Statues have suddenly become important to us all. They enrage Black Lives Matter. They have made the rest of us scratch our heads and think. Something big is at stake here, but what is it?
I underestimated statues. I saw them only as large and rather clumsy tributes to fashions in history.
However this thing with attacking statues just took off, and has become more than a fuss about slavery. Slavery has morphed into racism. And racism has morphed into taking down not only statues but re-writing history and cancelling freedom of speech. The new woke, with eyes that bulge uncomfortably, say freedom of speech must be cancelled since it can be a platform for hate speech; and racism is the worst hate speech there is.
The war on free speech comes in (at least) three ways at the moment. Social pressure; no one will like you if you are a called a racist. Cancel culture – you will lose your job if you are accused of being a racist. And the rewriting of history -down with the statues of racists- rub them out of history.
I don’t think I could have easily imagined Churchill’s statue being boarded up because the police felt too morally compromised to defend it from damage. But up went the boards, and although the public were told it was to protect the monument from damage, there was the sense that there was more to it than that. Churchill was being accused of racism, now a crime for which there is neither understanding, nor forgiveness. The man who stood for heroic courage, tenacious bravery and the man who saved our freedom of speech from the Nazis, suddenly becomes unspeakably bad, and has to be first defaced and ideally cancelled.
Not everyone agrees that racism is what BLM and others claim it is though. Dinesh D’Souza (a ‘brown’ American) has written a startling book called ‘the End of Racism.’ He claims that racism is much too clumsy a term to be of any use to us in unravelling the complexities of human hatred and the abuse of power. But once you throw in systemic racism (an institution suffers from it) and unconscious bias (you don’t even know you have it), there is no way on earth there can be any defence against being called a racist. It has become a very powerful tool. And, like Churchill, if you’re dead you can’t answer back. There is no freedom of speech for the dead.
This re-writing of history reminded me (as so many things do now) of George Orwell. It wasn’t statues that got him thinking, it was a show trial in Communist Russia in 1936. Just at the beginning of Stalin’s first purge a minor Bolshevik official confessed to a Russian court that he had met Trotsky’s son in Copenhagen. They had got together in the Hotel Bristol to plot against the state. His evidence was enough to get him and all the other conspirators shot.
A few days after this show trial, a Danish newspaper pointed out the uncomfortable fact that the hotel Bristol had been knocked down in 1917. The confession had been fabricated. There never had been a conspiracy. The point of the trial was to eliminate people who threatened Stalin’s grip on power. When the account of the trial was translated into English, history got re-written twice. First the false conspiracy that never was; secondly, hotel Bristol.
In the prophetic 1984, Winston’s job was the daily re-writing of history on behalf of the state. Orwell knew that the re-writing of history is one of the ways in which you get and hold on to power.
And increasingly it is beginning to look like this is in fact more about power than it is about racism and thought crime. Racism is just the route to the goal.
The Black Lives Matter movement tell us that their aim is to gain political power. They want to replace capitalism, get rid of the family, destroy orthodox understandings of sexuality, smash the patriarchy and transfer power from white (whatever that is) to black (whatever that is.)
Accusing people, dead and alive, of racism has become a most effective tool. The living have to give way or else they will lose their jobs. The dead and all the good they achieved, get rubbed out of history, which gets re-written.
Everyone is so frightened of being accused of a thought crime that there is no defence against, not only do they give in, but they even jump on this dangerous band wagon whose ambitions are no less than the cancelling of our culture as well as our freedom of conversation.
Both the BBC, who are pulling offensive comedies off iplayer and the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has promised to purge his cathedral of any offensive history are giving way, re-writing history, transferring power. Both ought to know better. The BBC should know that comedy is designed to offend. Welby should worry that BLM have started to attack statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Nothing to do with slavery; everything to do with re-writing history.
D’Souza thinks our real weakness is the idea that everything is relative. No culture no idea is better than any other. If we want to be able to have an opinion in the future, we had better decide that being free to think and being free to test what we think by speaking it and writing it, is indeed more important than offending someone who doesn’t happen to like what we say. So is it?