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Don’t tear them down, just give them the finger

Tear down all the statues.

No one is safe. Once you take down Confederate generals and soldiers, why stop there? Already, Catholic saints have been targeted, some by mistake, others because their nowadays unpopular imperial association. Activists have argued against celebrating the memory of Theodore Roosevelt. Mainstream newspapers, albeit largely the ones on the left, now echo with calls to take down Admiral Nelson from the Trafalgar Square (if that happens the French will have won) and other famous historical figures.

The problem is simple: not many prominent people today can live up to the high contemporary standards of morality and purity. Hardly anyone from the past can. That’s because the past is different than the present which in turn is different from the activists’ social justice utopia of ideological purity and angel-like innocence. The past truly is a foreign country. I watch “Mad Men”, which is set some fifty years ago, and think how strange and alien the reality portrayed is to someone who was born only a few years after the series’ fictional finale. What then of times hundreds of years distant? I might not believe that human nature is changeable, but mores and culture definitely evolve over time, sometimes slow, sometimes fast, but as most of us would acknowledge, mostly for the better. However much the ancient Rome or Renaissance Italy may fascinate us, few would prefer to live in those different times, particularly once they really consider the implications. Like John Rawls’ theory of law, the truth is that until quite recently, life could have been considered even remotely pleasant for only a tiny minority of the wealthiest and the most powerful. Everyone wants to be Cleopatra, no one wants to be an Egyptian peasant, living the life of back-breaking toil and dying at the ripe old age of 30, even though your random chances of being the latter would be somewhere around 99 per cent. The past might be fascinating, but it is far from great and edifying. But that’s not a reason to wipe the slate of historical memory clean.

To hold the past to contemporary standards is the equivalent of making and enforcing retrospective laws. And it is just as unfair. The problem is that the present offers such multitude of sins – racism, sexism, homophobia, bigotry, prejudice, exploitation – that everyone in the past is guilty of something. This is because the past is very long but today’s morality only very recent. The Confederates fought in defence of slavery. Many of the Founding Fathers owned slaves. But for an overwhelming majority of human history and in an overwhelming majority of human societies slavery was quite legal and commonly accepted, however repulsive the concept it is to us now in the West (for slavery still tacitly exists in many parts of the world). Neither Jesus nor Mohammed questioned it. The Ancients enslaved indiscriminately; in more recent centuries, Africans sold their own to both the Europeans and the Arabs; American Indians enslaved captives from other tribes. Slavery certainly wasn’t an exclusively white sin. And neither was imperialism. The stronger, the more technologically advanced and the more ruthless and dynamic have always conquered and lorded over those less so. And don’t even mention the ideas about the nature and the role of women. Abraham Lincoln might have emancipated the slaves, but like just about every other 19th century male, it never occurred to him that women could be in any meaningful way involved in public life. The progressive Princeton man and peace-maker Woodrow Wilson was a racist. Even putting aside the fact that he was a mass murderer, the left’s favourite icon Che Guevara was also a racist – and a homophobe. By today’s standards, just about every historical ruler was a tyrant, a criminal and a warmonger.

Destroying historical monuments is thus very much an example of the proverbial slippery slope. Sure, the Confederates fought a war to maintain slavery, but once we consign the defenders of the “peculiar institution” to the ash heap of history, where do we actually stop? Churchill was an imperialist and a pretty politically incorrect individual (in an age where most people were), Franklin Roosevelt locked up Japanese-Americans in internment camps. We can all agree on the undesirability of statues of Hitler. But we can’t even achieve the same consensus about figures like Stalin or Lenin. Much less anyone else.

Around the same time last year I was I was walking through the streets of Berlin from the west to the east. Having passed the river Spree on my way to Alexanderplatz, the heart of the former East Berlin, I noticed some statues in a quiet park on the side of the main street. Marx and Engels were resting in the shade, now only disturbed by the ubiquitous Asian tourists taking photographs and selfies with the big bronze likenesses of the founders of the deadliest ideology of the 20th century. Was I surprised that the statues were still there, in the middle of the unified Berlin, the very city which for almost half a century was one of the great maelstroms of the ideological war started by Marx and Engels? Not particularly. Was I offended in any way? Nope, I merely gave the commos a finger. The creators of Marxism quite deserve to be melted down and turned into some quintessentially capitalist product, but there is a danger in cleansing history – our memory is short and precarious; we cannot afford to forget both the good and the bad things that happened in the past. The statues are merely a useful reminder of our triumphs and our follies, our achievements and our crimes.

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