The statue of slave trader Edward Colston is retrieved from Bristol harbor on June 11 after being hurled into the water on June 7, 2020. Photo: AFP

There is a disturbing and ironic trend underway across the Western world: Prominent physical manifestations of dark historical pasts – pasts that publics are being urged never to forget – are being demolished.

Case in point is in Bristol, the UK. The 19th-century statue of 18th-century local philanthropist Edward Colston – whose money was earned from the murderous cross-Atlantic slave trade – was torn down by a mob and hurled into the harbor.

The action took place amid a wave of global revulsion about the deaths of black Americans at the hands of police. High emotions and considerable self-righteousness imbued the event, and the media piled on.

That is a plus. Many people learned things they did not know about the subject of the statue, and his role in the city’s past. And I don’t think anyone has suggested that the statue had any great artistic merit.

But viewed from the longer term, we should question what has been achieved.

Should we expunge history or reinterpret it? Is it sensible to erase evidence of oppressors and oppressions from local spaces? Should activists eradicate physical manifestations of the fact that many of today’s prosperities were built on a foundation of past ills?

This is not only about Colston. A trend is forming.

Statues of other problematic historical figures including Confederate President Jefferson Davis and explorer Christopher Columbus are now being vandalized or smashed. Other statues, such as those of naval hero Horatio Nelson and colonist Cecil Rhodes are being targeted.

These recent acts have been foreshadowed by a range of ongoing developments that include the whitewashing of social media platforms and the banning of historical symbols.

Art, meaning, context

Public statuary plays an important informational role.

In an age when history is poorly taught – if at all – and when many people get their impressions of the past from popular culture, notably, film and TV, statues are high-visibility, everyday reminders of history.

Of course, there is the problem of aggrandizement. These kinds of statues were originally designed to glorify subjects including slave owners, colonialists, etc.

But let us be grown up. Statues are inanimate. They only have the meanings that we give them. Beliefs, cultures and contexts change over time. Our attitudes toward slavery today are diametrically opposed to what they were in the statue subject’s day.

We should not make the “Hollywood error” of judging yesterday by the standards and moralities of today. If we remove these symbols from our presents, we lose an important reminder of our pasts.

There was a time when slavery was widespread across the entire world. There was a time when black Africans were considered to be lesser humans by white Europeans. There was a time when a slave trader could be considered a “good man.”

These things are important to know. They tell us much about where we came from and things we might not like to be reminded of. But they also tell us how far we have come.  

So the issue is context. Why not simply add appropriately 21st-century signage, or other artistic or informational addenda, to troublesome 19th-century statuary?

The great media whitewash

But before we consider that, let us recognize that the issue of whitewashing unsavory pasts extends far beyond statuary. There are actions and calls underway for multiple historical images, symbols and works to be eradicated from media.

Take World War II. Several social media platforms ban historical images that include Nazi symbols.

Certainly, SS runes and Swastika symbols are leveraged by unsavory Far Rightists. But does that mean that their reproduction in appropriate historical contexts – for example in a contemporary film clip or in a specialist online discussion group – must be banned?

This is literal censorship of history. And while neo-Nazis do, indeed, exist, to suppose they make up the bulk of those studying and discussing World War II is absurd.

Yet, this censorial sensibility is infiltrating academia. In no less an organ than Harvard journal The Crimson, a Korean student wrote of his shock to see a photograph of a Japanese “rising sun” flag on campus.

However, the image was not being waved by a rabid Japanese nationalist – it was on a flyer for a class on Japanese imperial history. In other words, the symbol appeared in a critical, not a laudatory context. Apparently, the writer could not grasp this. Would he prefer that the dark side of Japanese imperialism, and related symbols, be made invisible? 

I am pretty sure his answer would be “no.” By that logic, statues that represent dark pasts should be maintained – in an appropriate manner – rather than eradicated.

The censorial scattergun

If you don’t like that statue of a Confederate general – or perhaps more germanely, the cause he served – do you really want to destroy it and efface a symbol of oppression?

This is not just about the past. Yes, the statue recalls history, but also speaks to subsequent historiography and attitudes. That is critical, for it relates directly to today’s racism and discrimination.

And for those who back the destruction of statuary, what is the standard, exactly?

Should statues of, for example, of US President George Washington be removed because he was a slave owner? Should statues of UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill be defaced because he was in power during the 1943 Bengal famine?

The point is that both these men – while far from being perfect – also did much good. In our current, highly emotive clime, there is the risk of babies being thrown out with bath water.

For on thing, many of these statues, unlike Colston’s, have real artistic merit as public monuments.

More importantly, if we take a simplistic “black-and-white” view of historical figures and fail to recognize duality, we are on a perilous and slippery slope. Not only will the statues of many – perhaps most – famed figures, nationally and internationally, face the sledgehammer. By the same logic, massive chunks of global culture should be effaced.

Should we demolish the Egyptian pyramids because they were raised by slaves? Should we ban Wagner’s music and Dickens’ literature because of their anti-semitism? Should we cease to watch the classic Gone with the Wind because it was produced at a time when “Jim Crow” views of the Confederacy existed?

On the latter point, HBO apparently thinks “yes.” It has withdrawn it from its offerings. Given that even North Korea permits the film, this looks to be a hysterical over-reaction.

However, these are broad questions. Let us return to the more manageable issue of statues.

More statues, not fewer

Even when it comes to the statues of figures wherein the “good-bad” balance tilts, in 21st-century sensibilities, toward the “bad,” there is a strong argument for keeping them in situ.  

That argument is this: Leverage them as informational assets.

The obvious way to do this is through better and more extensive signage. But much more can be done. Rather than the “Deface ’em. Smash ’em!” approach, a positive solution would be to emplace counter artworks in the same space. 

This approach is visible on Wall Street, where “Fearless Girl” faces off against the area’s iconic bull. Near Confederate statues, for example, artworks representing oppressed slaves or black Union soldiers could be added to locales to offer competing frames of reference.

A program of “counter statues” offers the advantage of being constructive, rather than destructive, at a time when local spending needs a boost. And it offers modern artists – most particularly, minority artists – the chance to stamp their presence upon civic spaces.

Moreover, this approach offers the public a broader narrative and locus for debate that would be obviated by the simple obliteration of artifacts.

Granted, there is the issue of space. If it is impossible to add a competing artwork in the locality, surely it is better to remove original statues and cluster them together in a park, gallery or museum?

If this is done, these historical or historiographical symbols can be enhanced with new, creative and educational add-ons – from new signage to “counter statues” – to illustrate their broad, and often troubling, contexts.

This constructive-not destructive approach paints a fuller portrait of the past, and its ramifications in the present.

Villains and victims

But it is critical not to simply memorialize victims while removing oppressors. It is critical to have both, for history is the study of humanity. To learn from it, one must strive to comprehend motivating factors.

Moreover, if the focus is only on victims in public spaces, the oppressors – and yes, their descendents – are let off the hook.

This point requires a nuanced understanding. It will almost certainly be overlooked by the more excitable firebrands in these heady days, as they stalk public spaces with block and tackle in hand, scoping out their next target.

But can Western societies, with their traditions of freedom of speech and thought, not recognize that acknowledging history is not the same as approving of it?

Granted, the destruction of ethically troublesome statuary could, arguably, be considered reasonable if “warts-and-all” history was widely and competently taught in national curricula. But it is not, and will probably never be.

So, to return to the issue of our day – defacing and destruction – what are we left with?

When a statue is torn from its plinth and hurled into a harbor, we lose something that teaches us about past happenings and present contexts.

What do we gain? Beyond short-term exuberance – nothing.

Andrew Salmon is Asia Times’ Northeast Asia editor. He is also an award-winning historian.