As people are defined by their memories, so nations are defined by their histories. What, after all, is self-awareness if not the recollection of past sensations? John Locke, the seventeenth-century philosopher who has a pretty good claim to have invented modern society, understood that our sense of self was an accumulation of our previous thoughts and actions: “in this alone consists personal identity”.
Something similar is true of the composite entities we call nations. They are not random aggregations of individuals. They are shaped by what they have done and suffered. Because those experiences are often carved in stone or bronze, a nation’s story takes physical form in its memorials.
If I say the word “France”, what image comes into your mind? The Arc de Triomphe? The Eiffel Tower? Notre-Dame Cathedral? Whatever it is, the chances are it has been around for a while. We sense that the soul of a nation is immanent in its built patrimony. Tourists visit temples and monuments because they want to get a feel for the country they are in.
Both sides of the statues debate glimpse this truth. Conservatives, though they might not always articulate it this way, see the nation in essentially Burkeian terms – that is, as a shared inheritance which each successive generation should curate in its turn. To the statue-smashers, such thinking is downright superstitious. They see, not shared stories that connect us to one another, but myths perpetuated by dominant groups to maintain themselves in power.
You think this argument is really about slavery2020欧洲杯体育投注开户? Consider the statues targeted in Parliament Square: Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed the slaves; Winston Churchill, the original “antifa”; Robert Peel, whose insistence that British bobbies should be unarmed explains why, where the American police shoot around 1,200 people a year, the figure in this country is less than three. Even the cenotaph was vandalised by Black Lives Matter activists.
It is worth recalling that, in the two world wars, tens of thousands of young men came from Africa and the Caribbean to fight for this country. Ethnically, our Armed Forces during those two conflicts looked less like the Britain of their own age than the Britain of ours. For conservatives, the cenotaph is a generous and inclusive symbol, honouring all the men who fell for freedom. For iconoclasts, it is another relic of a hated past.
In the United States, the madness has gone even further. Statues of abolitionist campaigners such as Matthias Baldwin and John Greenleaf Whittier have been defaced. That of Ulysses S Grant, the general who beat the Confederacy2020欧洲杯体育投注开户, has been pulled down. In Wisconsin, protesters toppled the female figure from the state capitol building – a statue paid for by women and representing the spirit of progress. They tore down the statue of Hans Christian Heg, who had led an anti-slave militia known as “the Wide Awakes”: a man who was, in other words, literally woke.
They spray-painted the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston. Who was Robert Gould Shaw? Meh, some white guy in the 1860s, so probably a racist, no? In fact, he was the leader of a black civil war regiment, and the memorial was largely paid for by African-American veterans. In California, a statue of the Spanish novelist Cervantes was desecrated. Cervantes, far from being a slaver, was himself a slave.
My late mother was in the British Embassy in Beijing during the Cultural Revolution, when the Red Guards (as the student demonstrators called themselves) attacked our legation building and assaulted our ambassador. She used to talk about the demented atmosphere of that time: the way bosses trembled before their employees and teachers before their students, the millenarian certainty of the mobs, convinced that, if they could topple all the old things, a new order would somehow emerge. I could never quite picture it. Until now.
2020欧洲杯体育投注开户The Red Guards were as dangerous as they were because they represented the spirit of the age. The Chinese authorities indulged them just as politicians, corporates and public bodies indulge today’s crowds. But the aim is the same: the eradication of reminders of the past. And a nation that loses its past is like a person with severe Alzheimer’s – helpless and lost.