The Worthwhile Warts of Historical Figures

The desecration of property has been an unfortunate by-product of the more extreme fringes of the George Floyd protest movement. Recently in Britain and the US, and here, too, if protesters are to have their way, the vandalism and defilement is reaching new heights as historical monuments become the subject of demonstrators’ wrath. In Bristol just days ago, a Black Lives Matter mob toppled a bronze statue of 17th-century British philanthropist, politician and, yes, slave trader Edward Colston, provoking cheers from the enthralled witnesses as it was rolled into the Avon. History has, correctly, not been kind to Colston, and many viewed the dunking as deserved vengeance a long-time coming. Bristol’s own mayor acknowledged he had never liked the statue’s prominent placement, which he called “an affront.”

But when Sir Winston Churchill’s statue in Parliament Square was defaced, the behaviour of the protestors was deemed by many to be far more impetuous. The graffiti on Churchill’s monument was scrawled during the same march in which a lone protester, just a block away, tried to burn the Union Jack at the Cenotaph, a memorial to Britain’s war dead. It was indeed a bold move, considering Churchill’s place in the British pantheon of great figures. His pugnacious war-time leadership has resulted in many regarding him as the saviour of the Free World. Such is the adulation for Churchill that in 2002 he was voted in a BBC poll as the ‘greatest Briton of all time’.

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While the wilful ransacking of businesses is a contemptible tactic of activism, the trashing of historical monuments is that and much more. It is dialectically linked to the desire of many protestors to rewrite history, or at least excise certain parts, to manufacture a narrative that lends credence to the objectives they presently pursue. The trashing of national symbols represents a very dangerous impulse, an intellectually reprehensible strategy that imposes costs far beyond that of mere graffiti-removal.

A phenomenon that is unfortunately creeping further into the analytical toolkit with every year that goes by is the increased perspective of ‘presentism’. As Matthew Omolesky observed in a recent Quadrant, presentism is the tendency to interpret past events and people in terms of modern values and concepts. This penchant to judge our forbears against today’s criteria is deeply unfair. We would not castigate our younger selves with the sagacity of today because to do so would be disingenuous and overlook the beauty of learned lessons. If the razor of presentism were to be wielded consistently and without selective prejudice there are very few figures in history who would escape modern ridicule and admonishment.

Thomas Jefferson owned slaves. Ghandi’s sexual habits were at first lusty and subsequently bizarre, and Churchill was a fierce imperialist who advocated policies, the use of poison gas against Kurds and Afghans, for instance,  that caused a great deal of suffering to the people of the Subcontinent. Of course, these behaviours are rightly lamentable in this era. By the standards of their time, however, they barely raised an eyebrow. No doubt, 100 years from now, our great-grandchildren will be deploring the actions and policies of today. This is both the beauty and curse of history. If we are to becomes practitioners of presentism then we should at least be consistent and tear down each and every monument to a historical figure who falls short of today’s moral codes. A better response is to leave them standing and untouched as teachers of warts-and-all history.

The unfortunate reality in the contemporary analysis of historical figures is the proclivity to focus more on the bad than the good, or in the worst cases, exclusively the bad. For men as politically complex as Churchill, in many ways a walking contradiction, this will lead some to an unfavourable appraisal of their contributions and a tepid memory of their positive legacies. The nimble attitude with which Churchill approached politics saw him cross the floor not once but twice, and ceding to Stalin, albeit reluctantly, much of post-war Europe. These actions and many more have left historians and biographers reaching an impasse in trying to categorise the seemingly uncategorizable. His views and politics could be defensibly termed — to borrow from the man himself — a ‘riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma’. Churchill was a special man with many of his proficiencies only possible because of his innumerable deficiencies. His past misfortunes paved the way to his future fortunes; a lifetime of mistakes were the carefully constructed scaffolding for unmatched successes.

It is vital that, when we subject history’s now out-of-favour figures to the knife of criticism, the totality  of our assessment is the person as a whole. It is a cute irony that the desecration of Churchill’s monument coincided with the 76th anniversary of the D-Day landings, the single day which perhaps best exemplifies the British people’s struggle and hard-won triumph against fascism and genocide. To say Churchill was important in those landings would be an unpardonable understatement. While the BLM crowds decry perhaps his largest character flaw they conveniently overlook his greatest achievement on one of its most important anniversaries. I wonder how many protesters who revelled in the daubing of Churchill’s monument later that day offered a moment’s silence in gratitude for the D-Day soldiers’ sacrifice and Churchill’s instrumental leadership in first warning about Hitler, then refusing to bow to him and then, fortitude and resolve at last rewarded, playing a key role in the monumental achievement of Western Europe’s liberation. An obsession with someone’s failings is an ingratitude that leads to some of their greatest strengths being forgotten. That is a sad disservice to history, let alone the recipient.

The phrase “sunlight is the best disinfectant” was introduced to American legal discourse by Justice Louis Brandeis, who served on the Supreme Court a century ago. In essence, it instructs that the best way to derive important lessons, especially from something vile and regrettable, is to put it under the spotlight for all to study. This point is far more pertinent to the less defensible Edward Colston than it applies to Churchill. The figures of the past — most especially the tyrants, racists and bigots — can be our greatest teachers. “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” is apt here. The most prominent example of this ideal is Germany’s very public and thorough preservation of its shameful Holocaust history. The most regrettable and ugly chapters deserve to be displayed in prominent places – not because they in any way should be celebrated; rather, because they serve as enduring reminders of how far we have come.

Churchill, of course, will survive this affair; the rhino’s hide he developed from years of ridicule in the political arena will make light work of repelling a little graffiti. But it is an opportune moment for the rest of us to remember how essential it is to remain vigilant in the preservation of all shades of history. The cost of its desecration is far more than dented bronze.

8 thoughts on “The Worthwhile Warts of Historical Figures

  • cbattle1 says:

    Umm, if I’m not mistaken, Edward Colston’s statue was tossed into the River Avon, and not the Mersey, as Tristan Heiner has written. What is an ironic fact is that Colston, and many other British in the past were instrumental in building a foundation of the very nation that people of all races are risking life and limb to come to! And therein lies the confrontation that Marxist ideology brings about in the doctrine of multiculturism: the Nation State must be destroyed, and all offensive traces of its evil past must be obliterated! Only then can we join hands in a global celebration of diversity, gender fluidity, etc, etc….

    Chris Battle

  • Stephen Due says:

    How ludicrous these BLM protesters are! One would think there was no virtue on earth but anti-racism, and that statue-topplings were a sure sign of possessing it. But this is more an exercise in bullying and abusiveness than a demonstration of logical thought or moral insight.
    On the other hand, the intellectuals in the background specialise in demolishing not just the statues but the reputations of major historical figures. Their approach is mostly a type of reverse name-dropping, a favourite technique of Leftist academics, and of popular commentators like Phillip Adams.
    It is true that history of that ilk is liable to suffer from ‘presentism’. On the other hand one cannot actually write sensibly without a personal perspective, and deficiencies in that area can generate a different kind of failing in the work of those who aspire to sit in judgement on the past.
    Personal perspective matters in the history business. It is shaped by life experience, moral formation, political orientation, depth of knowledge of the subject, intellectual capacity. And that is why reading (for example) Churchill’s own ‘History of the English Speaking Peoples’ is so rewarding. He’s worth a statue just for that.

  • ianl says:

    Heiner’s argument here is that essentially defacing or destroying public (cultural) property is a worse crime than defacing or destroying private property. If one doubts that, look at Heiner’s choice of phrase:

    >” … wilful ransacking of businesses is a contemptible tactic of activism, the trashing of historical monuments is that and much more …”

    Nope. Collectivism is a thorn by any name. I would regard vandalising my house or business place as infinitely worse than painting Cook’s statue pink. So I consider Mr Heiner as a somewhat surreptitious collectivist. Perhaps he may demonstrate this to be wrong.

  • IainC says:

    Brilliant summation by comedian Vince Sorrenti : “Exactly how did the Taliban get into Australia with the travel bans?”
    Lenin once said that “the capitalists will sell us the rope which we will use to hang them”. Moving to the present, western civilization will create the hashtags which the barbarians will use to overthrow them.
    Noting the speed with which companies and organisations fall over themselves to prostrate before a potential Red Guards thugleft ragemob in order to escape opprobrium, it seems they don’t need a social licence to operate, more a socialist licence to operate.
    Why should we self-immolate our culture down to ashes to mix with their bitter bile to make it more palatable? You don’t placate the barbarians at the gate by offering them 30 pieces of silver to go away – it only encourages them to burst inside to look for the gold.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good article Roger. The main problem as I view it seems to be this; we have always had a proportion of anarchist revolutionary types in our society, prepared to attack and tear down anything they can, just to offend the majority, make a name for themself and sort of appease the chip on their shoulder, and our system of determined rule of law, coupled with their relatively small numbers, has always retained order, preventing them from destroying monuments & causing chaos. The difference now seems to be, not any increase in the proportion of them, but a big decrease in the determined rule of law to control them.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Correction. Good article Tristan.

  • lhackett01 says:

    Tristan, thank you for your erudite article. History must not be rewritten or extinguished. Certainly, historical acts should be viewed in the light of their times, not judged against different standards.
    Unfortunately, in my view, too many Australians have been educated to believe post-modernist and deconstructionist approaches in assessing history. Accepting history as it was is frowned upon.

    Should we destroy statues of people who we think were bad, as viewed through a selective lense? Must we burn books that depict events that distress us? To do so is, and would be, ignorant and anarchistic.

    A good example of history judged against modern values was the Mabo case where, based on ‘Progressive’ ideas rather than applying the law as it was at the time the British settled Australia, the High Court has created interpretations of past laws that discriminated in favour of Aborigines. The High Court became activist. Instead of determining Settlement through the prism of the law in the 1700’s, it applied the ‘progressive’ thought of the 1900’s. By accepting that Australia was not, in fact, terra nullius in 1788, yet legally uninhabited for the purpose of acquisition of sovereignty, the Mabo High Court acknowledged that sovereignty was acquired over Australia under the enlarged doctrine of terra nullius. Despite this conclusion, however, the majority of the High Court expressly disapproved of the application of the concept of terra nullius to an inhabited country. They decided that the notion that inhabited land may be classed as terra nullius no longer commanded general support in international law.and that the enforceability of any pre-existing rights depended on some different rule which necessarily contradicted the ‘legally uninhabited’ rule. So, they made up a new rule that allowed for exclusive or non-exclusive native title.

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