The hope that statue-destroyers would restrict themselves to just slave traders was misplaced. It was as naive as asking the question “who will they pull down next?” The answer is: everyone. The sentiment behind both misunderstands the basic beliefs and motivations of the black-clad activists rampaging through the cities with ropes and spray paint.
Our modern iconoclasts are not restricted by limited objectives and are not amendable to compromises. Their views are absolutists and total. It’s not just that some aspects of our history are bad or questionable; it’s the entire history that’s evil and irredeemable. So, for example, the United States is beyond pale (“America Was Never Great”) since firstly it was entirely built on the land stolen from the indigenous inhabitants of the continent and secondly for most of the history of the European settlement it had lived with the institution of slavery, followed by another century of legal discrimination against black people. Thus pretty much every historical figure is tainted, whether as an active participants or at best a passive beneficiary of the system build around colonisation, dispossession, genocide, human bondage and racism. Everyone in the past is guilty, and so every historical memorial is ripe for destruction, including the Founding Fathers, pioneers and settlers, all Presidents up to LBJ if not beyond, even figures of science, industry or culture. Not even black abolitionists.
The United States might stand out in terms of the sheer intensity of passions raised, but of course it’s not alone. Other settler countries like Australia, Canada or New Zealand might not have a similar history of slavery, but they share the narrative of white colonisation and dispossession of the original inhabitants, followed by centuries of marginalisation and racism. Most European countries are guilty as the past colonial powers themselves, those who for hundreds of years stole the coloured people’s land, resources, labour and freedom. Thus, Winston Churchill might have stood against Nazism for all of its short but bloody history, but he is the ultimate fascist for being a lifelong supporter of the British Empire. But again, virtually every historical figure until the 1960s at the earliest deserves an equal condemnation and dethronment from their pedestals for having participated in or supported the imperial mission (and for a long time slavery too), or in any case being simply the passive beneficiaries of the benefits that colonialism had brought (the implication often being that the entire wealth and prosperity that most European countries enjoyed in the past and still enjoy today are exclusively due to rape and pillage overseas). It’s not all just history though; not only are we still all benefiting from the past wrongs but racism remains “systemic”, “structural” or “endemic”, tainting everything today and rendering all the institutions illegitimate (Colin Kaepernick calls the Independence Day a “celebration of white supremacy” and “look[s] forward to liberation for all”; Yassmin Abdel-Magied: “The structural racism underlying police brutality in the United States thrives globally, including in Australia and Britain… The system of white supremacy is alive and well.”).
If such modes of thinking seem familiar, this should not be a surprise; it’s basically Marxism as modified from the 1960s onward, when socialists had finally admitted to themselves the working class will never be the revolutionary class that will overthrow the oppressive capitalist system; the “proletariat” have essentially been bought off by the capital. Instead the entire Western societies have been recast in the role of oppressors and the rest – the non-white world – as the oppressed in the historical melodrama of the left. Marxism is all about the systems and collectives as opposed to individuals, which makes it logical and easy to paint all the dead (and the living) with the same brush. It’s a convenient political shorthand that saves you time delving into any nuance. Everyone fits into either of the two categories – the minority who create and maintain the system that subjugates, enslaves and impoverishes, and the majority who are the powerless suffering victims. It’s binary, deterministic and Manichean. This is why when some observers ponder on the apparent hypocrisy of “words are violence but arson is not”, they fail to understand this is a feature, not a bug: when one group is deemed irredeemably evil and the other unquestionably virtuous, anything done to defeat the former and elevate the latter is eminently good and justifiable. End justifies the means. That end goal is not any reform, since you can’t reform hell, but the wholesale overthrow of the oppressive system in favour of one which supposedly benefits the previously oppressed masses – justice with a fair dose of revenge for the sins of the past.
Numerically they might be tiny, but the statue pullers enjoy a broader support from the sidelines, which in turn is a part of a not insignificant minority view about the sins and failings, past and present, of our societies. History is once again made by a small but well organised and highly motivated group working of general grievances and concerns that might be less extreme but are also more widespread: a lot of people believe that some aspects of the past and the present are indeed problematic (I don’t know anyone in the Western world who defends slavery, for example) without wanting to destroy monuments, much less the entire society and the political and economic system that underpins it. Most people dissatisfied with the status quo are gradualists and reformers rather than violent revolutionaries, but the latter swim in the sea of the former sentiment. This is why virtually no one prominent on the left, including supposed moderates like the Democrat presidential candidate Joe Biden, have spoken out against the extremists. As always throughout history, the radicals tend to be wealthier and better educated than the average, making them more influential than their numbers alone would suggest.
They will not be fobbed off, they will not get tired, they will not stop – unless they are stopped.