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Monumental Blunders

An oft-quoted line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’ has King Arthur reflecting on change thus:

‘The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
and God fulfils himself in many ways,
lest one good custom should corrupt the world.’

‘The Order’ in this case was certainly changing and Arthur had come to terms with his passing. The legend paints Arthur and his knights in colorful and heroic hues. As such the relevant customs are shown to be good. Arthur had no way of knowing if what would supplant the heroic would be better or as good in a different way. However, turns of history, especially after long reigns or an extended essay of a particular order do make for hope and/or consolation of a Tennysonian kind. At least for a while. Think ‘Arab Spring’. Think ‘Yahapalanaya’.

Sometimes the sheer magnitude of a moment of objection persuades people to see imminent rupture or indeed a collapse that cannot be reversed. Systems however are resilient and those who have benefited from them typically leave no stone unturned when looking for ways of retaining privileges.

That said, we are seeing something unprecedented in many parts of the world, principally the United States of America. Monuments and memorials, symbols and insignias, buildings, names and nomenclature are not just being questioned and debated, they have been torn down, effaced and protested against and not just in the USA.  The statues have typically been of slave traders, Confederate leaders, conquistadors such as Christopher Columbus and Juan de Oñate, but the wave has traveled to Europe and all the way to New Zealand. Statues were either toppled or the threat of the same has prompted assurances from relevant authorities that they will be removed.

Some have cried out in horror at the looting and vandalism, but not surprisingly such ‘objectors’ belong to a broad camp that cheered on when statues and symbols associated with the Soviet Bloc came down. They’ve not uttered one word of protest against that great Temple of Looting, the British Museum. The vandalism whose yield is proudly displayed therein remains a non-issue for such people.

‘Part of history and therefore should remain’ wasn’t an argument when Lenin’s statue was brought down

It is not hard to understand the anger of those who targeted these symbols of tyranny, racism and barbarity. Their very existence can be seen as an affront to humanity. It is also history, however. Sordid yes, but historic. Reminds me of a short exchange in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘Crime and Punishment’ translated as given below:

‘Brother, brother, what are you saying? Why, you have shed blood?” cried Dunia in despair. “Which all men shed,” he put in almost frantically, “which flows and has always flowed in streams, which is spilt like champagne, and for which men are crowned in the Capitol and are called afterwards benefactors of mankind… If I had succeeded I should have been crowned with glory, but now I’m trapped.”’

So we have statues of those who ‘succeeded’ whereas the defeated are often not even footnoted in historical accounts. The architects of the British Museum obviously did not set out to create a monument to theft, vandalism and genocide. The looters, vandals and butchers were not named as such. King Leopold II of Belgium supervised the murder of as many as 10 million people in the Congo Free State between 1885 and 1908 but those who erected his statue in Ekeren (it was removed by the Municipality before protestors could do the honors) clearly didn’t see him as anything but a hero [His first cousin Queen Victoria, my friend Krisantha Sri Bhaggiyadatta reminds me, ‘Victoria stole much more than her cousin and that’s her secret].

Such people in Europe, tyrants all, after all delivered to their subjects ‘the good life’ courtesy the tyranny. Butchery was in Winston Churchill’s political and ideological DNA, so to speak, but he’s hailed as a hero. Hitler is the exception and that’s simply because he did to white people what white people did to non-white people. And they are not done yet!

Time is long and this is something that is easily forgotten. It’s the moment, it’s the carpe diem frame of mind that comes to the fore. And sometimes memory dies and is buried by century after century replete with outright lies and creative and pernicious historiography. When memory survives and moments present themselves for a different version to emerge, statues are taken down.

If history is useful at least to the extent that it teaches us about horrors we must avoid then an argument can be made against complete erasure. Better to have King Leopold along with a prominent account of what he did and who benefited from the bloodletting he was responsible for, one could argue. That however is for people to decide. The winners make the call, typically, and although that’s not something anyone should cheer, it’s something we are forced to live with.

What’s forgotten in the fixation over monument is that they are but symbols. We could re-define the symbol; Columbus as a butcher not an explorer or discoverer of a ‘new’ world, for example. But in the end, powerful though symbols are they essentially make the frill of political reality.

You can’t bring back the murdered. You can’t go back in time and reset ecologies, cultural and physical. You could however return loot. You could compensate nations.

A catalogue of antiquities and other cultural objects from Sri Lanka (Ceylon) abroad compiled by P.H.D.H. De Silva and published in 1974, lists over 15,000 artifacts stolen from the island.  The loot ended up in 23 countries and 140 holding facilities.  The vast majority are in Britain.  Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Berkshire, Leicester, Liverpool, London, Sheffield, and Windsor all have ‘Little pieces of Ceylon’ so to speak.  All stolen goods.  For antique and historical value, each and every amulet, the tiniest statuette, the most fragile manuscript with hardly legible lettering, is priceless. 

In other words it is easy for relevant authorities in the USA, Canada, Britain, Belgium, Australia, Portugal, New Zealand, the Netherlands etc to play progressive by removing statues, changing names and nomenclature, efface symbols and insignia and leave it at that. It’s easy to ‘take a knee’ as per that trending symbolic gesture objecting to racism and police brutality and leave it at that. That’s pittance. Does not compensate. Most importantly it does absolutely nothing to transform a system that is racist, violent and is made for and buttressed by deceit, theft and butchery.

When the symbols come down, the oppressed cheer. When the British left, those living in the countries looted and vandalized by the British cheered. The vandal figured different ways to vandalize, the thief became more skillful at theft. The paraphernalia of freedom were ‘conceded’ but the substance of enslavement remained robust.

Monuments will come down. Tyrannies end. Nothing is permanent. But, to take from Tennyson, we do have ample historical evidence regarding one bad custom being replaced by another, although the latter will be celebrated as good, wholesome, democratic, civilized etc. For a while at least.

When under siege, the besieged will (or must) compromise, but rest assured that the dictum, ‘one step back now so two steps forward remains viable’ is what frames concession. The more formidable monuments don’t come named. They do not have physical form. They are more elusive. Perhaps this is one reason why statues are targeted. They are, in the end, the softer of all things that ought to be targeted. Leaving it all there with the rubble after point is made would be a blunder. A monumental blunder.

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malindasenevi@gmail.com

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