by John Quiggin on June 12, 2020

As statues of slavers are pulled down around the world*, we are getting the usual stuff from the political right about rewriting history and so on. This is obviously silly. Less than twenty years ago, the same people were thrilled by (misleadingly edited) images of US forces pulling down a statue of Saddam Hussein. A bit before that, Lenin and Stalin had their turn.

Wondering about other cases, I looked at Wikipedia to find out about memorials to the personification of treachery against the United States, Benedict Arnold, who won a number of military victories for the American side in the Revolutionary War, before changing sides. It turns out that there are a couple, but he is never mentioned by name and, in one case, is represented by an empty niche. As Wikipedia observes, this is a striking instance of the practice of damnatio memoriae.

On one view, the idea here is to erase all memory of those whose memorials are destroyed. But this doesn’t happen, at least not reliably. With the exception of Washington, Arnold is probably the only Revolutionary War general most Americans could name. And the effect of the latest protests has to bring attention to the evil acts of men who had long been forgotten.

Thinking more about the example of Arnold, one way to deal with monuments of this kind is to remove the status, but leave the plinth and the original inscription, along with an updated version explaining the history.



BruceJ 06.12.20 at 12:17 am

Given that the vast, vst majority of such statues were put up during the early 20th century “Lost Cause” push in support of Jim Crow, they’re not even history, but propaganda.

They should be melted down and used for something appropriate to their history and meaning, like anchors for garbage scows…


john halasz 06.12.20 at 12:32 am


J-D 06.12.20 at 12:55 am

The more I think about it, the more I feel my preference would be to have no statues of this kind at all. Do I mean no statues of any kind? I’m not sure I’d want to go that far. But why are statues of identified individuals things we should have? How are we better off for them?


Chas M 06.12.20 at 1:24 am

Years ago I was working in London for a short time and came across Benedict Arnold’s London house in Marylebone. The plaque reads, “Major General Benedict Arnold, American Patriot, resided her from 1796 until his death.” Heh.


Chetan Murthy 06.12.20 at 1:58 am

Monolingual American that I am, I don’t really understand enough of the history of the British Empire and specifically the experiences of people of color in Britain, to understand whether the push to topple statues to slavers and assorted [nationally treasured] evildoers is justified or not, justified at the present time, or not. I’d like to understand that, though. I’ve read at least one blog of someone whom I otherwise respect, who bemoans knocking down Colston’s statue as just another example of lawlessness. I don’t know whether to agree with him or not, but ….. I’m inclined to not, simply b/c I have some understanding of the British Empire and what it inflicted in its colonies, as well as things like Windrush. But it’s hard to tell, from so far away.

I wouldn’t mind learning, though.

[For sure, the statues to the Fucking Lost Cause and the Dixie Swastika in America should have been torn down and melted for slag long ago. And as to the question “why now?” the best answer is: “why TF not now, cracker?”]


JanieM 06.12.20 at 2:26 am

I often think about other kinds of statues we could have — statues of ordinary people, maybe, or ordinary people who became quiet heroes. Statues of people who endured, with dignity. Or even without it.

Or a statue of Robert E. Lee picking cotton, maybe with a fence around him to signify the impossibility of escape.

Something creative.

Because all this tosh about erasing our history inspires a question: What is our history? Hello, it is a whole lot more than a bunch of war leaders.

Elsewhere on the web tonight, someone is appreciating the Make Way for Ducklings statues in the Boston Public Garden.


Matt 06.12.20 at 2:54 am

A bit before that, Lenin and Stalin had their turn.
In Russia, lots of statutes of Lenin were taken down, but then a lot of them were put back up again. Although Lenin’s crimes are large in number, I’m in general not opposed to the statutes, I think – he’s too important a figure and has significant achievements. There are few Stalin statutes standing in original places now, I think. The ones I’ve seen are in museum like settings, and seem fine to me there.

With the exception of Washington, Arnold is probably the only Revolutionary War general most Americans could name.
It’s hard for me to know about “most” Americans, but lots of them could name Lafayette and many who lived in the NE, at least could name Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben. (It is, perhaps, ironic that more people might be able to name “foreign” generals.) Alexander Hamilton is better known for other things, but was a revolutionary war general, and many, perhaps most, people know of him. At least in NY, George Clinton is also well known (not least because of Fort Clinton in Manhattan.)

Ethan Allen is perhaps better associated with furniture, but was a general in the Militia. Samuel Adams is probably better associated with beer now, but was a leader in the navy, and John Paul Jones is pretty well known as a naval commander, too, because of his “I have not yet begun to fight” statement, if nothing else.


KT2 06.12.20 at 2:56 am

JQ says “… represented by an empty niche. As Wikipedia observes, this is a striking instance of the practice of damnatio memoriae.”

Banksy has come up with “memoria amplificationem” and this brilliant idea for toppled statues.

“Banksy unveils idea for the future of toppled Edward Colston statue

He said it ‘caters for both’ sides of the debate

The statue was torn down from its plinth during the Black Lives Matter protest on Sunday, June 7 before it was then dropped into the harbour as jubilant cheers roared across the city centre and harbourside.

“We drag him out the water, put him back on the plinth, tie cable round his neck and commission some life size bronze statues of protesters in the act of pulling him down.

“Everyone happy. A famous day commemorated.”

Banksy on instagram…
instagram com/p/CBNmTVZsDKS/

I know a decedent of “Governor Lachlan Macquarie, statue in Hyde Park, Sydney”. He is amazed it is still there.

The Scomo statue, [Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison] current on the drawing board, will be coming down soon… ABC today reports ” While on Sydney radio [ yesterday] discussing the removal of statues like those of Captain James Cook, Scott Morrison said there was “no slavery in Australia”.


Alan White 06.12.20 at 4:30 am

Every day for almost forty years I drove past a house in my commute to the campus that had a “lawn jockey” prominently displayed on the driveway. That owner finally died/moved out but two houses down another magically appeared–maybe the same one, who knows. These offend me at least as much as those celebrating our racist past–maybe more because they are such insulting caricatures and obviously placed as a particular statement of overt racism. Hell, even Disney years ago stamped out all traces of its similar stereotyped horror “Song of the South”. I’d like to know how prevalent these moral monster mini-statues are. (For years when I drove to Tennessee to see my Mom on the outskirts of Louisville off I-65 there was a yard monument business that had hundreds of these on display–the city that supposedly is the proud home of Mohammed Ali. What a sick culture we are.)


bad Jim 06.12.20 at 7:53 am

Some monuments may offer visitors practical accommodations, as Byron noted:

Posterity will ne’er survey
a Nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss!


Aonon 06.12.20 at 9:18 am


blockquote cite=”Hell, even Disney years ago stamped out all traces of its similar stereotyped horror “Song of the South””> they may have done quite recently, but it was readily available throughout the 90’s and 00’s in Europe.


Anonon 06.12.20 at 9:35 am

“push to topple statues to slavers and assorted [nationally treasured] evildoers” – I would be surprised if most people in the UK had even heard of Colston before last week. Hell, most people in Bristol only know the name because it’s literally everywhere.


Thomas Beale 06.12.20 at 10:31 am

Well, the intelligent question about the removal of statues such as Colston, Rhodes etc isn’t whether they should be removed, but under what public process they are removed. If such ‘adjustments’ are made with little or no public process, or simply by the actions of a mob (no matter how correct that mob may be in its internal analysis of things) then the physical action has been performed without advancing the wider public understanding of the issue / person / history in question. More honest and open public debates that lead to the same results (in at least some cases) are clearly a better path. Unilateral monument destruction just gets the backs up of those who have not yet contemplated the issue, and even some who have but don’t like vandalism.


Hidari 06.12.20 at 10:55 am

in a similar way, the monument to mark the Heart of Midlothian, (site of a particularly brutal prison/execution site) in Edinburgh has traditionally always been spat on by passers by (understandably enough, this tradition is said to have begun the prisoners themselves)


Trader Joe 06.12.20 at 11:23 am

About the only thing statutes can teach us is that history changes as its people do. At the moment a statue is commissioned and placed is usually the moment that the honored person’s mythos is at its greatest height, it only goes down from there until either

A) The flaws of the person are revealed through subsequent analysis and review of the details that surround the mythos or;
B) The person becomes a “who’s that?” that no one cares about any more other than as the answer to a difficult question on trivia night.

In either case the right answer is removal – probably to be replaced by some different persona that will eventually run through the same cycle.

I wouldn’t be bothered if all statues of all kinds were removed. I can think of exceedingly few I have seen anywhere in the US (or in much of the world for that matter) that couldn’t be tainted with some stink if viewed with the right lens. Even the “make way for ducklings” statue referenced above probably violates some tenet of PETA that I don’t comprehend.


Lee A. Arnold 06.12.20 at 11:34 am

Remove the statues including the pedestals and place them in a new National Museum of Damnatio Memoriae. Or build these museums at the regional level. Give full accounts of who the person was, what they did, and of the statue: why they were memorialized, and who memorialized them. Include the full histories not only of the person but of the statue too. Do NOT erase history because it will sooner happen again.


Lee A. Arnold 06.12.20 at 12:12 pm

For example, it must always be remembered that Robert E. Lee recaptured his escaped slaves and watched while they were whipped and had brine poured on their wounds, and then he fought to preserve that system, and then the statue of him was built. All of this should be engraved on a placard under the statue, right next to the account of how long, and the exact reasons why, the nation suffered his statue in the public square until the events which finally led to its removal.


Chris Bertram 06.12.20 at 12:34 pm

@Thomas Beale in Bristol the public process was underway for many years, with public debates etc (one of which I chaired). A solution to augment the statue with a plaque detailing Colston’s crimes was agreed in principle, but then the Society of Merchant Venturers tried to water it down and local Conservatives threatened direct action to remove any such plaque! We had the honest and open debate and the protesters have now implemented a solution that the local public is happy with.


Kiwanda 06.12.20 at 1:58 pm

It seems like a no-brainer to pull down statues of people who don’t deserve that kind of veneration, because they are remembered for things we now recognize to be awful. A harder question is whether anybody deserves that kind of veneration: is there anyone whose contributions, whether creative, political, military, or humanitarian, don’t also come wrapped up with other characteristics that range from foibles to monstrosities?

Quite possibly not. But MLK is not remembered for (allegedly) cheating on his wife and plagiarizing his thesis, but for the movement he lead; statues of him are not just about him, but about that movement. Churchill is remembered, not for the horrific famine he was responsible for, but for leading the defense of his nation. Jefferson is remembered, not for raping his slave, but for his role in the steps toward better government that America took. These struggles toward human freedom and dignity, or in their defense, deserve remembrance, and sometimes that memory is held through the leaders of those struggles.

I’d like to think that the full complexity of history, and actors in it, can be remembered and understood; that we can do better than to replace the Lost Cause mythology with the 1619 mythology. But maybe not.


notGoodenough 06.12.20 at 1:59 pm

Personally I rather like the idea of an empty plinth with a plaque saying “Former site of statue to Robert E. Lee: noted terrorist who betrayed his oath and killed his countrymen in defence of slavery”. After all, if it is (as is being claimed) purely about the history, then no statue is needed and a simple plaque would seem adequate (after all, books are also a thing, and might even be able to better contextualise the details than a statue would).

I would be fine with that being extended to all such figures (Francis Drake: noted slaver, etc.) as I think idolising people (in both a metaphorical and a literal sense) is rarely a good idea – after all, no-one is without flaws.

Since the historical context is, supposedly, the driving concern, I may mention I visited the museum at Gernika a few years ago. And despite the history being very contentious to this day (with facts still being disputed), the peace museum presents a relatively fair and balanced view of the conflict and ensuing struggles. And they managed to do so without a giant statue to Franco or ETA. Strange that.

(NB Before certain commentators who like to deliberately misconstrue words pop in, I’d like to clarify the Spanish handling of their history is – as in most countries – also deeply flawed, I am just using one particular instance as an example of how things might be handled.)


rjk 06.12.20 at 2:40 pm

On a personal level, I quite like the statues. Whenever I visit a new city, I like to wander around, looking at the architecture and paying particular attention to statues, plaques, and so on. I’ve never been to Bristol and so I never saw the Colston statue, but I’m fairly sure I would have guessed how an 18th-century merchant like him would have made his money. The bigger and bolder the statue, the more one imagines it is covering up. But I am under no illusions that my response is typical, and I can hardly ask everyone to preserve their unpleasant histories for my touristic enjoyment.

With that said, in cities like London or Vienna, it’s practically impossible to disentangle the city itself from the empire that built it, and there seems to be something dishonest about keeping the buildings and infrastructure while stashing the monuments away. In the case of Rhodes and Oxford, it’s even more obvious – the statue might be taken down, but nobody is proposing to return so much as a penny of the endowment. It surprises me that this has not been mentioned at all.

Maybe, though, the tide of history is ebbing away in these places. Perhaps these memorials simply stop us from moving on, and the practical harm they do to people today outweighs the need to remember what was done in centuries past. Black students really ought to be able to go to Oxford without being reminded of the slavery that paid for the buildings they study in, and they deserve this in a way that the white students don’t.

It’s not quite what I expected, but then I suppose it wouldn’t be history if it didn’t surprise us now and again.


Tim Worstall 06.12.20 at 3:02 pm

” A solution to augment the statue with a plaque detailing Colston’s crimes was agreed in principle, but then the Society of Merchant Venturers tried to water it down and local Conservatives threatened direct action to remove any such plaque!”

So not everyone did agree?

As it happens, why not start to put up statues to the West Africa Squadron? We may have some available plinths….


Hidari 06.12.20 at 3:14 pm

Speaking of Australia, to the best of my knowledge, not one of the ‘statues are our heritage’ mob spoke out about this.


JanieM 06.12.20 at 3:28 pm

I like Lee Arnold’s suggestion at 11:34 am — keep the statues somewhere, but contextualize them. (Although I still find the whole formulation in terms of keeping vs “erasing” history to be over-simplified.)

Here’s a recent example where that was done.


Thomas Beale 06.12.20 at 4:06 pm

@18 the more I learn about this particular case, the more I (as a reflexively anti-vandalist) am coming around to the view that this particular harbour dumping may indeed have been right…

To be boring though, it’s a precedent, and can easily be used to justify the same kind of action with little or no antecedent community consideration. Which leads to the conclusion that if a public mob does something that really should have already been done some time ago (the Colston case), there needs to be a following chapter where everyone gets together, and the police and council say things like, ok, ok, no arrests on this one, and the relevant museum and historians retrieve the statue (maybe) and put it in the bad guys corner of the museum, and journalists all process the event in the media such that everyone feels like the final result is indeed pretty representative of a considered public mood.


Thomas P 06.12.20 at 4:14 pm

In Belgium they have to deal with the legacy of King Léopold II, owner of Kongo. Seems opinions are still split on whether he was a monster or a “builder king”.

Prince Laurent made what has to be among the more stupid defenses: “He never went to Congo himself, so I don’t see how he could have made people suffer there,”


RobinM 06.12.20 at 4:37 pm

Hidari @ 14 : I’ve always associated the filthy habit of spitting on the Heart of Midlothian as something tourists do because they’ve read about it in some Tourist Guide. (I hope Nicola Sturgeon has banned this as part of the effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus.)

John Quiggin’s mention of an empty niche also brought to mind all those empty niches on pre-Reformation buildings. I think there was a sort of architectural follow up to that sort of emptiness: buildings—e.g., at the University of Chicago—where buildings were constructed with empty niches (or am I betraying my ignorance of architecture?).

I imagine there’s a place for all sorts of arcane interpretation in all of this.

But why stop at empty niches? The people of St Andrews put bits of their cathedral to good use, to build a pier.


LFC 06.12.20 at 4:44 pm

When I think of generals of the Am. Rev. on either side, I immediately think of Gen.
Burgoyne (“gentleman Johnny”), immortalized in Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple, where Shaw gives him archly comic lines in Act III. The play only works on stage, though, if it is properly directed so that it goes at a brisk pace. Many years ago I saw a professional production of this play in London that was dreadful, one of the worst things I have ever seen in a theater, if not the worst. It was directed ploddingly and became a boring melodrama instead of the scintillating parody of a melodrama that Shaw actually wrote. Not even the extremely funny dialogue between Burgoyne and his subordinate Major Swindon could save that production.


RobinM 06.12.20 at 5:00 pm


LFC 06.12.20 at 5:13 pm

And if you happen to have The Portable Bernard Shaw, ed. S. Weintraub, handy, don’t miss Shaw’s “Trials of a Military Dramatist” (Review of the Week, Nov. 4, 1899), wherein he defends his portrayal of Burgoyne, and of the period more generally, as “authentic history.”


Matt McKeon 06.12.20 at 6:50 pm

I’ve seen the Arnold monument on the Saratoga battlefield. A granite boot(he was wounded in the leg), the stars of his general’s rank, no name, although a modern marker helpfully explains it. At West Point, where he was the commandant before trying to sell it to the British, they have plaques with the names of the various commanders; his name is scratched out, as I recall: that is the plaque was mounted already defaced.

Lee and the rest were traitors, but nobody really holds that against them. They weren’t sneaking around and selling out like Arnold. Its their terrible cause. Which was so bad, apologists tried to find another reason for nearly a century. And have failed.


hix 06.12.20 at 9:50 pm

Sounds like a complete social construction sort of thing.
Let´s look at the many Bismarck memorials. Questionable jingoist prophaganda during their time of construction directed against progressive thinking, sure. Today they don´t seem to attract much of a crowd that heroe worships Bismarck however and much less a crowd that worships Bismarck for his particular questionable policies. It´s really just “oh look an old statue, nice”or “they built ridiculous stuff back then”, or maybe “oh no another one, that is getting boring”. Or “hum, we learned quite a lot about that guy during history lessons but what exactly don´t remember”, or “oh the guy who invented social security , a true progressive heroe”. Now the last one seems quite likely, and at the same time rather questionable on a factual level. Also definitly not how he wanted to be remembered according to his own autobiografy.

And now comes another real fun turn- some now speculate his autobiografy is intentionally misleading because at the time of the biografies writing not being remembered for progessiv policy made him look better, while in reality he might have had a lot more progressive/left wing intentions, at least of the christian careing for your next kind afterall.

Only some fringe catholic with a more intense interest in history will consider the statue an offensive memorial to the guy who declared culture war on catholics and probably close to zero people will remember him as the heroe who fought against infirior catholics. One could go on and on about other aspects, the actual wars he started etc…. at the end i´m alright with keeping the statues up because they don´t stand for anything particular offensive today for a bigger crowd of people who visit them.


Chetan Murthy 06.12.20 at 10:29 pm

Matt McKeon @ 31: “but nobody really holds that against them.”

[just jokin’ here]Hey, speak for yourself, buddy![end joking] More seriously, many, many people hold it against him and all the other Traitors. There’s even an acronym for it (TIDOS: “Treason In Defense Of Slavery”) and trust me, it’s existed for at least a decade, it’s not just something that came along with BLM.

I think that this is the part that really angers people (certainly what angers me). If these (Lost Cause) statues hadn’t be erected as a celebration of white supremacy, if the supporters of their continued existence weren’t wholly overlapping with white supremacists to this day, if America weren’t obvious a white supremacist state in the way it treats Black Americans, maybe, just -maybe- nobody would care about these statues. They’d wear away like Ozymandias’ statue.

But that’s not the timeline in which we live. In this timeline, you can pretty much predict a person’s views of their fellow Black Americans, by their attitude towards these statues. The Venn diagram is a circle.

Ripping down these statues won’t heal racism in America. But keeping them up most surely does support racism in America. And hey, the bitter, bitter tears of white supremacists everywhere at seeing these statues torn down and melted into slag? That’s sweet, sweet ambrosia to decent Americans.


Jonathan Monroe 06.12.20 at 11:14 pm

I have spent some time trying to work out why my gut reaction to Edward Colston going for a swim is so positive when I am generally opposed to this kind of campaign – my gut reaction to Rhodes Must Fall is that the statue should stay and any Rhodes Scholar affiliated with the campaign should lose their scholarship.

I think I see four ways of distinguishing the statues that should stay from the ones that should go:
1) Can you separate the obnoxious behaviour from the reason why the person was honoured, such that the statue doesn’t celebrate the obnoxiousness? Colston’s only achievement was giving away the profits of slave trading, so any monument to him celebrates the slave trade. At the other extreme, the fact that Lord Nelson used his peerage to oppose Wilberforce has essentially nothing to do with his achievements as an admiral.
2) Does condemning the person involve anachronistically applying present-day moral standards, or are we simply correcting a mistake where our ancestors failed to apply their own moral standards correctly? Interestingly, with both Colston and the Confederate statues, this is easy because of the date the statues were erected. By 1895, opposition to slavery was a key part of the moral case the British Empire made for itself – I genuinely don’t know what the Bristol city fathers were thinking when they memorialised a slave trader, or how they were able to do it without anyone complaining. Similarly, the Confederate statues went up at a time when the United States explicitly condemned both secession and slavery. With Rhodes, the main complaint against him seems to be that he was obnoxiously racist, but almost all white people were obnoxiously racist in 1900.
3) Is the institution removing the monument whitewashing its own history by doing so? If Oxford takes down the statue of a donor but keeps the money, it just makes them hypocrites.
4) Monuments that are explicitly funerary should not be moved because of the general rule against grave-robbing (though there is a possible exception if the gravesite becomes a place of “pilgrimage” for bell-ends).


Frank Wilhoit 06.12.20 at 11:32 pm

So many things in play here. Only two:

1) “Censorship” is right out; but the definitional debates about what “censorship” is, and why it is A Bad Thing, were held at a time when it was not possible to imagine the public discourse morphing into a form in which it were infeasible to assert any standards whatever.

2) Who won the Civil War? Today it is violently clear that the South won. They had a severe, purely military setback in 1865, but by 1877 they had won in Congress and the Executive Branch what they could not win on the battlefield; and today they hold a decisive veto over any national initiative. Thus, the argument that the South “lost” and it is therefore inappropriate to display their flag or to celebrate the lives and works of their leaders, collapses into revanchism; it becomes the argument that the South should have lost and it is therefore, etc. etc. Much and deep confusion flows from this.


J-D 06.13.20 at 12:32 am

Crossposting my comment from John Quiggin’s blog:

No matter which individual is selected for a commemorative statue, there’s no way to be sure that individual was not guilty of some cruelty, treachery, or other horror (unless, I suppose, we have statues only of infants …). If we’re going to have statues of human figures at all, I think I’d prefer them to represent generic figures (for example, ‘The Liberated Slave’ or ‘The Loyal Companion’) or personified abstractions (for example, ‘Compassion’ or ‘Friendship’). Now that I think of it, all these would be better represented by figure groups than by individuals, which I think is probably all to the good.


J-D 06.13.20 at 12:35 am

I just remembered ‘The Innumerable Dawodow’, one of the ‘Woeful Tales From Mahigul’ in Ursula Le Guin’s Changing Planes. It has serendipitous value as comment on this topic. (Dawodow was an emperor, and his titular innumerability was in statue form.)


El Muneco 06.13.20 at 1:01 am

IMO, statues to Arnold would actually be preferable to Lee and his ilk:

Arnold did more for the US while he was fighting for us. The monument at Saratoga is fully deserved – without him we don’t win, and the Revolution itself is in danger. While Lee was well regarded and considered prime leadership material, but his actual accomplishments in the Mexican War were perfunctory.
Arnold did less against the US while fighting against us. He was below replacement level as a British officer, and the number of surplus US casualties might not even be in the hundreds. Lee was responsible for the deaths of great numbers of loyal troops, and not a trivial number of civilians due to his aggressive prosecution of aggressive war.
Arnold eventually regretted it. Not exactly a deathbed confession, but he’s on record as saying he wouldn’t have done it again, and famously valued his American uniform over his British equivalent. Lee had no such compunctions.

That said, I think we should respect the desire for remembrance of heritage and the love of statuary to pique remembrance …

… and replace every damn one of those things put up post Civil Rights Act with equivalent statues of: Grant, Sherman, and Longstreet.

Heritage, not hate.


J-D 06.13.20 at 1:39 am

With Rhodes, the main complaint against him seems to be that he was obnoxiously racist, but almost all white people were obnoxiously racist in 1900.

There were white opponents of racism in, and before, 1900: you are erasing them. You are also erasing the non-white opponents of racism. Don’t do that. It was possible in 1900 for people to recognise how obnoxious racism was; it is ahistorical to pretend that it wasn’t.


LFC 06.13.20 at 3:36 am

hix @32
I know, or knew at one time, a fair amount about Bismarck — considerably less than a professional historian of 19th century European politics would know but prob a fair amount more than the median person educated outside of Germany knows — and statues of Bismarck in Germany are not remotely comparable to statues of Confederate figures in the U.S. Though it’s too late in the evening here to start discussing why that’s the case.


bad Jim 06.13.20 at 6:11 am

My modest proposal is to leave the statues in place, but decorate them. The necks of traitors should be adorned with nooses, the ankles of slaveowners shackled with chains. Bronze decorations upon marble, steel upon bronze, to accentuate the contrast. This would get the point across better than any explanatory plaque.


SusanC 06.13.20 at 10:03 am

So I was thinking that protests against Confederate statues are so very American, and to cause upset in the UK you’ll need a statue of someone like William of Orange. A quick web search reveals that his statue in Glasgow is now under 24 hour police protection.


notGoodenough 06.13.20 at 10:19 am

Jonathon Monroe @34

Why are you opposed to this sort of campaign? On what basis have you determined that your feeling that statues should remain is of greater validity than other people’s that they should not?

On what basis should any Rhodes Scholar associated with the campaign lose their scholarship? Please be specific about how exactly they have broken the terms of their scholarship, and why they should no longer qualify.

If the approach were as others have suggested (to remove the statue itself, but to leave historical markers explaining the situation and decisions), how would that constitute whitewashing? What additional context do you think can be gained from a statue, which cannot be gained from a history book?

On what basis have you concluded that Cecil Rhodes “obnoxiously racist” (and nationalistic, etc. etc.) views were normal at the time to the degree that he held them?


Ralph 06.13.20 at 10:54 am

When I was a kid in Canberra in the 1960’s neighbors had a little pond in their front yard that had a small statue of an aboriginal wearing a loin cloth, holding a spear and gazing across the pond.
Hard to believe today.


Matt McKeon 06.13.20 at 12:26 pm

Its the “defense of slavery” that makes the Confederacy so obnoxious, more than the treason part. The Confederacy is like that scene in 1984 where O’Brien tells Winston Smith that the future is a “boot stamping on a human face, forever.”


hix 06.13.20 at 12:41 pm

@LFC My attempted point with the Bismarck example was not to try to argue by analogy that the US statues should stay or to deny there are degrees of evilness among historical figures or the intentions of those who constructed memorials for them. Neither was my intention to get Bismarck or the history of Bismarck memorials which in itsself has filled many books that i did not read particular right. Finding prominent historical figures of the past who look genuinly nice after an intense look seems very hard however. It really was an attempt to try to say those degrees of evilness don´t matter so much for how the statues should be threated today, since for that it matteres mainly how they are used or not used in the current context.
Let me try another one: Francos remains in Spain were recently removed from his very representative grave complex. That seems to me to have been the right decission based on the folowing assesment (which again might be very wrong): Those that complained loadest about it were people that still try to glorify Franco, the grave still seems to be a place used a lot for heroe worship.Those who remained suspiciously silent or opposed with less strong words looked like they only did so for all the wrong appeal to right fringe voter reasons.


Andres 06.13.20 at 9:43 pm

I don’t have a huge stake in this debate. But just to point out that while I am for an accurate remembrance of history and in favor of ending the memorialization of people who don’t deserve it, I am not in favor of damnatio memoria/erasure, and think we need a non-biased appraisal of every historical figure we read about. A list of examples:

As El Muneco points out, Arnold was one of the better generals while he fought for the rebels, and deserves the largest share of credit for victory at Saratoga; his subsequent treason should not erase that fact.
Andrew Jackson is probably one of our more loathsome presidents and has no business being on the $20, but he may very well have saved the union by threatening to hang John C. Calhoun (I sometimes wish he had) rather than meekly giving in to the latter’s nullification demands, which another president like James Buchanan might have done.
The execrable parts of Robert E. Lee’s career (slaveowner, violent disciplinarian of slaves, and enactor of the retaliatory enslavement of free blacks in Maryland and Pennsylvania) should not be forgotten, and the removal of his statues is deserved. But we should also remember that after the war he told Southerners to accept the outcome and to take no further part in revanchist resistance nor in revanchist rewriting of history. This puts him in a much better light than Nathan Bedford Forrest or Jefferson Davis.
To elaborate on LFC: Otto Von Bismarck was a sour old conservative and imperialist, but in terms of who came later–Kaiser Willy, Von Tirpitz, Falkenhayn, Hindenburg and Ludendorff, and finally dear old Adolf–Bismarck is a shining example of pragmatic domestic and foreign policy. The first pension system in Germany and the German-Russian alliance as a tool for European stability, the decay of this alliance being the prelude to WWI, were his main policy achievements.
Considering that he was responsible for Gallipoli, the shelling and bombing of Iraqi civilians, the Black and Tans, the poison-gassing of Red Army soldiers, and for the Bengal famine in 1942-43, Winston Churchill has no business calling any of his contemporaries mass murderers, and his statues should definitely be hauled down. But even if he was a stopped clock, he was completely right about opposing Nazi Germany even before 1939.

Another way of understanding this point is that there are no individuals who are so utterly heroic that they deserve to be given posthumous personality cults, very few who can be remembered as heroes (and have statues) even with warts and all knowledge of their lives, and also very few whose careers are so vile that they join the list of history’s monsters. Rewriting to be closer to the truth, yes, erasure no.


PatinIowa 06.13.20 at 9:45 pm

I’d be more amenable to the argument that it’s worse when mobs do it, if the United States hadn’t recruited a mob to pull down the statue of Saddam Hussein, deceptively cropped the photographs, and announced to the world that this proved that the will of the Iraqi people had been fulfilled by our invasion. (I know a Marine who was there. In his view, it was an entirely put up job.) At least we know for sure BLM means it.
Having been in Spain just before the removal of Franco’s rotting corpse from the monument to the casualities of the Spanish Civil War, I got the distinct impression that there’s a belief in Spain that his presence at Valle de los Caídos serves as a focal point for fascist activity of a kind that threatens the safety of democracy and individuals. I’d be perfectly willing to make a bet that if all the Lost Cause statues went away, racism would end sooner. (I don’t think it’s likely, but if I lost the bet, I would have to look at them, so I’d win.)
It’s important to remember also that in the US, the statues themselves were put up long after the War of Northern Aggression (I went to school in Texas in the early 60s, briefly), and constitute a rewriting of history, a revision that says that the South didn’t secede because they wanted to continue slavery, and their soldiers had noble aims. It’s possible to think of getting rid of the statues as un-re-writing.
A friend on social media thinks we should get rid of all of them except this Nathan Bedford Forrest statue, because it’s just as ugly as the cause he represents. I see it’s not an original idea. Works for me.


Collin Street 06.14.20 at 4:52 am

The ripping down the statue footage was ludicrous. Like, the statue was too strong for the people and they had to get a marines apc or something with chains an’ a’. While the streets were blocked off further down, as I recall. I remember watching it with my family in staggered disbelief at the incompetence of the propaganda.

Was it actually presented as credible, as important? I’d heard hints, but I’d always kinda assumed it was a five second montage brushed under the carpet. Jesus fuck.


LFC 06.14.20 at 5:10 am


Thanks for the further clarification and I understand your point that what mostly matters is how the statues “are used or not used in the current context.” I understand your position but I don’t completely agree with it, since I would say a mix of considerations should come into play.

One is whether the statues attract fans or hero-worshippers, but another is the public message the statues convey. Another and related consideration is where the statues are placed (museum vs. battlefield vs. middle of a city or city park). I just read the Wiki entry on the R.E. Lee statue (which was put up in the early part of the 20th cent.) in Charlottesville, Va. It’s apparently still there b.c a judge blocked the city council’s vote to remove it on the grounds that it’s a Civil War monument protected by state (Virginia) law. I think it shd be removed, but apparently the legal obstacles have so far prevented that.


Hidari 06.14.20 at 6:43 am


‘So I was thinking that protests against Confederate statues are so very American, and to cause upset in the UK you’ll need a statue of someone like William of Orange. A quick web search reveals that his statue in Glasgow is now under 24 hour police protection.’

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, it simply beggars belief that there is still, in the 21st century, a statue of such a divisive figure as William of Orange in Glasgow (of all places).

In case English people are feeling smug about this, William ‘of Orange’ (AKA William the 1st) was the man whose invasion of the UK was subsequently rebranded as the (very much so-called) ‘Glorious’ ‘Revolution’, the wonderfulness of which was ,until very recently, taken for granted in English historiography.

They key problem with the statue issue in the UK is that British people are taught, at school, and via the media, a version of their history that, not to put too fine a point on it, bears no relationship to reality. It touches base with reality at occasional points (World War 2 and World War 1 did actually happen, although what British people are taught about these events is at best highly misleading, and at worst completely wrong) but huge swathes of what passes for popular ‘history’ is simply fictional (this problem gets worse the closer you get to London, the imperial capital (excepting the Unionist sections of the North of Ireland)).

The point about Rhodes etc. being men of their time is true enough, but it misses a key point which is that the system they believed in (white supremacy, imperialism, colonialism) still exists although much more coy euphemism are used to describe it nowadays (in a sense Rhodes was better than the current crop of politicians: at least he was honest).

The attack on Afghanistan, the attack on Iraq, the attack on Libya, the (not particularly) ‘secret’ war on Syria were and are colonial wars by imperial powers and the ideological assumptions which underpin them were and are racist. This is why the statue issue is still ‘live’. This is why it is important.

Finally if you are talking about ‘destroying history’ then how many of those pretending to care about statues (many of which I have no doubt they didn’t even know existed until recently) then how many of them cared about this?,an%20official%20review%20has%20concluded.


notGoodenough 06.14.20 at 8:31 am

As a postscript. Personally I hold the opinion that statues to people are generally an odd idea – people are far too complex to simply reduce to bronze in that way. Ideas or aspirations, yes; events, perhaps; but people, why?

I also find it odd that people refer to the idea of moving a statue out of public sight as a form of erasure from history – I think it is perfectly possible to teach about historical people in a fair and unbiased fashion without requiring people to walk past a big statue of that person every day. What additional context is gained from a public statue – often extolling the virtues but not the vices of the individual – which could not be better gained from a more nuanced discussion?

A very well respected member of my professional community was recently honoured for their many significant contributions. They received a medal (which has the benefit of not being a big thing that every passer-by has to look at) and a conference dedicated in their honour (the first few keynotes were revisions of key concepts they introduced, with how they have formed the foundation of successful work still ongoing today). However, if you asked them what meant the most to them, I think it would be firstly the work they did in and of itself, closely followed by the respect of their peers.

In the incredibly unlikely event anyone wanted to erect a statue to me I would personally prefer it if they saved the materials and labour, and instead just donated the money to a good cause. After all, if I say or do anything of significance, surely that in itself is reward and memorial enough?


Hidari 06.14.20 at 8:42 am

Incidentally anyone wondering how the ironically named ‘Labour’ Party will react to the largest popular uprising in a generation, now that it has got rid of that beastly man Corbyn (who didn’t even go to University you know), and is now safely in the hands of Sir Keir Starmer KCB QC MP.

‘Shadow Home Secretary says Labour could support new law to make vandalising war memorials punishable with 10 years in jail.’*

*As someone on Twitter quickly pointed out, 10 years is more than a first offender can expect for rape.


rogergathmann 06.14.20 at 9:37 am

The controversy about the statues is interestingly removed from the sociological facts about Amerca’s urban areas. Which is another way of saying: who drives by the statues and who walks by them?

In the aftermath of the Katrina disaster, the United for a Fair Economy organizaiton commissioned a study of carlessness in eleven major urban areas. And guess what? Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to be carless.

This is simply another element in the economic apartheid that prevails in the U.S. But it has effects. One of the effects is that getting around the city, if you don’t have a car, requires an elevated amount of walking. Even if you are walking to and from the bus stop, there is more walking involved in your urban life.

One of the reasons that there is a lack of statuary in cities in France that were rebuilt after the war is that these cities were rebuilt with the automobile in mind. A predominance of statues implies a congregation of walkers. Car drivers might mark certain statues in a city – but mainly they don’t know them. They don’t read them.

One of the reasons that the statue issue is hot on campuses is that this is one of those spaces where white people are actually walking. Walking not as a sport, but as a functional activity that gets them to where they are supposed to be. This directly affects the statue viewing experience. It makes it degrees more intimate.

When the Confederate statues were erected in the South, from 1910 to 1960 for the most part, there was a great deal of carlessness among both whites and blacks. This meant that the statue experience was on a level of intimacy that was meant to send a clear message to African Americans. The message was: this is not your space. This is not your home.

The level of car ownership rose considerable for whites and blacks during this period – but much more for whites than blacks. In fact, as the phrase “driving while black” implies, and as we know from every video of police – African American encounters, the white uneasiness about blacks having access to automobiles has never gone down.

What this means is that those statues loom much more into the intimate experience of African-American everyday life than they do in White American life. But when the statues are threatened, white Americans – certain ones, Nazis, Trump, that ilk – show that they can still read them very well.


Bruce Baugh 06.14.20 at 1:14 pm

This is kind of a side topic, but I saw a couple people up in comments above this one bring up the fear of setting a bad precedent, and have seen it elsewhere. As usual, when it comes to possibly giving license to the right wing, the time came and went. Read up on the memorial plaque to Emmett Till, a teenaged Black boy lynched in the ’50s. The memorial went up a few years ago, and got shot up so badly, again and again, that they had to replace it with a new bullet-proof one. Right wingers are always ahead of us when it comes to degradation and stupid cruelty.


engels 06.14.20 at 3:59 pm

“‘With Rhodes, the main complaint against him seems to be that he was obnoxiously racist, but almost all white people were obnoxiously racist in 1900.

“There were white opponents of racism in, and before, 1900: you are erasing them.”

Once you start talking about his opinions rather than what he actually did, you’ve already lost the argument. It’s a bit like responding to someone who thinks Harold Shipman got a bad rap by pointing out that actually he was considerably more ageist than the average GP.


RobinM 06.14.20 at 4:43 pm

Hidari @ 51: I think you mean William the Third. And surely your capsule summary of the events of 1688 ignores the fact that William of Orange’s invasion would not have happened had not the political divisions within Britain been extremely intense at that time and had there not been a bunch of political exiles in his vicinity urging him on. I agree that it’s important to try to expose the historical falsehoods and manipulations. But let’s not get sloppy doing that so that a whole new set of misrepresentations get spread about.


PatinIowa 06.14.20 at 5:08 pm

I don’t know if this is relevant, but rogergathman at 54 brought something to mind.

For many years–as long as I can remember, and I’ve been in that hospital quite a bit, as a patient, an employee and a volunteer–there was a pair of paintings right outside the chapel at the U of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. Titled “The President and the General” they depicted Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. Over three decades, I walked by those paintings scores, possibly a couple of hundred times, until a couple of years ago, I twigged to this: If you were an African American whose family member or friend or fellow churchgoer were ill, and you went down to pray or meditate or get away, when you walked out of the chapel, you saw that the hospital you were in thought of Lincoln and Lee as equally worthy.

I wrote an email, and they removed it immediately. Who knows if it was ever a thing for anyone, but it’s heartbreaking to think that it might have been.


Jonathan Monroe 06.14.20 at 11:49 pm

notGoodenough@43: I’m not going to try to defend my gut reaction against Rhodes Must Fall rationally – as I said it was a gut reaction I was trying to interrogate.

After stopping to think, statues of Cecil Rhodes in public places in the UKshould definitely come down – you can’t separate the achievements he was celebrated for from the racism and land theft. Notably, I didn’t know about the Cape Qualified Franchise or the way Rhodes undermined it as PM of the Cape Colony when I put up @34. The statue in Oriel should be moved, but I’m not going to complain about the College allegedly accepting a £100 million bung to leave it up. I also don’t understand why the Rhodes Memorial in Cape Town
hasn’t seen changes, but obviously that is the locals’ call and not mine.
LFC@50: Good point about the thing that matters being the message the statue sends in the present. A statue, like a statute, is always speaking and the message can change over time. Given the donor response, my suspicion is that the message Oriel are trying to send in 2020 by leaving up the Rhodes statue is not “Cecil Rhodes was a great man” but more “A large enough donation to Oriel College can wipe away even Cecil Rhodes’ crimes.” And tearing down the Edward Colston statue sends the opposite message: “No amount of money can buy forgiveness for a slave trader”. I suppose both these messages could be true if you think slavery is a lot worse than general imperialism, but otherwise it doesn’t look particularly good for Oriel.


notGoodenough 06.15.20 at 6:33 am

Jonathan Monroe @ 59

Firstly, thank you for taking the time to explain your position – it is much appreciated. Just to clarify: I don´t typically ask these questions to make people defend themselves, but rather to try to understand positions and how they have been arrived at (after all, it is important to try and consider aspects I may have missed which may change my own stance, or alternatively to see why I disagree).

I would also like to take the opportunity to say I respect your ongoing approach to continuing to refine your understanding and thoughts – I am also trying to do the same, and I suspect that as a society we are all learning day by day.


mary s 06.15.20 at 4:52 pm


I have to disagree with your second point, because it conflates white supremacy with the South. The South did lose the Civil War — but white supremacy prevailed in both the South and the North. To this day.


Jonathan Monroe 06.15.20 at 9:22 pm

By the way, re. the point about what message is sent by a statue, I realise I walked past the Robert Millagan statue on West India Quay most days on the way to work pre-COVID. The message I received was “Robert Millagan sponsored the construction of this dock” – which is why I was slightly surprised when the presence of the statue became controversial.

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