We have been here before. Baying mobs are pulling down statues. There is a ludic quality to this iconoclasm. There is an unmistakable jubilation among those who have torn down images of generals and slave traders of past centuries.
In the 1990s thousands of likenesses of Lenin, Stalin and others were removed from public view. This was usually done by governments and not by fanatics. Europe was convulsed with change. There was an undoubted sense of emancipation in Eastern Europe and the former USSR 30 years ago.
However, Capitalist triumphalism was short-lived in Eastern Europe. The certainties of Marxist-Leninism gave way to mass unemployment, social upheaval, crime and drug abuse.
I am the last one to say that Stalinism was a good thing. In many respects it was ghastly. But by the 1980s for all its faults the Soviet system guaranteed the necessities of life to its citizens. Things were stable and predictable.
Many people genuinely believed that communism was building a more just and sustainable world. They benefited from excellent education and free healthcare. They sent the first man and woman into space in the early 1960s. Dismissing the Soviet Union simply as an ‘evil empire’ is simplistic. A former citizen of the USSR said to me, ‘’Now people say that communism was bad right from the beginning. But even if it is true people had faith in communist ideology. You must not smash their idols!’’
The United Kingdom is almost uniquely masochistic about its history. Self-criticism is wise and mature, but you can take this too far. Excessive self-condemnation is as unpalatable as undue self-laudation.
What on earth will removing statues achieve? Not one life will be saved by this. It might well fracture the society as people rally to defend images of past governors-generals and prime ministers. Some far left groups will fight the pro-statute crowds and violence, hatred and aggression will fuel these clashes.
Every country has done wrong. There is no doubt that the Transatlantic Slave Trade was egregious evil on a staggering scale. There is a hideous aspect to colonial history. The UK has sometimes been on the wrong side of history. None of that means that destroying public art will undo any of the harm wrought.
When Russia tore down statues of tsars in 1917 that did not lead to sweetness and light! When former Soviet countries removed many statues of those whom they had exalted for decades, that did not bring justice. Some former Soviet states languish in a morass of tyranny almost unequalled in the cruelty and depravity.
Wrecking the old world does not necessarily build a better one.
We should not project our nostra onto bygone centuries. It is ahistorical to do so. If you were brought up to believe that enslaving people is permissible, then it is likely that you would believe it. Edward Colston in Bristol profited from the trade in human beings. He inflicted incalculable suffering on many people. Throwing his statue into the River Avon does nothing to help his victims. It simply acts as an image of criminal damage by self-indulgent hotheads grandstanding their sanctimony.
It is said that the only thing permanent is change. In these blog posts I reflect on how schools and universities transform education by inventing social trends and then embracing them whilst breaking with the past.
Educational Strategists & Advisers on UK Secondary and Higher Education
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