Fallen idols in public space

Fallen idols in public space

Fallen Idols by Alex von Tunzelmann is a very interesting and well-written popular history of the circumstances in which public statuary was erected and subsequently brought down for twelve men, mainly rogues and worse. The statuary starts in the 18th century and ends in the late 20th century and includes statues of Butcher Cumberland, Stalin, King Leopold of the Belgians, Lenin, Rhodes, Sadam Hussain, and Edward Colston of Bristol, among others. These chapters are preceded by an introduction to the current debates cohering around commemorative statuary, and it rejects the idea that their toppling removes visible signs of the past and expunges history. Both in the introduction and in the conclusion, Von Tunzelmann proposes that recent events directed at public statuary are not about the erasure of history but a remaking of it, that the twelve weren’t just men of their times but extraordinary in their awfulness, that the actions against statues is not the end of law and order, and that nor is it a slippery slope leading to other kinds of removal.

Good points, and most of this can be readily conceded. But the so-called ‘slippery slope’ aspect needs keeping in mind. The politics of these events over the long time period the book considers are more complex than the discussion allows for those readers who have in-depth knowledge of any of the examples. And although Von Tunzelmann disavowals it, quite a few of the present-day protesters do see the removal of statuary as the precursor to other removals. As part of this, there is an anger directed at archives, seen to glorify and in a strange sense almost to embody a racially oppressive past; and while the past can’t be changed, archives and their contents can and historiography can.

This points to a general problem with such uber accounts, that they tend to homogenise what happened, and do so regarding both sides. Covering a lot of very diverse ground inevitably brings generalisation and sometimes over generalisation. And it is the wayward detail that is sometimes the most telling.

It should not be forgotten, for example, that when the University of Cape Town library which holds its archive collections was (accidentally) destroyed in a fire last year, many cheered. Rhodes must fall okay, but what also happened was that many records which helped enable his iniquitous activities to be traced went up in fire and smoke. Also it is important to recognise that people of the political right, as well as the anti-racist left, are carrying out their own agendas in offending against such public statutory – commemorations of black public figures and causes have been daubed and toppled, not just the worst of whites.  Much of the toppling more widely has been for political reasons, but detailed investigation suggests that sometimes the people doing it simply do not know enough about the past to differentiate between different statues but are motivated by an emotional response and sometimes also virtue signalling. In addition, many more people now know about, for instance, Edward Colston and his pro-slavery activities in his present toppled and graffitied state than ever did before. Whether this is a good or a bad thing needs thinking about. But whichever, it is certainly ironic.

Thinking within the framework of this useful book could lead to supposing that the fallen idol campaigns are fully beneficent. But although they raise important issues, this includes some which are not easily resolved. Behind the wayward detail in the previous paragraph, for instance, there are the various groups competing for epistemic privilege, for the right to be the possessor of the real truth about the past.

Read the book, but think beyond it. And let’s hope that this perspicacious author writes a successor. She has done a thought-provokingly good job with this one.

Alex von Tunzelmann (2021) Fallen Idols, Headline.

Last updated:  7 April 2022