June 16, 2020

I grew up in the 1970s in the quaint English city of Hereford, where our suburban house was near to the fine medieval cathedral. At least once a month, during my childhood, I would step inside the cathedral, to look, in particular, at one perplexing feature: all the statues without faces. Because the cathedral was full of them: from the blanked out 12th century figures dancing around the font, to the noble effigies of knights and bishops, their stone heads brutally hacked in half.

As a small boy, I had no idea what I was looking at, though I knew it disturbed me. Why erase human faces, on precious and historic artworks? It didn’t make any sense, but now, of course, I know that I was encountering a famous moment of iconoclasm:  the mutilation of “idolatrous” Catholic monuments in the spiritual fires of the Reformation.

Today, sitting in my flat in London, I have been looking — once more perplexed and disturbed — at another iconoclasm (the word comes from the Greek: eikon, or image, and klaster, breaker): the toppling of statues around the western world, from Christopher Columbus in Virginia to Edward Colston in Bristol to King Leopold II in Antwerp. The latest vandalisation involved Italian journalist Indro Montanelli, and more is surely to follow.

As I write, this contemporary Iconoclasm of the Woke seems to be accelerating, particularly in Britain. There is a website advising the Topplers where else they might chuck statuary in rivers: maybe Sir Francis Drake in Plymouth, or Captain James Cook in Teesside. And it’s not just statues, for the New Iconoclasts are targeting street names, movies, sitcoms, art: one particular target, much lusted after by the Topplers, is the Winston Churchill mural in Croydon (a borough heavily bombed in the Blitz). At the weekend the threats of further iconoclasm, in particular against the image of Britain’s wartime leader, lead to large numbers of ‘statue defenders’ turning up in central London.

Where will this bizarre fury end, and how might it change us: as nations, cultures, peoples? To get an answer you need to examine iconoclasms through history, and in a lifetime of travel I have visited the scenes of several.

The earliest known iconoclasm took place at the awesomely venerable site of Gobekli Tepe, in Kurdish Turkey, a grandiose sequence of megalithic circles, constructed, it is believed, by hunter-gatherers just after the end of the Ice Age (around 11,000BC). Gobekli Tepe presents many profound mysteries, but one of the deepest is this: why, in 8,000BC, did the presumed builders erase their own magnificent monument, by entombing it with tons of dust, a task which might have taken decades?

On my visit there in 2005, I sat in a tent by the stones, with the chief archaeologist of the site, the late, great Klaus Schmidt. Over sweet Turkish tea, Klaus outlined some theories.

It seems that at the time of the iconoclasm the once-fertile Kurdish landscape was undergoing climate change, the rivers were drying, the game dwindling. Perhaps the Gobekli Tepe builders felt that they had angered the Gods, who therefore needed to be propitiated with a prized offering. Like Celtic warriors throwing jewelled shields into the Thames, the men of Gobekli Tepe hurled their temple under the earth.

Relatedly, the region around Gobekli Tepe, at this time, saw the birth of agriculture: the first wild grasses being farmed, the first wild animals domesticated. This epochal change in human life, this expulsion from fruit-picking Eden, came at a price. Life became harder, even as food became more plentiful. There was more work, less freedom, and viruses leapt joyously from newly-stabled beasts to newly-sedentary man, causing the first epidemics.

The echoes of the era are distinct. Disease, upheaval and climate change, producing an efflorescence of guilt and mortification. The region of Gobeki Tepe also saw, at this time, the first human sacrifices. This may not be coincidence. Perhaps humans were cancelled, as well as images, because, again, the gods were unhappy.

A very different iconoclasm, at the other end of history, was that of the Khmer Rouge, in Cambodia, which lasted four brief but terrible years, from 1975 to 1979, by which time the Khmer Rouge were killing each other, having murdered up to a quarter of the country’s population.

The scale of the Khmer Rouge iconoclasm was mind-boggling. They blew up the central bank in Phnom Penh and burned all the money in the country. They threw monks over cliffs and tore down thousands of Buddhist temples (though they spared Angkor Wat, whose spiritual power seemed to unnerve them). They also destroyed the ancient, splendid tradition of Cambodian dance, by slaughtering every single person who knew how to do it.

What provoked this national self-harm? Khmer Rouge leaders were steeped in a radical form of Maoism, acquired in Paris in the 50s. But that insane ideology needed a suitable place to breed, as mosquitoes need standing water. Cambodia in 1975 was a nation horribly traumatised by the neighbouring Vietnam War. Despite the nation’s neutrality in that conflict, the US government dropped more bombs on Cambodia than they dropped on Europe in all of the Second World War; the US bombing caused millions of refugees, and killed at least 250,000. A different kind of God was angry.

For a third and final example, let’s go to Easter Island (alias Rapa Nui). Lost in the blue wastes of the Pacific, this is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world: it was also the scene of one of history’s strangest iconoclasms.

Many visitors to Easter Island come to see the famous moai, the huge, stylised statues, on their mighty plinths, embodying the spirits of Rapa Nui ancestors. But what most tourists don’t realise is that every standing moai was re-erected in recent decades, and many remain prone because, from 1730 to 1850, all of them were deliberately toppled.

Theories abound as to why: deforestation, religious war, the feared, potent influence of recently-arrived outsiders (Easter Island was “discovered” by Dutch explorers in 1722). Yet the haunted quality of Easter Island today, with its throbbing sense of desertion, suggests a compound answer: all these pressures together led to a total collapse of cultural self confidence. The civilisation died from within, and as it did, the failed Gods had to go. Never to return.

What do these examples tell us of the Great Topplings of 2020? First, iconoclasms are far from rare (I could analyse two dozen more). Second, iconoclasms often burn out quite quickly, because there is only so much denouncing you can do before the denouncers denounce each other, the Revolution devours its own, and the cycle is done. Thirdly, they are commonly caused by external factors, unrelated to the broken images themselves: war, invasion, disease and economic disaster, many things can provoke these frenzies.

Finally, and maybe most importantly, they often herald a major civilisational rupture, which can be negative, or positive.

If we are lucky, as we gaze down at the statues brusquely dumped by Mayor Sadiq Khan in London tips, we are, in principle, looking at the hacked off faces of the Hereford effigies. The iconoclasm of the Reformation destroyed many historic, beautiful things, but it ultimately led to truly Protestant England, and arguably parliamentary democracy, the industrial revolution and the export of liberal values around the world. That’s the positive spin on what we see today.

Yet I confess that on darker days, I am pessimistic. As I watch the fires, riots and graffiti spreading across the West, from New York to Paris, from Gothenburg to Brussels, from the Vietnam War Memorial to the Cenotaph in Whitehall, I sense that, for all the virtues of this campaign for racial equality, we are staring at a calamitous loss of civilisational confidence. That is to say: I hear the hot, mournful Pacific wind, whirring the silent and empty moorlands of Rapa Nui, where the moai used to stand.