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Felling statues raises deeper questions



The debate that has followed (and fuelled) the destruction of statues is pretty thin. It lacks awareness of the broad cultural strands interwoven in the issue. After a preliminary remark, I shall outline three large questions raised by statues and their destruction, and reflect on the larger history that illuminates the present debate.

Protestors outside Captain Cook statue (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

The most evident aspect of burning, decapitating or drowning statues is that it is an expression of enthusiasm, and is enormously enjoyable for those who take part in it. It is a symbol of radical change, and channels anger at a resented past into joy at the inauguration of a new age. Images of the Russian Revolution and of the collapse of the Soviet Empire alike are full of defaced paintings and the dethroning of statues of rulers. Unfortunately, common to all such events, is the subsequent realisation that with the coming of a new world, life does not automatically change for the better.

The larger questions posed by the destruction of the statues, and indeed of reputations, that they symbolise, concern how to handle complexity. First, historical complexity. Statues destroyed are almost always of a past age when commonly shared attitudes to society and to human aspirations differed from those of our own. Those past attitudes and the economic and political structures in which they were embodied, however, have helped shape our own world, and so are inherited both by those who call for something radically new and by those opposed to change.

Of their nature statues of the past confront us with complexity and ambiguity. Knocking their heads off does not make a society more simple, though it may lead to desired change by forcing us to ask whether the attitudes and actions of our ancestors were morally defensible as well as understandable. Asking that question of the past is awkward because it pushes us inescapably to ask it also of our own actions, attitudes and inheritance.  

Second, the question of human complexity. Statues represent, even in their idealised shape, real people marked by a mixture of good and bad desires, of good and evil actions, of light and darkness, strength and weakness, and of ignorance and knowledge. In public life they will inevitably have endorsed or acquiesced in actions that harmed groups in society. Details of their private lives and relationships, once concealed, may also now be known. This fuller knowledge forces us to ask whether we accept our own complexity and ambiguity or reject them.

If we reject them we might then demand that only people with attitudes identical with ours and innocent of actions that we abhor be honoured, and that the guilty be excised from memory and public recognition. The catch is that by drowning statues in muddy waters and by excluding sinners from our society, we claim that we ourselves have kept our white baptismal robes unstained. That claim lays a heavy burden on us.


'The deeper questions raised by this history concern who decides the shape of the ideal society, and what place have those who are excluded from it.'


Third, the question of social complexity. Each statue and memorial embody a network of relationships to other people, to groups in society, to hierarchies and to historical events. Together they form an image of society rich in its complexity and its tensions, marked by what it omits as well as by what it includes. They ask us whether we want a society in which groups with different attitudes and histories coexist with all the tensions that this involves, or whether we exclude and write out of our history many of those relationships.

If we wish to preserve complexity, we must then deal with the exclusions evident in the memorials left by our ancestors. We can do that by removing statues, adding memorials of people neglected, or relocating statues to another venue with appropriate historical context, like a museum. Whatever we do, the prior and urgent question is whether we are committed to build new relationships based in truth.

It is often claimed that the destruction is alien to our culture, a return to barbarism. In fact, it is a recurrent theme many cultures. It goes back to the exclusive claim made for the God of Israel as beyond imaging, and so excluding images of other Gods. The fate of the Golden Calf which Moses melted down, ground to dust, and forced its worshipers to eat was emblematic. Christians took up this polemic against images of Gods, as later did Muslims, but it was modified by their belief that Jesus was the image of God in flesh. Images of Christ as the Son of God and of other Christian figures became accepted.

The strictures against images, however, remained strong, and led to a bitterly resisted campaign by Christian Emperors in the East to eradicate images. The making of images was vindicated, but was set within the context of prayer and regulated in detail, so that attention was drawn to God who was seen to communicate through the image, and not to the image itself.

In the Medieval West images were multiplied and humanised, so that Churches brought together heaven and earth through the images of Christ, Mary, angels, saints and members of the congregation, both saints and sinners. In the face of this world which they saw as corrupt, Reformers returned to an imagined simplicity and emphasised the hearing of God’s word and obedience to it. Reform was often accompanied by the destruction of images and austere churches.

Images then became secular, and statues represented citizens and churchmen responsible for building a good society. They symbolised and protected the values and ideals of society. When society was seen as corrupt, however, the symbols also came under attack, as in the French and Russian revolutions and in the overthrow of the Soviet Empire.

The deeper questions raised by this history concern who decides the shape of the ideal society, and what place have those who are excluded from it. In Australia the current debate about statues touches much more searching questions about the place of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia, the moral legitimacy of their dispossession and exclusion, and their agency in shaping a more just order. It is much easier to natter about statues than to engage seriously with Indigenous people about them.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street

Main image: Protestors outside Captain Cook statue (Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, statues, colonisation



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Existing comments

A most thoughtful and thought provoking essay. Thank you. It needs to be more broadly read by Australians of all backgrounds.

Helen Scanlon | 25 June 2020  

Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor, opposes removing statues relating to slavery “because this is part of black history”. He suggests that adding a plaque so people can “actually read the evil that this man has done” would be preferable to removal, because “if we take the statue down, this will not be known.” Someone else suggested removing statues to museums. But with mob rule, ignorance reigns supreme. Ulysses Grant led the Union Army that defeated the Confederacy, but in San Francisco his statue was torn down. Hans Christian Heg was a Norwegian abolitionist who died fighting in the Civil War, but in Wisconsin his statue was torn down. British activist Lorraine Jones was asked if Winston Churchill’s statue should be removed. She replied, “Some say he’s a racist some say he’s a hero. I haven’t personally met him.” Activist Shaun King wants all images of Jesus as a “white European” removed, including “murals of stained glass windows of white Jesus and his European mother”, because it’s “white supremacy.” However throughout history, independent churches made images of Jesus whose appearance and dress were familiar to community members. Ethiopia has depicted Jesus as black for more than 1,500 years.

Ross Howard | 25 June 2020  

Tearing Jesus off a plinth because he’s white is like removing the Duck from film because he’s white but keeping the Mouse because he’s black. Ross Howard’s contribution shows that the spirit of this latest manifestation of iconoclasm is not only that of the goon, but the loon as well.

roy chen yee | 26 June 2020  

Maybe self-satisfaction is a characteristic of too many of the younger generations. They don’t believe in original sin, they don’t question or critique their own motives, they know their intentions are good - so they must be all right and the ‘others’ all wrong. Is it time to revive the teaching of history in schools and universities? Theology, even? Human psychology? Maybe we need to give more support to the humanities , not less, in the interests of humble acceptance of ourselves and others as earthen vessels. We need to remember the Hasidic saying. “Everyone should have two pockets. In one they must keep the message ‘ We are dust and ashes’. In the other ‘For our sake the world was made’.

Joan Seymour | 26 June 2020  

I just ask when does the toppling and defacing of statues stop. Captain cook spent a couple of months at Cooktown with the 'natives' and was on friendly terms with them. BLM would be better targeting someone else as CC had not thought of annexing Aust for Britain and never declared terra annulius.........he was fundamentally an explorer. the founder of South Aust statue is now attacked...............Abbott and Howard, Cecil Rhodes and attempts on Churchill. History has been tainted and praised for many years and centuries...........total removal means we lose the chance or visible sign (the reminder) that we reflect on the good, bad and ugly of history.

mick jones | 26 June 2020  

The United States has many statues of Confederate figures. I am a white American who is 94 years old and living in Australia. I have long felt that these statues on our soil were like statues of Hitler who also fought against the United States. The Confederacy fought for slavery, and the destruction of those statues represents a denial of the endemic racism that exists in my country. May the memory of the Confederacy be confined to history books.

Milton David Fisher | 26 June 2020  

This is a far reaching analysis of the problem. The tearing down of statues is a rather shallow response to a deep, deep problem. It is understandable that people are angry and lashing out, but that will not cure the history or create a new paradigm.

Jennifer Raper | 26 June 2020  

Thank you Andrew, Statues, like portraits, depict the view of people of the period portrayed. History is seen in the eye of the beholder. The Taliban destroyed the Buddhas in Afghanistan. Iraq saw the destruction of many antiquities by ISIS, Militant Hindus destroyed Mosques in India, Moslems destroyed Hindu temples in Pakistan and there are many other examples throughout history. In an attempt to reinterpret history in our own image, we fail to learn from history. These objects, writings and Art forms must be seen in the light of the period, not what we accept as "correct"today!

Gavin O'Brien | 26 June 2020  

You've got me thinking Fr Andrew about how we commemorate these "heroes" of our colonial past. I wonder if this one will get past the Eureka censor's cut? Macquarie massacred the aboriginals west of Sydney in 1816 and hung their corpses from trees. Batman engaged in the brutal killings of Tasmanian aborigines along with Commissary Hull and they treated the aborigines like animals. Mitchell in 1836 was knighted after murdering 7 aboriginal warriors in NSW. McMillan was a mass killer of Gippsland aboriginals. Canning, who surveyed the track between Halls Creek to Kimberley, chained aborigines to trees and force fed them salt to make them reveal water sources then killed them. Teelow killed 700 aboriginals in 1931 at Mary River near Kakadu over cattle pilfering, by rounding them at gunpoint and forcing them into the sea : men, women and children where they were shot and drowned. Cook's men killed aboriginals at Botany. Wheeler (native police officer) killed many of his own people and they named a mountain after him. Wilshire and Foelsche (NT police) killed aboriginals and boasted of the sexual abuse of their women. They had streets named after them. The Myall creek massacre at Inverell left 28 aboriginals dead. Laver killed aborigines with poisoned meat at Mudgeeraba after inviting them to a feast and fed them powdered glass in their sugar, You'd have to shake your head with disbelief why we immotalize many of these white "heroes" in bronze and stone? Honour them with the names of town, roads and streets?

Francis Armstrong | 27 June 2020  

I am not sure this senseless destruction and vandalization by anarchic mobs is going to do much to redeem History. Oriel College, Oxford is going to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes on its façade. That is well and good. Rhodes was the advocate of an outdated imperialism with all its overtones. I wish many of the statues which were destroyed could have been removed as Rhodes is going to be, after due consideration by the appropriate bodies. This is not just an Australian matter, it involves the whole 18th, 19th and 20th Century Imperial Pasts and possibly even earlier. The BLM movement in the USA was founded by Marxists who are on record as wishing to destroy America. The mobs which spun out of control in America beside mainly peaceful, non-Marxist co-opted protestors wreaked dreadful havoc in mainly black neighbourhoods. Anarchy which destroys society, followed by a new society built on a Marxist foundation is not what I want. The aftermaths of the French and Russian Revolutions left terrible scars. The new Russia still bears them for all to see. We live in parlous times. If our society and government are seriously weakened we will be far less able to cope with these times. Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it is a loud and clear warning to all of us. I pray God people will listen.

Edward Fido | 28 June 2020  

Revolutions occur, Edward, because the rule class resist justifiable change and lose the consent of the ruled. Not all revolutions are Marxist-driven. True conservatives know when to change and thereby conserve what is worth conserving. If we live in parlous times and at risk of losing all that is good in our society, it's because our so-called conservative leaders are actually reactionary.

Ginger Meggs | 29 June 2020  

I was heartened to read a few days ago that in Richmond, Virginia, the former capital of the Confederacy, they are removing the statues of Stonewall Jackson and other former heroes of the South. This is being done legally at the behest of both the state government and the local council. Slavery and some associated memories of the Old South were and are extremely damaging to America. America is, like a family, coming to terms with its past, which is partially an abusive one: abusive of many people. This to me is genuine conservatism: you interrogate your past, keep what is good and jettison the bad.

Edward Fido | 09 July 2020  

I couldn't agree more, Edward.

Ginger Meggs | 23 July 2020  

I'm afraid a 'ho-hum' of a piece, Andy, written it seems in retrospect, to reflect the views of a small but dedicated audience of (largely) Catholic conservatives. One has to ask if ES, in this regard, is truly a magazine reflecting public policy issues at large and the liberal arts in particular. Both aspects of these two proud claims seem to fall short of what is achieved in reviewing this article and most of its pitifully but deservedly few responses. As far as public policy goes, Andy, you don't address the question of power, which ordains that the overwhelming majority of statues and other symbols of our past history applauds the successes of victors, whose villainous behaviour is now known. and not at all about those who lost and whose memory is ground into the dust. Any critical policy estimate of this fact would tell against the fence-sitting position that you so eloquently adopt. As to the question of liberty and liberalism, insofar as it applies to the behaviours, attitudes and social and cultural practices of Australian Catholics, who dominate your audience, the strength and indeed vitriol with which marxism is identified as blameworthy for statue-toppling ought to ring bells!

Michael FURTADO | 05 August 2020  

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