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We should leave the anti-Semites standing If we erase artists who sin against us, we will find ourselves in an empty — and sinister — world

Richard Wagner at Bayreuth. Not a nice man. But in some ways a great one. Credit: Timm Schamberger/Getty

Richard Wagner at Bayreuth. Not a nice man. But in some ways a great one. Credit: Timm Schamberger/Getty


June 12, 2020   4 mins

Many times while living in Berlin I passed the statue of Richard Wagner in the Tiergarten. The obsessively anti-Semitic composer beloved by the Nazis sits not out of the way, but with opulent dignity, under a vaulted roof.

The Gustav Eberlein statue from 1901-1903 is attractive if unsettling. I’m Jewish; my four grandparents fled Nazi Germany and many other relations didn’t make it out. So I find it hard to love Wagner’s music: an aural monument to an Aryan vision whose end point was the Final Solution. But I don’t wish either the music or the statues (there are many in Germany) banished.

The world is imperfect and the present — from our political and civic institutions to the arts — is built on history that falls well short of contemporary moral standards. Our cultural inheritance is complex; the bad mixed in with the good. The rabid Aryanism mixing with the soaring music in Wagner’s case; the racism mixed with the towering moral heroism in Churchill’s. If indulged, the urge to smash monuments to a tainted past will leave us with a bleak cultural tundra and the dreary narrowing of intellectual horizons to go with it.

Which is why, as the anti-racism movement in Britain calls with new intensity and power for the cleansing of our public sphere of any reference to people linked to slavery or imperialism, we should be shuddering. Not because we believe in celebrating slavery — of course not — but because of the implications for the rest of culture if there are moves to cleanse and destroy, rather than live with, the past.

This week, it became clear that there is institutional backing right the way through for the cleansing route. After Edward Colston was toppled and sunk in Bristol, the police stood back, deciding to let them get on with it to ‘avoid tension’. Bristol mayor Marvin Rees looked sympathetically towards the act, stopping short only ‘as an elected official’ of condoning law-breaking.

Then London mayor Sadiq Khan launched the Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm, which is looking into having statues that ‘reflect Victorian Britain’ removed, getting new more ‘diverse’ ones erected instead, and renaming museums and other buildings named after people with connections to the slave trade.

This signals a new era of approval for the destruction or removal of historical artefacts deemed offensive. And given that most of history is offensive by current standards, a lot of destruction is in the offing. Protesters have identified 60 statues to be removed in Britain, and a statue of the merchant Robert Milligan, an 18th century slave-dealer, has been taken down from West India Quay in the heart of the Docklands he helped build.

The Tate galleries may be renamed, since although Henry Tate was never a slaver trader. But because he made his fortune as a sugar refiner, he is therefore deemed to have benefited. Oxford Council has invited Oriel College to submit a planning request to take down the statue of empire-builder Cecil Rhodes, the subject of a five-year campaign for removal. Thousands have been gathering this week at the college demanding that Rhodes must go.

Some, like Christ Church anthropology post-doc Chihab El Khachab, are “calling out the white supremacists protected by academic institutions” and insisting that activism against the Rhodes statue is actually a rallying cry for the “the Palestinian liberation struggle”. Helped along by craven institutional compliance, these are the people now decreeing what the British public sphere should look like.

As our monuments tumble or are defaced, the arts are also being plucked and censored.

Netflix, the BBC and the streaming service Britbox have removed David Walliams and Matt Lucas’s Little Britain and Come Fly With Me because,in the BBC’s tortuous lingo, they “include scenes where the comedians portray characters from different ethnic backgrounds”. The long-running American programme Cops has been pulled by Paramount. And Gone With the Wind (1937) has been taken off HBO Max. It will, however, eventually be returned — with a lengthy lesson and ‘denouncement’ of its depictions of slavery. Even Fawlty Towers, one of Britain’s best-loved television institutions, has found itself a victim of the iconoclasm.

As Matthew Arnold wrote in Culture and Anarchy (1869), in order to be worth anything, art has to be kept separate from the moral and political jockeying of the social sphere. Only then can it exist as an arena for creativity and dissent; for what he called the free play of ideas.

Forcing art to adhere to the contemporary political line, or expecting moral purity in its creator, destroys an essential outlet for critical freedom while also stifling the right to artistic interpretation. Taking Little Britain and Gone With the Wind off screen sends the strong message that art is to be evaluated in one way only, and enjoyed on one strict condition: that it is sufficiently diverse.

In the end, the void at the heart of the present vision is complexity. Setting out to remove everything morally impure still visible on our cultural horizon is as babyish as it is authoritarian. Just like the past itself, most people are neither wholly one thing nor the other. Dickens was a misogynist, deeply racist, a committed democrat and deeply opposed to slavery. Trollope was rabidly anti-Semitic but wrote with stunning sensitivity about questions of money, power and gender. Michael Jackson was a sex offender who abused children but produced some of the most important pop of the last century. Reducing everything to ‘good/bad’ and ‘agree/disagree’ in the name of present social justice standards destroys not only art and culture but makes a mockery of the contradictions and complexities of life itself.

And where does it end? Those behind long-running calls to ‘decolonise’ school and university curricula seem to want the excision of the canon and the classics as too much the work of dead white men. But once we’ve cut out the Bible, the works of the ancient Greeks, the philosophers of the Medieval and Enlightenment periods, and Victorian thinkers and novelists — all of whom either harboured racist thoughts themselves or associated with racists — the picture looks somewhat thin.

Rather than tear it down and ban it, the lesson should be to learn to live intelligently with the past. I am glad I can see Wagner in plain sight in the Tiergarten, and have the chance to pair his statue’s history with what I know about him. I accept that Volkswagen remains a prosperous car manufacturer despite being one of the first companies to take full advantage of forced labour during the Second World War, profiting greedily off the work of Jewish concentration camp inmates. I am glad I grew up reading Trollope and Dickens, able to enjoy their wondrous, wise prose while also wincing at their sneering at Jews. I am the richer for it all. If, in contrast, we set ourselves the task of banning all history and culture that does not toe the present political line, the road to darkest depths becomes clear.


Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy in modern Britain and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her latest book is Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury)
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David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

Great piece. We need to get beyond Colston and think of the wider implications of a moralistic approach to all of history.

Robert Peel must go -apparently because he created the concept of policing. Seriously, he’s on the block for creating a concept.

Any statues of T S Eliot out there? Not for long I fear.

The rats are underneath the piles, the Jews are underneath the lot ….

I don’t think so!

Lawrence? Kipling? Nietzsche?

Let’s face it, even the ones we don’t actually have anything on must have told an off colour joke in their time. And almost certainly thought there were only two genders (or is that sexes). We might as well just get rid of the lot.

We could always melt down the bronze to build a big furnace to burn the books in.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
4 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Nietzsche was not an ‘anti-Semite’ His writings show him to be the opposite. He explcitily proposed that the ‘anti-Semitic ranters’ should be expelled from Germany. He also opposed the creation of ‘the (Bismarckian) Reich’. These things can be established by reading his books, not by listening to what people say about him.

Admittedly he was in lots of ways that dreadful thing, a German Lutheran Protestant, like my great-grandfather, whose photo is my avatar.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

Exactly my point. And Peel is not responsible for the actions of the US police. The fact that he was fêted by the Nazis would likely be enough. Don’t expect subtle interpretations of the works or reputations of these authors.

Knocking down statues is far easier than thinking.

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
4 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

Robert Peel wouldn’t recognise what we have done to his police force. He might be happy to be allowed to slip into anonymity in the hopes that nobody would blame him for the self serving, politically driven organisations we have now.

Nick Rains
Nick Rains
4 years ago

“Trollope was rabidly anti-Semitic but wrote with stunning sensitivity about questions of money, power and gender.”

A good example of nuance. Good here, bad there, what are you gonna do? Great article.

AJ Spetzari
AJ Spetzari
4 years ago

Great article.

Sect(s) of virtue signallers seem to have hijacked a good cause to try to purify the world of what they unilaterally have decided are the sins of history.

In itself that is unremarkable.

What is far more concerning I think is the tacit condoning of them by many who have been put into positions of authority, and who’s responsibility is to keep things on an even keel. Whether that’s the Universities who are giving into the loudest most extreme members of their students’ unions, or the police in Bristol allowing vandalism.

Where does this modern bonfire of the vanities, stop? And who gave the authority to this shrill minority to dictate what should and should not represent an entire nations’ cultural history?

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
4 years ago
Reply to  AJ Spetzari

I had no idea that cultural history was decided by a majority vote.

AJ Spetzari
AJ Spetzari
4 years ago
Reply to  Richard Slack

Who said it was?

In liberal democracies people are appointed to, or choose to serve in, positions of responsibility. It’s their job to serve the interests of the majority, not the current loudest mob.

Douglas McCallum
Douglas McCallum
4 years ago

I agree wholeheartedly with the comments already made. I will add only two points.

These are forces of extreme intolerance who will use any means to achieve total conformity of thought and speech. Ironically, these people and their defenders typically claim to be promoting diversity and tolerance.

Second, we should all be worried: these are dangerous forces being unleashed. Forcible imposition of “right thinking” by an unscrupulous minority – aided and abetted by the abject failure of those (universities, police, politicians) who are supposed to protect our freedoms – is a step toward the authoritarianisms pioneered by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung. Never say “it can’t happen here”.

Clive Mitchell
Clive Mitchell
4 years ago

This is a well balanced, thoughtful piece. Sadly as we are in the middle of this utter madness and with so many politicians leaping onto the bandwagon, I’m not sure the author will get her wish, sadly.

parishbooks49
parishbooks49
4 years ago

I needed the oxygen of this article, drowning as I was in despair. I come from Lancashire and wonder what might be done to the reminders of the mill owning Gradgrinds who nevertheless built parks, libraries, and all manner of cultural benefits which I benefited from as a child. Life is complex and this current drive for purity of thought will indeed leave us with a terribly barren landscape.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
4 years ago

Perhaps the best Wotan and Hans Sachs of the 20th C was Friedrich Schorr, an Hungarian German-speaking Jew forced into exile to the US by the Germans. He continued performing Wagner till his death in 1953.

Michael Cronogue
Michael Cronogue
4 years ago

Shall we ban Allo Allo next because it might offend the French even though it remains one of the most popular English language programmes in FRANCE!!!

hari singh virk
hari singh virk
4 years ago

Can we just look at what is actually happening in some context. Not a single statute has actually been destroyed. Sacred or profane, these statues are now simply looking for new employment opportunities and rehousing. Colston’s graffitied body when put on display will no doubt inspire more conversations and debates than his previous incarnation ever did. Bristol, may even benefit from a greater influx of tourists and visitors, this has in itself become a historic moment.

As for Wagner can he really assume to have a supreme inviolable right to stand in perpetuity on a pedestal over us and without any question? Does everyone have to be as magnanimous and gracious as the author?

Idols have been toppled throughout human history, and crowds will clash, cheer or boo and move on. You can’t erase history, no one wants too forget, its just the narrative of what is shared and remembered needs to change, and that may upset the orthodoxy. Surely some humility and balance is called for at this time?

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
4 years ago

Good.point, I think many of these statues were erected to these so called ‘giants’ for a certain contribution to either society or the colonial expansion or for other notorious deeds, such as the bombing of German cities (many would say Dresden was mass murder of the innocence) during WW II, and so it is not the art or the artist that is being attacked, or should I say, whose spotlight is being dimmed, (when it comes to the statue problem) but the conformist, heroic view of who or what the statue is representing. It is normally the victor who writes history, but seldom with a straight pen.
I also believe that art has its purpose in society and should not be attacked by the mob. However, not all statues or who they represent has been held up to the light of moral scrutiny and perhaps do not deserve a place in the spotlight, I am sure there is a small, dark cave somewhere we could squeeze them into. And where one could go with an oil lamp to admire in silence and almost total darkness their dodgy heroes of yesteryear.

However, society’s many institutions were created in the dark ages including law, banking, property rights, schooling and many more, now the question is whether they are ‘fit for purpose’ in today’s society, which would seem a tad more critical than let’s say Victorian society. I think many of these statues reflect that society.

hari singh virk
hari singh virk
4 years ago

No statute has been obliterated or destroyed. If anything they have just become celebrities.

At worst they seem to face retirement in some nice warm museum care home. Safe from the elements, cleaned and polished, their rights to visitors protected, subject only to Covid 19. Understandably this upsets the orthodoxies but history has not ended.

Rather than towering over us, these icons have be brought back down to earth and questioned. Rehousing them is not to obliterate them and It seems no one wants to forget them or their histories.

But maybe some of us feel they don’t deserve the right to look down on us to stand on the pedestal to shine in gold gilding or be shaded under great baroque temples. Maybe some humility and new context is long over due?

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
4 years ago

Hari
Regardless of whether one thinks the statues should stay or go, it is how the decision is made that is important.
We live in a democracy and hence a democratic decision needs to be made.
Allowing a small group of people to make that decision is undemocratic.
It seems to me to be coming close to mob rule; I find that much more worrying.

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
4 years ago

Nick, don’t let your average black American hear you say we live in a democracy or he will have your guts for garters.

David Morley
David Morley
4 years ago

Hari

I disagree, but thanks for such a reasonable tone. I don’t care much for Colston, but what about Churchill, Nelson, Peel etc.

And one might feel that we are awfully short of problems in the present to focus our attention on if we are so dead set on cleaning up the past.

Jeffrey Shaw
Jeffrey Shaw
4 years ago

Why does an article about ripping down additional statues appear in something called Unherd. in reality, this is what the”Herd” is all about.

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
4 years ago
Reply to  Jeffrey Shaw

To enlighten the Great Unwashed of their foolishness, should they sneak in the back door?

seghopkin
seghopkin
4 years ago

What is your evidence for Trollope’s anti-Semitism? Melmotte is often thought to be Jewish but Trollope never calls him that; as he does say Madame Melmotte is Jewish I’d have thought the evidence is ambiguous. More, almost the only character of integrity in that book is the Jewish banker, Brehgert. More, the Christian heroine of Nina Balatka marries a Jew, an excellent person. I’ve always wondered if Madame Max Goesler, in the Palliser books, is Jewish – and she’s a heroine. It’s true Trollope has a few digs at Disraeli – but professional and political rivalry could well account for that.

Katy Randle
Katy Randle
4 years ago

Thank you for this nicely balanced article. The answer is that without nuance, we are heading towards a purge along the lines of the Cultural Revolution. I have many, many friends and colleagues who just haven’t thought this through to its inevitable conclusion; I shall forward this to them. I hope a few of them will use it to revise their approach.

Richard Slack
Richard Slack
4 years ago

I suggest you develop some sense of scale, rather than require others to do so. Dickens and Trollope may have had the sort of anti-semitic prejudices which can now irritate but which were absolutely of their time. Colston wasn’t a fine upstanding citizen who just had an unfortunate habit of transporting 120,000 Africans into slavery (throwing around 20,000 overboard because they were too ill to fetch a good price) that was how he acquired both his money and his standing. I would wager more people know that now than did before last week-end. Perhaps we should restore his statue but have him seeming to drag a couple of manacled and chained Africans with one hand and with the other hand pushing an African from his plinth.

Robin Bernstein
Robin Bernstein
4 years ago

Brilliant article. Well balanced and very interesting. I agree that we will never learn if we tear down all these historical pieces.

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
4 years ago

I think much of the learning is missing through a jaundiced education system that hails the conquering heroes and at the same time, creates a delusional society.

roslynross3
roslynross3
4 years ago

well said salient points. On the same basis most people do not blame Jews and their religion for the atrocities Israeli Jews commit in Occupied Palestine. No-one is perfect.

Liam O Conlochs
Liam O Conlochs
4 years ago
Reply to  roslynross3

Nor for their participation in the slave trade for which they were pretty successful.
Nor should we blame the philosopher John Locke for being a shareholder in a slave trade company.

LUIZ CRUZ
LUIZ CRUZ
4 years ago

Great article!

Jordan Flower
Jordan Flower
4 years ago

Hey wait, Michael Jackson makes the cut because pedophilia is quickly becoming an accepted sexual orientation.

John Jones
John Jones
4 years ago

There is a petition online to cancel the Guardian newspaper because its founder, who supported slavery, attacked Lincoln.

Now I think cancel culture is an abomination. But until we begin to hold a mirror up to the people promoting an agenda of censorship- and that includes the Guardian- they will just keep on abusing their power.

Sign the petition, or better yet, let’s get a mob of indignant protesters to stand outside their offices accusing them of promoting racism.

Aaron Lubell
Aaron Lubell
4 years ago

Thoughtfully expressed article. These purifiers and vituous ones remind me of the Taliban blowiing up statues of Buddah in Afganistan! Curious how history repeats.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
4 years ago

But has anybody – Zoe or any of the writers below – actually heard or understood the music? Do any of them appreciate, for instance, that Wagner was the greatest writer of counterpoint after Bach? Do any of them appreciate, even, that art is a matter of technique long before it is a matter of politics?

Jon Luisada
Jon Luisada
3 years ago

Like being at an international airport , but, you can never find the planes..

Mark Brown
Mark Brown
3 years ago

Outstanding argument (and unrelated to intimacy). We are all imperfect and open to criticism from some direction, and the geniuses among us tend to have the most baggage. If society discards the examples of people’s valuable contributions because the people are judged to be imperfect, won’t humanity’s aggregated wisdom, inspiration, and creativity evaporate?

Mark Brown
Mark Brown
3 years ago

Do so many of the left ignore anti-semitism because the Jewish people’s
existence tortures them with the uncomfortable thought that God created
the world, has His own rules, and intervenes in human affairs?