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On statues and self-deception

The Simpsons’ home town Springfield was founded by a certain Jebediah Obadiah Zachariah Jedediah Springfield, a man around whom various myths had been constructed. The town’s children grew up learning that pioneer Jebediah made an epic journey out West, having misread the bible’s command to find a ‘New Sodom’, and founded Springfield instead.

It was rumoured that he had once killed a bear with his own hands, a scene reflected in the statue of Jebediah in Springfield’s town square, where he rises triumphantly above the beast. In actual fact, it appears that the bear probably killed Jeremiah. And when Lisa Simpson discovers that Jeremiah was, in fact, a bloodthirsty pirate called Hans Sprungfeld, a sworn enemy of George Washington, she decides to keep this inconvenient truth quiet. Why change history?

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Getting a handle on the new normal requires looking into the future and imagining a better world. In true British fashion, however, many seem to want to preserve the past. Worse, a past of their own imagining.

This week, protestors ceremoniously toppled a statue of 17th-century slave trader and Bristol benefactor Edward Colston and rolled it into the water. My personal stance on this is: good for them. That statue should have gone years ago. What better example of the fact that history is not set in stone than rolling a statue down a hill into the river Avon?

A number of politicians, columnists and social media gobshites have weighed in on the subject of statue toppling this week, and their views range from the extreme (statue topplers are the Taliban) to the misguided (removing statues won’t correct wrongs). They include the patronising (replacing them won’t help us learn from the past) and the predictable, politically-expedient, yet tone-deaf outraged (toppling statues is “utterly disgraceful”).

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The idea that statues must be left to stand forever, or history will somehow collapse in on itself under the weight of its own contradictions is, quite frankly, bollocks. History is littered with the erection of statues and their subsequent toppling, defacing or neglect as they are relegated to less fancy parts of town and have traffic cones placed on their heads. It’s iconoclasm, innit? Consider the Protestant Reformation. The Dissolution of the Monasteries. Or the English Civil War. All involved the destruction of icons, art and cultural artefacts, as part of a wider political or religious counterblast to the status quo.

Indeed, much of the hostility to statue toppling seems to rest on a fixed and highly inaccurate idea of what history is, which renders any attempt to learn from it somewhat problematic. For too many, history is FACTS. As revealed by those individuals who know the dates that every King or Queen of England reigned — a skill of limited value beyond a pub quiz.

Beyond facts, history is about motivation. Asking not so much ‘when?’ as ‘why?’ Seeking to understand why people do what they do, so we may learn how to do better in our own age. And, while the usual automatons bang on about the dangers of rewriting history, it seems to escape them that history has been debated, reinterpreted and, yes, rewritten again and again over millennia. As Napolean said: “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” And he knew a thing or two about making history, which is more than can be said of tabloid columnists or Twitter shills.

It’s not just history that is rewritten. The tenets of most academic subjects are challenged pretty much all of the time as part of a process called Higher Education. The study of science involves testing existing theories and positing alternatives. The humanities have attracted unfair criticism in recent years for looking at our cultural history through new eyes, isolating the male gaze, for example, or identifying abuses of power in the great canon of English literature. But what’s wrong with this? Isn’t this, in fact, LEARNING FROM HISTORY?

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We in Britain have a complicated and yet at the same time surprisingly simple attitude to history. Essentially, this boils down to WE WROTE IT.

Unhealthy self-delusion is the inevitable result. That rose-tinted view of the Second World war, or the woeful lack of understanding about the British Empire? Both give rise to mythology, not a better sense of the country’s history. These myths provide proof points for a right-wing that is obsessed with a ‘British Way of Life’, whatever the hell that might be. This same mythology feeds British exceptionalism, arrogance and, yes, racism. It’s reflected in the poster that warned of the UK being inundated with 76 million Turks, and which created such a stir at the time of the referendum on leaving the European Union.

It’s also reflected in a poster held aloft this week by a middle-aged woman protecting a statue of Scouting founder Baden-Powell from possible removal by Poole Council (Ah, there’s that ‘British Way of Life’.)

“British History Matters”, the poster read. A phrase that neatly combines offence to a global civil rights movement and the black lives it seeks to protect, as well as showing how much small-mindedness can be expressed with a sharpie pen. “British History Matters.” Not while it serves fantasy, delusion and ignorance, it doesn’t. A rose-tinted view of the supposedly ‘civilising’ effects of Empire, or the belief that Britain seemingly fought on its own between 1939 to 1945 are odd hills to choose to die on. Not so much hills, as small mounds of fly-tipped wasteland. England’s green and pleasant land, no less.

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British exceptionalism is still rampant at the time of writing, despite one less statue of a slave trader in one of our main cities. We were told last month that our COVID-19 test and trace system would be “world-beating”. Except all it had to be was, er, ‘virus-beating’. There was no need to make it an international contest. (And if it were, we would already be on the plane home, as our system woefully lags behind those of other countries.) Why must so much British political discourse be framed around an inflated view of ourselves?

Other countries tell themselves lies, too. The UK is not unique. And I appreciate that lies serve a purpose. Many argue that, in testing our shared historical narratives, we undermine our country. I beg to differ. The country is indeed great, if one looks past the delusion and self-aggrandisement, to the many stories played out on smaller platforms than the national stage.

Greatness is in our local communities, where volunteers provide the support that councils are unable to fund. Or in the efforts of those working within pressed institutions such as the NHS, the police force and fire brigades. Or the legions of teachers who — IRONY ALERT — are trying to teach children about many things, including history, but are unable to in the absence of an effective policy on how to get children back to school, other than vague promises of ‘summer schools.’

Greatness isn’t just local: it’s also in the country’s genuinely world-beating arts and scientific research. Captured in Great Britain’s innovative businesses, its civil service and its armed forces. Our sense of humour is great, and so is our tea. The lies we tell ourselves? Not so much.

Jebediah Springfield, we learn in one Simpsons episode, had a prosthetic silver tongue. It was fitted to replace his own, which was bitten off by a Turkish pirate. I am sure there is something to be learned here about telling tall stories.

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