men into the politics of the far-right.
The Newsnight debate revealed another anxiety in the way that words like ‘eradicate’, ‘cleanse’, ‘rewrite’ and ‘obliterate’ flew thick and fast as a premonition of what would happen to history itself if racist statues were removed. Insofar as the Confederate memorials are concerned, such a view overlooks the fact that the statues were built to promote a revisionist history that offered white Southerners a false and comforting view of the Civil War as a noble ‘Lost Cause’ fought to defend states’ rights and a ‘way of life’ of the kind immortalised in books like Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind (1936). Nothing about the way in which these symbols are currently deployed references their complex and ugly history. If Charlottesville showed us anything, it is that they continue to perform the only function they have ever had: there is a reason that a rally promoted as one to ‘Unite the Right’ chose a statue of Robert E. Lee as a symbol around which to forge cohesion amongst disparate groups.
These problems are not easily addressed via the fudge of ‘contextualisation’, which typically entails the insertion of a hastily composed message that does little to disrupt the unity and power of the artefact. The aesthetics of celebration are quite different from the aesthetics of critique. Where one places the object of veneration on a pedestal—often quite literally—the other is more invested in taking down. Part of the problem here is siting. Placed atop a state legislature or court house, or used to name schools, parks and entire counties, symbols do more than simply remind people of historical figures or events. They make a claim to represent the community. When they reference the oppression of one part of that community by another, they reiterate the act of domination and reenact the historical wound, tearing apart what they might otherwise make whole. The truly painful work of remembering is most appropriately left to museums which, at their best, can function a bit like an analyst’s couch. In the spaces of contemplation that they make available, we might finally be able to hold a mirror up to our ugly faces.