If you walk through the central Maidan region of Kolkata, erstwhile Calcutta, the capital of the British Raj, the first thing that comes into view is the gigantic Makrana marbled Victoria Memorial Hall, complete with statues of Lord Curzon and the Queen Empress herself. The entire area was designed to mirror Buckingham Palace Road. Walk a mile either way, and you will observe empty pedestals of other colonial-era statues that have been mothballed to museums. The street names were “Indianised” during the heyday of 1960s Nehruvian socialism, but talk to any taxi driver, and they will know Minto Park or Dalhousie Square (Named after Lord Minto and Lord Dalhousie, respectively) a lot better than the official Indian names. Compared to other societies, Indians have a complicated relationship with their colonial history. There was no Cultural Revolution. There was apathy.
The reason I bring this up is the recent news out of Durham, North Carolina, where a crowd took it upon themselves to topple a Confederate statue that had stood in front of the old courthouse since 1924. The crowd was reacting to events the previous weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist rally turned violent, leaving one young woman dead. In Durham, the crowd leapt on the confederate statue with impotent fury; a couple of women protesters kicked the broken bronze head of the unknown soldier as their friends live-streamed the video and took selfies. The statue was destroyed within minutes, in a delirium of Jacobin justice.
Should the statue have been left to stand? It is a tricky question. I carry no brief for the Confederates or their modern-day romanticizers. It’s an undisputed historical fact that many of the statues that dot the American South were placed there during the Jim Crow era as a way to reassert white supremacy and attempt to intimidate the South’s black population.
Societies sometimes need to take drastic measures to restore harmony. The publication of anything related to Nazis was banned in post-World War II Germany. Japan was similarly “forcibly cleansed” of its martial heritage. Post-Soviet states did the same with statues of Stalin, although symbolic brutality remains in every aspect of urban life, from Kiev to Kamchatka.
But America can—and should—do better. A melting pot democracy shouldn’t accept the judgment of the mob when it comes to telling its own history. I was born in a country (India) that has seen its fair share of historical revisionism, mostly through apathy, but sometimes with force, and I know that revisionism of this type is an endeavor with no end. The uncomfortable history of a country can’t be erased by the removal of statues or the hasty renaming of streets and buildings. It shouldn’t be made to disappear at the behest of a mob.
And yet, it’s not surprising that this is what we’re seeing today; it’s the natural culmination of the Long March Through the Institutions, and it is not going to end with removing statues, as the history of cultural revolution suggests. Decades of propaganda from the universities, where most professors privilege activism over debate and reason, combined with media that encourage instant, reactionary “justice” online, has yielded a culture that tolerates such mob violence and the destruction of symbols. But there’s no end to being offended by history. In Oxford, students under Rhodes scholarship want to take down the statue of Cecil Rhodes. In London, they don’t want to read philosophers who are European. At Yale University, a stone carving is considered racist—so it is “fixed” to better comport with politically correct values. The memory hole is real. When history is judged through the lens of postmodern values, every work of art, every statue, every building starts to look like kindling for politically correct conflagrations.
Toppling a statue forcibly, rather than removing it peacefully through the democratic process isn’t progress, regardless of what the self-styled “revolutionaries” such as those in Durham claim. It also does little to heal the wounds caused by the history of such divisive monuments.
If the past is any guide, every revolution sparks a reaction—but it’s not always the one the revolutionaries intend.
Image: By Tapas Biswas (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons