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But What About the Past

But What About the Past

Monday, 29 June, 2020 - 10:00

Some glorify the past, and glorification of ancestors and the dead may branch out from this. Those with this inclination may justify it claiming to be upholders of authenticity and their roots, and it may translate into the construction of statutes and the sanctification of shrine.

There are others, in contrast, who abjure the past, calling for its abolition and judging it by the standards of the present, thereby concluding that it is retrograde and unworthy of being mentioned, rather, of existing. This inclination may call itself progressive or futuristic.

These two inclinations are not total opposites; many revolutionary movements became conservative as soon as they established regimes, pledging allegiance to what they had previously condemned. The Communists’ relationship with Lenin’s Mausoleum is a well-known example.

This recap is prompted by moves to take down statues in US and European cities in response to the murder of George Floyd and, correspondingly, racism. This event sparked a debate that we did not pay much attention to, although Arab revolutionaries toppled a few statues themselves not so long ago, and, in 2003, Iraqis toppled Saddam Hussein's statues. The renounced past is not embodied only in statues; after the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, for example, some of the "free officers" demanded that Umm Kulthum be barred from singing because she had sung to King Farouk.

Of course, the inclination to nullify, which emerges during times of popular fervor and tension, is an age-old practice that predates modern history. Many peoples, some of whom wanted to present sacrifices and others who wanted to be reborn from scratch, sought to nullify.

The Byzantine Church is not innocent of this tendency: in the eighth and ninth centuries, the “Iconoclast Movement” flourished and was supported by emperors and priests. It arose out of theological positions to put an end to what had remained of idolatry, but it was also associated with divergent social and economic interests. A thousand years later, the French Revolution made its contribution. In 1792, a law was passed declaring that “the sacred principles of freedom and equality will not allow for statues raised in the name of discrimination and tyranny to continue assaulting the eyes of the French people.”

The next year, after radical leader Jean-Paul Marat's assassination, a movement that engaged in vandalism and arson-attacks exploded, going past Iconoclasm and targeting culture at large. Art, as far as they were concerned, subverted morality, and undercut Republican simplicity and virtue.

At the beginning of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the statues of Tsars were destroyed and replaced with those of revolutionaries, while a group calling for "proletarian culture" (Proletkult) was established, aspiring to replace the existing art forms with "revolutionary working-class aesthetics".

As for the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it wielded its knife at the cultural and non-cultural past under the pretext of "intensifying contradictions during the transition to socialism." In the same vein, the Khmer Rouge tore up pictures and signs and destroyed temples in Cambodia. For liquidating reactionary individuals does not suffice, reactionary memory must also be done away with.

But Post-Communist Poles reminded us of a disturbing truth: demolishing statues does not leave us immune to the erection of new ones. While the monuments honoring Lenin and Communist leaders were destroyed, a greater number of monuments, honoring the Polish Pope John Paul II, replaced them. This came before ISIS reminded us of what is even bitterer; extremely idolatrous regimes can replace toppled “idols”.

Coming back to the events of the recent past, it is, of course, unacceptable for symbols of racism and slave traders to occupy public space and take up a leading position in its central plazas. The same is true in the rage that blows up statues of tyrants like Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad.

Here, in addition to the growing sensitivity to injustice, we face the objection that goes beyond occupying a particular space to oppose occupying history and the victor writing it. However, this practice, understandable when it happens early on, is not beyond criticism in principle, and it should not be. Should we, for example, demolish the buildings built with money generated by the American Slave Trade or remove from history and literature books Shakespeare's Othello, the Al-Mutanabbi’s poems lampooning Kafur? For this inclination could be extended, as seen in the movie "Gone with the Wind", to include art, music, literature, cinema, architecture and buildings, even the pyramids, the destruction of which could be justified by their inherent racism and in the name of confronting it.

Eradicating the past, like any eradication, is a dangerous act that replaces, with catharsis, anger over laws and teaching history, which could be channeled in such a way that makes us more attentive to racism or tyranny and more aware of our responsibility.

Beginning with the 1790s and the ruckus of the French Revolution, groups who toppled statues under the pretext that they embody "the ancient regime" have been appearing and so have those who have provided deep and practical answers to the problem.

Their most major opponent, Father Henri Gregoire, was among the most active of those who fought for the abolition of slavery, was an enthusiastic supporter of universal suffrage, racial and religious equality and the abolishment of the privileges of the church and nobility. Father Gregoire, in response to the vandalism, called for the creation of the Conservatory of Arts and Industry, which later became the first museum in Europe and in which the treasures and statutes of the palaces and churches were stored. For this is the whole nation’s heritage, and their preservation presents the nation with the opportunity of reminding itself of the past oppression and sorrow. While those who destroy them, according to Gregoire, combine barbarism with counter revolutionary distortion.

Gregoire brought museums to life, and we can now say to the statues of those we hate: to the museum.

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