By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
In these extraordinary times, what can be more poignant than images of far-right racist thugs trooping past the mother of parliaments in Westminster with statues of Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela all boarded up behind? The heroes of the struggle against fascism, empire and apartheid would be ashamed. All three would have confronted this hoard and abhorred the idea of being hidden away.
The Black Lives Matter movement and the brutal murder of George Floyd have triggered a major appraisal of every historical figure. Few truly objected to the pulling down of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, and to an extent to the statue of Edward Carmack from Tennessee, a newspaper editor who used to call for lynchings.
Likewise, Hamilton City in New Zealand removed the statue of John Hamilton, the British colonial officer it is named after. He was accused of killing indigenous Maori people in the 1860s. Other figures targeted are far more debatable, some even ludicrous. Questions are asked about figures such as William Gladstone, Christopher Columbus and Churchill.
Casting aside the more absurd, this has proved a potent moment to review who to commemorate and how we can be more reflective of society and all ethnic and community groups. It has opened the doors to thinking about our histories and what they mean. Done sensibly, this can be refreshing, even healing.
Tearing down or removing statues and pictures is but the tip of the issue. It masks far deeper issues that remain unaddressed, ignored or glossed over. It is not the statues that arouse anger, but the associations they have come to represent.
Put any individual on a pedestal, then it is a judgement taken at one snapshot in time. But we have to remember none of us are perfect. We are all flawed, some of us deeply. Often some of the most brilliant minds and geniuses had darker sides to them.
We are all products of our particular era. That said, there are some constants. Genghis Khan was a butcher in whatever time, as were Hitler and Mao Zedong. Not long ago, Aung San Suu Kyi was venerated for her opposition to the military junta in Myanmar, whereas today she is reviled for her role in the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya.
Conversely, try and explain why Joseph Stalin, one of the greatest butchers of the 20th century, has regained so much popularity that one poll in Russia found him to be the greatest figure in the country’s history.
No doubt in the 21st century we shall put up statues and portraits of figures widely admired now but who will later be viewed differently. Leaders of today who did nothing about climate change, famines in Africa or the war in Syria may become reviled.
Remember also that those of us who view the world from the comfortable position of privilege have a different vista. We can debate identity and such matters, whereas those in poverty suffering discrimination and fighting to feed themselves every day can afford no such distractions.
The events of the last week highlight how history matters, shapes our identities and creates our shared sense of belonging. Nationhood is built on stories and myths, a narrative that knits our common sense of who we are. Shared suffering is often one of those threads. It has helped bind Jewish communities together through centuries of anti-Jewish atrocities.
Furthermore, there is not one history but many. Famously, victors are the ones who get to write history. Churchill quipped: “History will be kind to me for I intend to write it.” And write it he did.
The European history of slavery is one perspective, but it is an entirely different to the black African or Caribbean perspective. In the European education curriculum, the focus on slavery, if there is one, is on its abolition, not the European role in creating and profiting from it.
In Britain, kids, if not being tutored on the glories of empire, might get taught about William Wilberforce and his role in the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1807. Few learn how British exploitation of slaves continued for decades later. Britain paid out huge sums after the abolition of slavery in 1833, not to free slaves but to recompense owners for their losses. Rich slavers grew richer, whilst slaves were freed but penniless.
France abolished slavery only in 1848. Spain and Portugal are equally at fault for ignoring their past. Spanish slave traders often used to count slaves by the ton. Of course, slavery was not solely a European issue — Arab traders played a huge role as well, for example.
The US has its own histories to face too. Few people in the country believe seriously that they live in a post-racial society. A 2018 poll showed that 64 percent of Americans saw racism as a major issue in US politics and society. Sadly, 30 percent admitted that racism existed but was not a major problem. Other polls indicate that the issue has deteriorated under President Donald Trump.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, wants 11 statues of Confederate figures such as Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis removed from the Capitol. Many demand that the 10 US military bases that are named after Confederate leaders get renamed.
Racism and discrimination are not confined to history, as the protest in Parliament Square on Saturday showed. In the US, Britain and other countries, we turn a blind eye both to the past and the present. Too many members of black and ethnic minorities feel alien in their own home countries.
Too many people say they do not see race, content to believe we are in a post-racial society but at the same time turn a blind eye to the institutionalized discrimination and inequality around them. However, unless we start to understand and confront our nation’s past warts and all, we shall have little chance of tackling the challenges of the present. History matters.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech