June 12, 2020

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.