Gone with the Mob
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
England’s statues are falling down
Falling down, falling down
England’s statues are falling down
Why ,oh why, are we so angry?
First it was Bristol, now one wonders where and when it will stop.
New Zealand’s government has ordered an audit of the worthiness of its statues. No doubt Australia’s local, State and Federal governments will be besieged with requests for “worthy” and “important” removals of all statuary considered offensive. Churchill’s statue outside Westminster has been shrouded from view to protect it. The man who led his nation to victory over the “jackboot of Fascism” is now to be invisible, protected from his ‘democratic’ critics. Not quite what we fought for.
Initially it seemed that the revisionist clamour for cultural purity was to be satisfied with the virtuous extirpation of “offensive” public monuments. Clearly, no longer this is the case. All forms of cultural expression are now open to expulsion from our memory. Gone with the Wind, indeed.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, clearly the self-appointed guardian of our national mores, has instigated a “hate and offence audit” of its programmes. Off-beat comedies “Little Britain” and “Summer Heights High” have been already proscribed. “Fawlty Towers”, a programme almost universally regarded as one of the finest comedies of the television age has been withdrawn from some streaming services on the basis of its ability to offend all and sundry from its caricatures of the Spanish through to its parody of Nazism.
No doubt a request for changes in the names of important buildings and public institutions will ensue. By now I would have thought the Me Too movement would have demanded the renaming of New York’s Kennedy International Airport, given the late President’s acknowledged poor treatment of women. Evidence suggests that Martin Luther King was not a pillar of faithfulness to his wife either. What to do? Remove the American public holiday to commemorate his birthday from the American calendar? Recently ‘gonged’ Graham Richardson, the Australian Labor Party’s apparatchik of apparatchiks, has said that he saw Bob Hawke do and say things to women that could never be countenanced in today’s world. Do we no longer name Perth’s newest High School after the former Prime Minister?
Should private schools whose buildings have been erected on the basis of bequests left by people who made their fortunes trading in tobacco or the gold and diamond mines of South Africa raze them to the ground? What about the colonial wealth of Queenslanders garnered on the backs of kanak labour in the late nineteenth century? Should there be a retrospective guilt tax levied? Should Colonial Sugar Refineries renounce its existence? What about public highways named after explorers whom it is alleged did not either respect or acknowledge indigenous culture?
This is not so much a slippery slope as a runaway train. About the only public treasures that may survive this cultural cleansing would be portraits of Oliver Cromwell. After all, did he not exhort his artist to paint him “warts and all?”
The motivation of the angry and offended is to remove what they proclaim to be the stains and warts of our past from our collective memory and from our all forms of public recognition and artistic expression. A cultural Year Zero if you will. It is a dangerous and myopic mission.
The following passage is an excerpt from a French novel, The Incorrigible Optimists’ Club. It tells the story of a young Parisian man, Michael, who becomes aware of an eclectic collection of political refugees from Soviet society who gather at a coffee shop in Paris in the early 1960s. At this venue, they play table soccer and reflect on the great political turmoils of their lives.
Michael is awakened to the reality of cultural oppression and how it becomes a political weapon. A dissident from the Stalinist Soviet Union recounts how the revolutionary fervour that swept the Bolsheviks to power to destroy the despotism of the Tsar quickly became a justification for the annihilation of all dissent:
“We were creating a revolution. We were changing the world and its rotten organization. We were going to have done with exploitation and the exploiters. You are forced to kill when you can no longer discuss, or negotiate, or compromise or accept. And then we were told that there were enemies of the people among us. We did away with them. They filled sacks and boxes: books, letters, papers, and these fed the boilers. They burnt everything. When they arrested artists, they burnt their paintings and their drawings.”
Nothing so violent as a revolution nowadays. Just a sanctimonious sanitising carried out by the culturally enlightened, wrapped up in the sinister cloak of doing “what’s best for all of us.”
These millennial Puritans described so wonderfully recently as being “full of opinion and no information” and “defending to the death the right of people of people to agree with them”, make Cromwell look full of nuance and doubt.
“Warts and all” is the point and reality of human existence.
Thomas Jefferson’s monument celebrates his contribution to the birth of a nation and the writing of its Constitution. Was the slaveowner that wrote of the inalienable equality of all a flawed man? Of course. Yet, only as flawed as the American nation that continues to wrestle with its contradictions and imperfections.
Upon becoming President of post-apartheid South Africa Nelson Mandela surprised many when he did not demand that the portraits of his segregationist predecessors be removed from the Presidential Palace. He remarked that “they were part of the nation’s history.”
Jefferson’s monument and the Presidential portraits of South Africa are but two of thousands important signposts that nations have of their history. The importance of these signposts is missed entirely by the public army of purifiers. How can we judge our “best and worst of times” and our “best and worst of people” if we have no signposts of the past through which to reflect our judgement?
After the liberation of Hungary from Soviet oppression, its government chose to collect Stalinist and Soviet monuments and statues and place them together in a public park outside of Budapest. Not forgotten. Not obliterated. Recognised for what they are. The memory is the thing.
The assault on artistic expression is even more baffling.
Do not critics of Fawlty Towers realise that John Cleese was directing his satirical sting at the English themselves and their middle-class pretensions and prejudices. As did Reg Varney on “On the Buses”!
When Barry Humphries’ creation Sir Les Patterson stomps around the stage or in a TV Studio belching, passing wind, adjusting himself, dribbling and uttering racist, sexist and homophobic commentary his genius is in the fact that he is not being offensive to those he derides. Rather, he is skewering those that display and express similar behaviour and attitudes in the wider community.
Today, even the thought of an opinion generating offence is enough to incense and lead to calls for people to be censured. Germaine Greer and J. K. Rowling have both been publicly assailed, if not flailed, for their opinions on trans-gender matters that run counter to the socially demanded norm.
Does anyone really believe that Gone with the Wind is a deliberate cultural attack on African-Americans? It must be seen for what it is and what it was, namely an overblown depiction of America’s South in the Civil War. If we cringe now, we cringe because of changes in attitudes and values since it was made. Its removal from viewing platforms is a far greater offence than the film may have caused. Will the gay community demand that the archetypal British TV sit-com of the 1970s “Are You Being Served?” be removed because of its outrageously cliched caricature of the camp Mr. Humphries? Ditto, the Benny Hill show and many of the sketches of the “The Two Ronnies.” There is potentially no end to this madness.
A personal example to conclude. One of my grandfather’s favourite expressions was, “they are as happy as black boys in a sandbox.” It is an expression that entirely belongs to a different world and is ultra vires of contemporary mores. My grandfather devoted his working life to beautifying the town of Launceston. An entrance to Launceston’s City Park was erected to commemorate his work. Is it now an inappropriate monument because he articulated a phrase that could lead people to make conclusions about his entire character?
An inevitable, but unintended, consequence of the desire for the removal and razing of the offensive is that statues and/or public memorials will now be unlikely to be erected. In seeking to purify our history, we risk not recording our future. The rush to judgement without consideration of consequences has already been shown. St. Patrick’s College in Ballarat decided to remove the name of George Pell from a wing of its school after the Cardinal had been charged. He is now acquitted. What now for the school to do and explain?
Some tennis news to finish. Neither Djokovic nor Nadal appear likely to play in this year’s US Open, preferring to concentrate on this year’s postponed French Open. Even if he wanted to play in both, Roger Federer will not be able to. He announced this week that a second knee operation has sidelined him for the balance of this year. Federer will end 2020 as he began as the holder of 20 Grand Slam titles. At least one part of this fractured year will have some symmetry.
Sadly, it appears that 2020 will be a year when, paradoxically, shrill voices seek to deny us the hindsight and clear vision that we need when adjudicating the merits of our past.