Statues of limitation: are the mighty falling?

How upset were you when you saw the toppling of Saddam Hussein's statue in Baghdad shortly after the invasion of Iraq in 2003?

Perhaps, like millions of other people, you celebrated the symbolic end of an oppressive and violent regime.

You may have had a touch more regret about the recent removal of the statues of Confederate Civil War leaders, drawn as we have been into the cinematic romance of that epic saga.

The latest threat to Winston's Churchill's monument hits closer to home and raises more than a few eyebrows given our relationship to Britain and our admiration of his gutsy stand against fascism.

But now, the attack on monuments of Captain Cook and Governor Macarthur and the vandalising of the busts of John Howard and Tony Abbott in our own backyard are producing an outcry and accusations of mindless barbarism.

Statue of Captain Cook in Sydney's Hyde Park.

Statue of Captain Cook in Sydney's Hyde Park.

"We cannot erase history, nor should we attempt to," Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore said last week, apparently erasing from her own memory the fact that the history of the first peoples of this country has been systematically erased since the claim of terra nullius (nobody's land) was made to justify the occupation of the Great Southern Land.

Perhaps Ms Moore was one of those many millions of Australian school students who went through their entire education without any real awareness of Aboriginal history or the massacres, abuse and institutional neglect suffered.

In any case, dismantling a statue is not erasing history. Removing a monument of Captain Cook does not produce a collective amnesia or wipe the name of the excellent sailor from history. If it did, we would need a statue for every person who contributed to our past so as not to forget them.

Taking down the statues is not denying history, it is more likely a sign that we have moved on, that we have arrived at a time when we find other values of more significance than the great colonial expansion of the British Empire.

As Julia Baird puts it, removing old statues is not erasing history, "It is in fact the very opposite: it is history".

Statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee in New Orleans.

Statue of Confederate General Robert E Lee in New Orleans.

An expert in the field, Dr Reuben Rose-Redwood, makes the point that the removal of statues is a way of reckoning with the ongoing legacies of injustices that continue to shape the present.

"The present generation need not be straitjacketed by the commemorative decisions of past generations, especially if the latter used statues, monuments, and place names to promote white supremacist, racist, and genocidal ideologies," Dr Rose-Redwood said.

The present generation need not be straitjacketed by the commemorative decisions of past generations, especially if the latter used statues, monuments, and place names to promote white supremacist, racist, and genocidal ideologies.

Dr Rose-Redwood

A public attack on statues is not necessarily mindless vandalism, it can be seen as a symbolic rejection of a history cast in stone and not open to revision.

"Within such a context, the destruction of racist colonial statues, monuments, and place names can be seen as a legitimate act of civil disobedience," Dr Rose-Redwood argues.

Clinging on to the moments of our colonial past can be a type of cultural insecurity, a bit like looking for a trace of royalty in your family tree, and being excited when you find that your sixth great grandfather was the hanging judge of Dorsetshire.

Defaced bust of former prime minister Tony Abbott.

Defaced bust of former prime minister Tony Abbott.

Some historians and politicians have suggested a plaque be added to the statues to provide them with a more appropriate cultural context.

So, for instance you could have a plaque added to a statue of Winston Churchill inscribed with a quotation. Perhaps this one: "I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly-wise race, to put it that way, has come in and taken their place."

Maybe not that one! What do you think?

Respected historian Stuart McIntyre believes that when you remove statues, you are removing the capacity for people to have an informed awareness of what has happened in the past and things that have changed since.

Too often however, we find things have not changed.

Many are bewildered by the recent awarding of an Order of Australia to Tony Abbott earlier this month for, among other things, his "eminent service" to the Indigenous community.

Shortly after, Abbott publicly rejected the notion that Indigenous Australians were unjustly policed or incarcerated. He incorrectly claimed there was "no evidence" the justice system discriminates against Aboriginal people.

This is not the type of insight you would expect from a champion of the first Australians.

A bronze bust of Abbott in the Ballarat Botanical Garden was defaced earlier this month, as was the bust of John Howard, the prime minister who refused to offer a formal apology to the stolen generations, and who refused to accept that genocide had been practised against Indigenous people.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is considering tightening laws to better protect monuments after a second statue of Captain Cook was vandalised in Sydney last week.

Ms Berejiklian described the defacing of Cook's statue as "Unaustralian", an unfortunate choice of words given the current state of race relations.

Her view of what it means to be "Australian", apparently won't include larrikinism, irreverence and a loathing of pretentiousness, which are often ascribed to the Australian character.

Some, like Senator Simon Birmingham, argue that statues should remain in place to serve as focal points of historical education.

"We should learn from history, not seek to airbrush it or shove it away," Birmingham says, again without the necessary recognition that it is Indigenous history that has been airbrushed into obscurity.

This line of argument ignores the fact that statues honour not only individuals, but the values of those who are being placed up on a pedestal.

As Dr Rose-Redwood points out, "We can still learn history without continuing to glorify colonial oppression and racial injustice".

Associate Professor Reuben Rose-Redwood from the University of Victoria, Canada.

Associate Professor Reuben Rose-Redwood from the University of Victoria, Canada.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has told people calling for the removal of statues of Captain Cook to pull their heads in and "get a grip".

Last week he about faced on his claim that there was no slavery in Australia, apologising for any offence caused, but then arguing Australia should avoid a fresh bout of "history wars".

The term "history wars" has a combative implication and is typical of the tone deafness of Australian governments. But why should we avoid this conversation? Is it too tedious, too trivial, or is it just too hard?

Is Morrison suggesting that the conversation about our record of justice or incarceration or neglect or discrimination is somehow "off the table"?

A common argument for maintaining statues of those whose world view we now question, is that we should not judge historical figures by present-day standards because they merely represented the values "of their times" is utterly rejected by Rose-Redwood.

"That's an absurd argument because, racism and imperialism were contested by abolitionists and anti-imperialists even in prior centuries, and the victims of colonial atrocities surely didn't view their oppression in the same way that their oppressors did," he said.

"We need a history of, by, and for the present, rather than blindly perpetuating the outdated ideologies of the past."

This story Statues of limitation: are the mighty falling? first appeared on The Canberra Times.