The mob has now risen against a Queen Victoria statue in Leeds, which is perfectly reasonable considering she once ruled the Empire under whose aegis all those slave-traders flourished and made their fortunes. If statues of Edward Colston and Robert Milligan must fall, then so must that of the Queen of the United Kingdom and Empress of India whose imperial patronage of white-privilege they and their predecessors so much enjoyed.
History and chronology don’t matter. Biography doesn’t matter. ‘Murderer’, ‘Slave owner’, ‘Slag’, ‘Black Lives Matter’, ‘Racist’, ‘Whore’: she oppressed and subjugated nations and peoples. The British Empire was very bad and very wrong. Lord Adonis said so, so it must be true. And so the Empress of India must be very bad if not really quite evil, and her statue must fall; #VictoriaMustFall.
And so must the evil racist islamophobe Winston Churchill, and the evil murderous religious bigot Oliver Cromwell, and the evil capitalist witch Margaret Thatcher, and so on and so forth. And let’s not forget buildings named after the sons of slave-owners: even William Ewart Gladstone must be expunged, for he inherited the sins of his father and voted against abolition of the slave trade, so the due punishment must be meted out. #GladstoneMustFall. If students at Liverpool University can achieve that, perhaps those in Churchill College Cambridge might march and protest and scream and scream until their college is renamed Mandela College or Roy Jenkins College or some such: #ChurchillMustFall.
There is no nuance to apprehend; no weighing of their moral good relative to the bad; no space for ethical debate of their virtues and violations. Their greatness (should there be any) must be viewed through the diffracting lens of contemporary offence. As Shakespeare observed, ‘The evil that men do lives after them; /The good is oft interred with their bones.’ So let it be with all those of whom the mob or Sadiq Khan disapprove.
The Mayor of London has formed the ‘Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm’, which will review statues and landmarks across the capital to ensure they reflect diversity. Trafalgar Square may well become Khan Plaza; Oxford Circus could be re-named Windrush Junction; and Clive of India outside the Foreign Office should be replaced with a bronze of Peter Tatchell illuminated night and day by a fluorescent rainbow. London’s vibrant diversity must be celebrated and commemorated, and all those racist street names and statues of old, straight white men have simply got to go.
There is, of course, pernicious systemic racism within cultures and institutions which is still reified by ignorant individuals, and no one disputes the years or decades or centuries of legitimate grievance, hurt and trauma endured by some groups as a result. You may believe it’s adopted victimhood, yet there is certainly a place for that in the instinctual empathy of postmodernity: we feel with those who feel, and those who feel what we feel are more virtuous in their feeling. But #BlackLivesMatter shoots itself in both feet when it alienates people who would otherwise be allies in their righteous cause, and much of its Marxist mission has nothing to do with securing justice, liberation and peace for those who are oppressed purely because of the colour of their skin. It is entirely possible to believe that black lives matter without supporting ‘Black Lives Matter’.
There is something of a political religion about statuary to the great and the good (even if they weren’t actually so great and were really rather bad). It isn’t that these statues are worshipped, yet there is a degree of religious sentiment which attaches us to them: they are an image of worthiness; of victory for the salvation of our civilisation. They may have been erected during an apocalypse or a time of regeneration, but those who paid for them and placed them on their pedestals believed in the goodness and righteousness of the object of veneration. Whatever evils they may have committed, there was judged to be at least one momentous good which merits belief, value, myth and symbol. Some may call it a cult, but it is more worthship than worship.
And of course assessments of human worth change with the perspectives of time, because the religion of humanity sacralises what each era seeks to idolise or deify. And today our secular creed is that of Equality, Diversity and Human Rights. These are the immutable values of the contemporary community; the inviolable truths by which we cultivate and inculcate a collective identity. And if you don’t agree, you at best a bigot, and at worst a heretic. And we know what happens to bigots and heretics, don’t we?