Ignorant vandalism has no place in civil society.
Insight writer Chris Trotter caused quite a stir last week, when he wrote in defense of the sudden, violent craze for destroying statues. Particularly galling to many readers, I suspect, was his reminder of the triumphalism that greeted the sight of statues of Saddam Hussein and Lenin being toppled.
Still, that’s a challenging argument, and one that deserves a considered reply. Just what, exactly, is the difference? Is it just my-side bias that celebrates the one statue-toppling yet condemns the other? Is it right to destroy memorials to people who are at odds with modern values?
In fact, there are key differences in the separate events – and those differences inform the answer to that last question.
Firstly, it must be borne in mind that the destruction of Ba’athist and Soviet monuments took place in the context of warfare and revolution. Even the destruction of Lenin monuments in 2003 took place during a civil war. In the chaos and lawlessness caused by the defeat of totalitarian regimes especially, destruction and violence are inevitable calamities.
Despite their vainglorious rhetoric, what is happening in the United States, much less its slavish imitations in other Western countries, is not a “revolution” (in the sense of a popular uprising), and certainly not a war. However lawless a relatively small band of rioters might be, the US remains a stateswith legitimate governments, authorities and institutions firmly in place. There is no excuse there for violence and lawlessness.
More importantly, Chris overlooks the moral gap between those whose monuments were toppled. Saddam Hussein and Vladimir Lenin were brutal tyrants, some of the bloodiest in human history. Whatever their sins, Robert E. Lee, much less Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington or Winston Churchill, simply cannot be compared to either without stretching moral credulity to breaking point.
For the people of the Ukraine or Iraq, the cruelties of Lenin and Hussein are living memories. They, at least, have a legitimate claim to be hurt and offended by the sight of the evil men who blighted their lives. The raging infants of Antifa barely even know whose statues they’re destroying. A Churchill-hater interviewed on the BBC was so ignorant that she talked of him as a living person. You can be certain that the rampaging mob in Bristol know nothing of Edward Colston or his life beyond propaganda fed to them by activists.
While it might be argued that Colston was a slave-trader and thus deserves to be erased, this is a simplistic argument which ignores nearly every other fact of Colston’s life. While Colston indeed joined the slave-trading Royal African Company, this was not the foundation of his wealth. Colston had already made his fortune as a successful merchant. He ended his association with the company in 1692.
It should also be noted that the Royal African Company’s investors also included Samuel Pepys and John Locke. Because the slave trade was a completely legitimate enterprise. It was only towards the end of Colston’s life that Abolitionism began to become a serious idea. Whatever we may think of it today, in the late 1600s almost no-one thought of slavery as immoral – and certainly not outside the West. The uncomfortable truth is that slavery was the norm in most of the world, and would be outside the West well into the 20th century.
Moreover, Colston used his considerable wealth to fund a vast array of philanthropic projects, in Bristol in particular. The monuments and memorials which dot Bristol were not erected to celebrate slavery but to give thanks for charity.
To focus on merely one aspect of Colston’s life is ignorant and juvenile. If Colston is to be judged on a single, unsavoury aspect of his life, then what of the great martyr of the violent mob who toppled his statue – their hero George Floyd must likewise be judged solely as the violent thug who beat, robbed and pistol whipped a helpless woman.
Even so, Abraham Lincoln was certainly no Edward Colston. Nor was Teddy Roosevelt, or Ulysses S. Grant, both of whose statues have been vandalised or removed in recent days.
Even granting that Colston’s investment in the Royal African Company should be sufficient to obliterate every other aspect of his life, the fact still remains that Bristol or Washington in 2020 are not Kiev in 1990 or Baghdad in 2003. These are still nations of laws, not mob rule. If the sight of Colston’s statue is too much for woke moderns, then there are legitimate avenues for them to pursue. As Chris himself suggested, statues may be retired – not wantonly destroyed – but even that should only happen with the legitimate consent of the majority, not at the whim of a violent, ignorant minority.
Vandalism remains just that – vandalism.