And so, the statues topple. History is revised and historical figures, deserving of homage are lumped together with those who deserve condemnation. There is a madness upon the earth. Somehow, symbols of slave-owning society, and those who fought against slavery have been mixed, amalgamated, and history has been turned upon its head.
Just a very few weeks ago, the world watched, as one man, a symbol of so many was murdered by an American police officer. Then, in a matter of days, the world saw such an outpouring of collective rage against injustice, that gave heart to countless millions. Batons, teargas, pepper spray, mass arrests and troops on the street seemed useless against this spontaneous rising. There was an extra something special something about all this. The man who died ignited a spark. The crowds were, for a time, colour blind. Race was relegated as the people responded to a broader call for equality. It was. But just for a time. The magnificence of the unity was quickly turned back upon itself. Identity politics reasserted itself and the unity dissipated.
In a very short space of time the rage was turned upon historical figures and monuments. It is impossible not to accept the logic of removing statues and memorials of those who lived by enslaving others, of removing the flags and symbols of the American Confederacy, but that was not enough. The historically blind, or ignorant, or those with a particular and pernicious political barrow to push, then turned their fire on the very figures who we remember and honour for leading the American people in a civil war to eliminate slavery. Lincoln is the most significant figure here and the attempts to assassinate him a second time are simply horrifying.
Leading the charge is US Democrat Eleanor Holmes Norton. She is in the process of introducing a bill to remove the Lincoln Emancipation Monument. Her problem is that ‘the designers of the Emancipation Statue in Lincoln Park in DC didn’t take into account the views of African Americans.’ The fact that the statue was paid for by former slaves and dedicated by black abolitionist Frederick Douglass, has been shamefully ignored.
A statue of Lincoln’s military leader, General Ulysses S Grant, has already been torn down in San Francisco. The madness, however, does not stop there. In Boston there was, and it is now in the past tense, a memorial to a volunteer infantry regiment. This regiment was led by an abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw. It was the second all-black regiment organized in the Civil War. Holland Cotter, the New York Times’ art critic, slandered the monument as a ‘white supremacist’ symbol as it showed the white Shaw leading his African American troops.
Another statue, was torn down, beheaded and thrown into a river. It was erected in honour of a Norwegian immigrant who had been active in helping escaping slaves reach the north. Hans Heg went on to form what was known as the Scandinavian Regiment. The logic in all of this, if logic can be found, is that blacks were demeaned by being liberated by whites and that slavery could only end by the actions of blacks. This is a dangerous view of the world and can only lead to defeat and division. Oppression is to be countered but not exchanged for another form. A century ago, Irish nationalist leader, James Connolly famously remarked that it was not a matter of replacing ‘red’ (British) oppression with ‘green’ (Irish) oppression. Very little seems to have been learned.
This almost deliberate dividing of people whose interests intersect is a constant. Not to see the irony in establishing an African-American Environmentalist Association whose aim is to ‘promote an African-American point of view in American environmental policy’ is to be blind to all but the most pressing of realities, and yet such an organisation was formed. It is doubtful that the environment recognises racial differences. Such are the inevitable outcomes when identity forms the basis of a political outlook. Black lives matter. Of course they do, but pitting one group of people against another only serves to create differences where they need not occur.
When Lincoln was assassinated, his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton stated that ‘now he belongs to the ages.’ For the best part of 160 years that sentiment has been the accepted wisdom. Every event that has called to the people of the USA has included Lincoln and more often than not has included the monument that is now in danger of being pulled down. In 1939, black contralto Marian Anderson was refused the right to sing in Washington. Instead she went to the memorial and sang to a crowd of 75,000. In 1963 Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech was delivered there to 250,000. Hundreds of thousands of Americans rallied there against the Vietnam War. Today that heritage is being threatened; not by white racists, but by those who claim to be acting in the interests of black Americans and for justice.
George Floyd’s murder, we heard, repeated over and over was not in vain. We heard over and over that his death was a trigger for a movement for something better. Yes, black lives matter and yes, oppression must be fought, but surely together and not apart. That ought to be obvious but, then we must remember the world has run mad.