The defence of slaver statues is racist, albeit often unintentionally. Here’s why and how.
Johann Kremer’s Statue
In the main square at Munster University is a statue of their former Professor of Anatomy, Johann Kremer.
The statue has a plaque on its plinth commemorating his remarkable scientific research into the lasting effects of malnutrition on the human body – and particularly on vital organs.
Educated Jews will of course be appaled to hear this because they will know Kremer did his research at Auschwitz. He murdered a lot of people so as to be able to cut up their bodies for science.
And of course that’s why there is no such statue. We made that up. No one would want to lionise the work of a man could only do what he did as part of the SS.
Edward Colston’s Statue
In the centre of Bristol is a statue of the City’s famous philanthropist, businessman and Tory MP, Edward Colston.
The statue has a plaque on its plinth commemorating Colston as one of the most virtuous and wise sons of the city.
Educated black Britons will of course be appaled about this because they will know that Colston made his philanthropy possible by amassing a vast fortune from slaving – killing thousands of people to line his own pockets.
And that of course is why there was no such… Oh wait. That one’s not made up. He really did have a statue erected to him 174 years after he died.
Why Slavers not Nazis?
There is little difference between slavers in Britain and Nazis in Germany – morally speaking. The slave trade killed millions in camps and millions more in wars and other devastations, as did Nazism. Both were unadulterated evil born of greed and bigotry.
In practice, however, slavers made Britain rich and powerful, whereas Nazis brought Germany to ruin and occupation.
Because of that, Germany took to repudiating the evils of the Nazis in an organised process called denazification. Sadly Britain at its imperial height a century later white-washed over it’s most evil enterprise and erected a lot of statues to recast slavers as good men for what they did with the profits.
Defending Slaver Statues
In this context it is hard to fathom why people would defend slaver statues, other than because they are racists who like lauding or white-washing past oppression of black people, or because they want the support or money of racists.
Indeed racism is at the heart of every defence offered, even when those offering the defence can’t see it. That’s why many right wingers are as happy to see the statues come down as left wingers. Many right wingers are not racist, don’t like racists, and should not be mixed in with those defending these statues.
So what arguments are racist for saving bad statues?
The education case is an obvious lie.
The claim that these statues teach people about history ignores that they don’t mention the bad stuff, are clearly designed to lionise, and are selective about the history they propagate.
A statue of an impressive looking man on a large plinth does not portray him as the historical baddie he was. The lack of information at the statue also demonstrates that education is not the aim. Pretending otherwise is highly dubious.
This should surprise no one. Statues have been propaganda for millennia and this is no different. It’s why we don’t erect statues of Jimmy Saville, lauding his charity work in the hope it will lead people to know paedophiles exist.
Likewise, the argument that things were different back then – and we need to judge historical figures in historical context – is an inherently racist position by the context of the times.
By the time of the Transatlantic slave trade, white slavery was banned all over Europe. So slavery was understood to be an abuse.
Likewise, all over the Carribbean black slaves hated being slaves and sought any way out that they could find.
So calls to judge by historical context always translate into judging by the views of racist white people and ignoring the views of millions and millions of black people.
But It’s Vandalism
The Colston statue was indeed pulled down in an act of vandalism. And many good people support removal of such statues but do not support doing it by vandalism.
It is not an accident in this regard, that Colston’s statue was the statue pulled down. The public in Bristol had wanted it gone or changed for a long time and had been denied that legal wish by authorities quibbling over the wording of a new plaque.
Fortunately this criticism relates to just one statue. Anyone truly motivated by worries about vandalism won’t mind others coming down legally. Right?
Where will This End?
London followed the Colston incident by announcing a review to remove statues that should be gone. It has already removed a statue of slaver Robert Milligan from Docklands via legal means. Many other councils have started too.
Oddly, some of those who said they were worried about the vandalism are also against this legal and democratic process too – even though it will curtail the vandalism. This is because they weren’t motivated by disliking vandalism.
Here they pretend to fear it will all go too far – which for them seems to be any distance at all in addressing our racist past. Hence the thin end of the wedge argument is always weak when addressing racism.
So simply ask if they agree removing slaver statues is not too far. Because that’s the focus and it’s also the smallest possible distance and thus can only be “too far” if any act to address our racist past is “too far”.
Some people might then claim that there’s too much grey area and bad decisions will bring down the wrong statues. This is a little silly if the alternative is mobs making the decisions, but Britain has a complex history. While slavery was a rare unadulterated evil, many of the UK’s historic evils have been the flip side to a genuine or perceived good at the time.
We are thus comfortable knowing that Winston Churchill was a racist as well as one of the most important members of Antifa in history. Because that’s the honest uncomfortable truth. So as long as we remember his racism we can still lionise his role in fighting fascism.
Slavers (like Nazis) have no such grey area. Colston and Milligan have statues because they were slavers. Slavery was how they made the money with which they bought their status and paid for things that got them statues. There is no grey area to that. White people knew slavery was bad and thus banned white slavery. They enslaved black people who also knew it was bad and thus tried to escape.
So the democratic process should be supported. Reviews into the history of some of the men who have statues is the right way to address wrongs, remove what should not be lionised, and update what should be known about some others.
The more difficult issue will be what goes on those newly empty plinths.