Racists’ statues: five articles on the controversy

Months ago there was a big controversy about the felling of statues that honour racists. These are five of the best articles I have read on the subject.

Ross Douthat, in The New York Times:

Our civil religion, back when it had more true believers, sometimes treated departed presidents like saints. But our monuments and honorifics exist primarily to honor deeds, not to issue canonizations — to express gratitude for some specific act, to acknowledge some specific debt, to trace a line back to some worthwhile inheritance.

Thus when you enter their Washington, D.C., memorials, you’ll see Thomas Jefferson honored as the man who expressed the founding’s highest ideals and Abraham Lincoln as the president who made good on their promise. That the first was a hypocrite slave owner and the second a pragmatist who had to be pushed into liberating the slaves is certainly relevant to our assessment of their characters. But they remain the author of the Declaration of Independence and the savior of the union, and you can’t embrace either legacy, the union or “we hold these truths …” without acknowledging that these gifts came down through them.

To repudiate an honor or dismantle a memorial, then, makes moral sense only if you intend to repudiate the specific deeds that it memorializes.


But just as Jefferson’s memorial wasn’t built to celebrate his slaveholding, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs wasn’t named for Wilson to honor him for being a segregationist. It was named for him because he helped create precisely the institutions that the school exists to staff — our domestic administrative state and our global foreign policy apparatus — and because he was the presidential progenitor of the idealistic, interventionist worldview that has animated that foreign policy community ever since.


Or consider a different example, one raised by puckish conservatives in the last few weeks: The case of Yale University, named for a 17th-century merchant, official and dealer in slaves named Elihu Yale. What is honored and memorialized in the school’s name (and this is true of many schools) is exactly one deed from Yale’s often wicked and dishonest life — the donation of his money to the young college. The name “Yale” doesn’t honor old Elihu’s slaving; it simply pays the school’s debt to him, acknowledging that Yale owes part of its very existence to a rich man’s desire to see ill-gotten money put to better use.


But unless the endgame of New Haven’s removal of Columbus is the expropriation of white property (Yale’s property, I suppose, especially) and its redistribution to the Pequots and Mohegans, then a consistent rejection of Columbus’s legacy isn’t what my city is embracing. Instead, it’s just doing the same thing as Princeton: keeping the inheritance, but repudiating the benefactor. Keeping the gains, but making a big show of pronouncing them ill gotten.


Meanwhile, for now the ingratitude is being presented as a clear moral advance, and it is not. To enjoy an inheritance that comes from flawed men by pretending that it comes from nowhere, through nobody, is a betrayal of memory, not its rectification — an act of self-righteousness that may not bring the revolution, but does make our ruling class that much less fit to rule.

Mary Beard, in the Times Literary Supplement:

There is no one (or almost no one) who thinks that there are no exclusions at all for statues that belong in the public realm. There would, I imagine, be very little public debate about the taking down of a statue of Goebbels or Jimmy Savile. It is, however, rather like Free Speech. No one wants it to be completely free, but we disagree on where we draw the line.


The truth is that there is no such simple version of history, or for that matter of the present: people who do good also do bad (and vice versa) and our own heroes and heroines will in due course be found wanting (or worse) too. Maybe it is the act of heroizing that is the problem, not the inevitably flawed individuals themselves.


In the longue durée, statues offer different challenges to our view of history: they ask us to think about what separates us from the heroes of the past, how we can face them down (actually these guys are just lumps of stone), and how they remind us of our own fragility in the judgement of the future.


My view of course is that museums are a source of debate and discussion about the past and the present. But I strongly suspect that those who suggest that these statues should be moved there really think that museums are a useful dumping ground for old things you don’t want, but don’t feel you can actually throw away.

Julian Baggini, in the Times Literary Supplement:

But slippery slope arguments are themselves slippery and need to be treated with caution. They force us to take one of two extreme, polarized positions and do not allow anything more nuanced. When the slope is slippery, the only place to be is safely at the top or right down at the bottom. There is no in-between. In the case of statues it would mean leaving everything as it is or tearing down more than most people would think reasonable.

But that does not exhaust the options. The slope is not slippery, merely craggy. With care, statues can be placed at any number of places between the exalted heights and the ignominious bottom. To do this requires going beyond neat lines, with the pure on one side and the tainted on the other. Instead, we have to make judgements on a case-by-case basis, by asking ourselves some key questions.


Is the achievement for which they are being celebrated intimately or causally tied to their sins? Were they significantly worse than others of their time? How recent was the offence? These questions do not add up to a complete and rigorous set of tests. Issues are too complicated to be settled by any moral algorithm.


By any reasonable test, David Hume should be safe. (He’s not yet listed on toppletheracists.org.) Hume’s racism was no more than was sadly normal at the time and it had nothing to do with what made his philosophy great. Colston, however, should go. There are countless other cases where it is not so clear cut and there is a need for considered judgements. There is a kind of slope, in that there are gradations of guilt in the heroes of the past, and very few are entirely blameless. But it is not a slippery one unless we make it so by insisting there is nothing between the moral high ground and the abyss of iniquity.

Simon Schama, in the Financial Times:

Statues are not history; rather, its opposite. History is argument; statues brook none. The whole honour of history lies in its contrarian irrepressibility; its brief to puncture the pieties of power, should they belie the truth. Those horrified by the de-pedestalisations of recent days — the Black Lives Matter protests have led to the felling of statues from the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol to the brutal colonialist Leopold II in Belgian cities — claim that such acts “erase” history. But the contrary is true. It is more usually statues, lording it over civic space, which shut off debate through their invitation to reverence.


Let them disappear, then, but not into canals, ponds or rubbish dumps, since arbitrary acts of destruction shut down debate quite as much as uncritical reverence. Better, surely, to relocate them to museums where, properly curated, they can trigger genuine debate and historical education. One thing that the pandemic caesura has wrought is a confrontation with big historical matters: who are we as a nation, what we have been, and where we are going? If the Men in Stone (and they are overwhelmingly men) can deepen that understanding they will have served their purpose better than ever they did up on their pigeon-stained plinths.

Tyler Cowen, in Bloomberg (2007):

I can think of at least three practical reasons for erecting public statues. First, we may wish to create an incentive for future behavior, as we do with Nobel Prizes and Halls of Fame.


Statues and monuments also create focal points to help groups organize.


Third, statues and public monuments help drive tourism and establish the identities of regions.


The striking feature of these motivations is how much they are about the present and the future, not the past. So instead of obsessing over the worthies and unworthies of history, we would do better to consider which future causes statues are likely to support.


So if you’re considering the worthiness of a particular statue, here are three pointers: Pretend you’re from some very distant foreign country and view the dispute through that more objective lens. Second, focus on the future, and third, don’t be afraid to make some changes.

Estátuas de racistas: dois textos sobre a polêmica

Meses atrás tivemos a polêmica da derrubada de estátuas que homenageiam racistas. Estes são dois dos melhores textos brasileiros que li sobre o assunto.

Demétrio Magnoli, na Folha de S.Paulo:

Uma estátua erguida no passado não representa uma celebração presente de um personagem ou de uma ideologia, mas apenas a prova material de que, um dia, em outra época, isso foi celebrado.


A transferência das estátuas malditas para museus ou parques temáticos, retirando-as de seus contextos, tem efeito similar. Num caso, como no outro, trata-se de higienizar os lugares de circulação cotidiana, reservando o exercício da memória a uma elite de especialistas da memória.

Rhodes, o pecador, não está só. De Pedro, o Grande, a Thomas Jefferson, de Marx a Churchill, de Machado de Assis a Monteiro Lobato, ninguém passa no teste contemporâneo dos valores.

A lógica férrea do vandalismo do bem conduz a um programa de terra arrasada. O rastilho de fogueiras purificadoras nada poupará, a não ser as novas estátuas esculpidas pelos próprios vândalos do bem, que virão a ser derrubadas por seus futuros seguidores. O presente perpétuo —eis a perigosa ambição dessa seita de iconoclastas.


Quem tem o direito moral de suprimir os lugares da memória? Se concedermos esse direito aos vândalos do bem, como negá-lo a governos eleitos democraticamente?

Paulo Pachá e Thiago Krause, na Época:

As respostas encontradas nos jornais frequentemente têm sido negativas, argumentando que a derrubada de estátuas significaria a vitória do revisionismo por meio da tentativa de apagar a história e reescrever o passado, projeto supostamente autoritário e anacrônico, pois fundado em uma visão que julga o passado com os olhos de hoje.

O que esses argumentos ignoram são os fundamentos da própria historiografia, aqui entendida como a escrita da história baseada em metodologias e evidências aceitas pelos profissionais da área. Assim, a prática historiográfica é essencialmente revisionista: nós estamos sempre revisando nossos conhecimentos e interpretações sobre o passado. Essa revisão é determinada pelas relações sociais do presente, pois a sucessiva reescrita da história a partir do desenvolvimento de novas questões e interpretações está no cerne do trabalho dos historiadores.


Assim, a remoção dos monumentos também expressa uma transformação das relações e dos valores sociais. Erigir uma estátua é fazer história, derrubá-la também. Esses momentos são exatamente o contrário do apagamento, pois suscitam debates que geralmente permanecem adormecidos quando se discute o que a sociedade quer valorizar e comemorar.

Já a ideia de que seria anacrônico condenar personagens históricos erra em outra frente, pois ignora que havia outras moralidades possíveis na própria época em que essas figuras viviam. […] O espantalho do anacronismo frequentemente não passa de uma adoção irrefletida da perspectiva dominante que perpetua a negação da alteridade.


A constante reavaliação do passado nacional e a progressiva crítica de seus mitos é uma das marcas de uma democracia madura. O reconhecimento da inadequação de homenagens públicas realizadas no passado não significa apagamento, mas reparação de alguns dos muitos equívocos cometidos por nossos antepassados. […] O verdadeiro projeto de apagar a história é aquele que a vê como estática e pretende nos manter presos às visões superadas de uma historiografia laudatória dos heróis e mitos nacionais, que excluem e violentam a memória de diversos grupos sociais — em especial negros, indígenas e mulheres — reproduzindo no presente as desigualdades herdadas do passado.

Fantasmas do racismo

Lilia Moritz Schwarcz, no Nexo:

Em 2009, o Brasil registrou mais de 191 milhões de habitantes, um aumento de 26% se comparado à população em 1995. Dentre as novidades do censo, uma delas chamava particular atenção: o aumento proporcional da população negra (preta e parda) no país. Em 1995, 44,9% dos brasileiros declaravam-se negros; em 2009 este percentual subiu para 51,1%, enquanto a população de brancos caiu de 54,5% para 48,2%.

Esta elevação não decorre, porém, do aumento da taxa de fecundidade da população negra, mas antes de mudanças comportamentais e na forma como essas pessoas têm se autodeclarado. Ou seja, desde que no final dos anos 1970 assistimos à emergência de uma agenda de direitos civis – pautada no direito à diferença na igualdade – brasileiros têm mudado seus critérios de autodefinição.

Se tal fato permite prever uma maior flexibilidade nos padrões de classificação, já outros resultados sinalizam para uma persistente e incômoda exclusão racial.

Os fantasmas:

De um lado, essa mescla gerou uma sociedade definida por uniões, ritmos, artes, esportes, aromas, culinárias e literaturas realmente misturados. De outro, produziu um país que delega para a polícia o papel de performar a discriminação, como nos atos de intimidação – as famosas batidas policiais –, os quais selecionam sempre mais negros do que brancos.

Continuamos combinando inclusão cultural com exclusão social – mistura com separação – e carregando grandes doses de silêncios e não ditos. Por isso mesmo, não basta culpar o passado e fazer as pazes com o presente; o qual, aliás, anda repleto de passado. Toni Morrison, no romance Amada, conta a história da Casa 124 que era habitada por duas mulheres e seus fantasmas vindos do passado: violências, estupros e mortes dos dias de escravidão.

Paradoxalmente, os fantasmas, que insistiam em retornar, eram o que mais se pareciam com a danada da realidade. Nós brasileiros andamos mesmo perseguidos pelo nosso passado, e nos dedicando, ainda, à tarefa de expulsar fantasmas que, teimosos, continuam a assombrar.