Thu | Jan 17, 2019

Tearing down idols

Published:Sunday | March 27, 2016 | 12:00 AM

It's perhaps odd behaviour, but I habitually inspect statues, particularly when travelling. If necessary, I will alight from a car on a highway to see who, or what, is being commemorated. I reckon that if somebody cared enough to chisel another person's image into stone, and some group felt deeply enough to erect it for our admiration, other things being equal, it's at least worth a glance. I don't care what she (my wife) says.

This practice can easily misfire and lead to some disappointing and anticlimactic results. Imagine dodging traffic expecting to find some god or hero, but instead coming across an eminently forgettable one-time grandee, minor politician, or park benefactor. It has happened.

I read or heard somewhere that, worldwide, the most commemorated political figure in statuary is Simon Bolivar, and I hope it's true. As it happens, I have seen quite a few of him, including the one in Kingston where he capably supervises National Heroes Circle. Obviously, Bolivar's monuments can't outnumber the statues erected to Gautama Buddha, who probably has more than anyone else, or Jesus, or the Blessed Virgin. But for someone who didn't actually start a religion, that's still quite impressive.

Statuary carries symbolic weight, demanding that we pay attention and honour the memorialised. It says: "Admire him!"

So I took interest when a few months ago, continents apart, controversy erupted about a couple of statues. One was of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford University, which activists wanted removed. The other was an enormous golden statue of Mao that was erected in the Chinese hinterland.

Regarding Rhodes, some South African students, led by a Rhodes Scholar, Ntokozo Qwabe, have been agitating for the removal of his statue from Oriel College under the banner #Rhodesmustfall.

Addressing the apparent contradiction of being a beneficiary of the Rhodes Trust while agitating against his benefactor, Qwabe said:

"Rhodes did not have a scholarship. It was never his money. All that he looted must absolutely be returned immediately. I'm no beneficiary of Rhodes. I'm a beneficiary of the resources and labour of my people which Rhodes pillaged and enslaved."

Cecil Rhodes, in his relatively short life, amassed a huge fortune for himself, and annexed an enormous amount of territory for the British Empire in Africa. He started and ended wars as it suited his advantage, and he wasn't squeamish about destroying native Africans who got in his way.

The supporters of removal point to Rhodes' land-grabbing disdain for natives. Plus, he was obsessed with the longevity and maintenance of his name and fame, and the activists perhaps feel that this is one thing they can deny him.

The Mao statue was a 120-foot golden representation of The Chairman that was erected in China's Tongxu County, Henan Province. Commentators immediately pointed to the irony of this extravagance in one of China's poorest areas, but also one that was decimated by Mao's ruinous 'Great Leap Forward'.




Recall that Mao had decreed private agriculture counter-revolutionary and set in train a programme of mandatory collectivised farming and living. The result of 'The Great Helmsman' social manipulation was the death of probably 40 million people. Whole villages perished, and others clung on by eating bark from trees, dirt, roots, shoes and leather belts.

Resulting from this massive famine, Mao was sidelined in the party. But that only set the stage for him to come back a few years later with his Cultural Revolution, replete with newly sharpened tools for laying China to waste.

That was when Mao galvanised millions of maniacal schoolchildren as 'Red Guards' to march around attacking their parents and grandparents for the unforgivable political sin of perpetrating 'The Four Olds': Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. 'Only' some 1.5 million people were killed in the Cultural Revolution, although millions of others were harassed, hurt, and humiliated.

I mean to give a quick sketch of how thoroughly distasteful Mao is to any normal human being. Yet still, if you go to China today, there are statues of him littering the country like pigeon poop. People know the history. It was, after all, their grandparents eating shoes and belts.

So what is the right reaction when we develop a distaste for the men commemorated in statuary? I don't know that there's an easy answer, because history is messy, and our reception of it riddled with current-day politics. Personally, I feel there is justice is tearing down yet another statue of Mao, because there are so many, but am more cautious about tearing down Rhodes, despite his crimes. Not least of the reasons for this is my sense that the privileged South African students advocating #Rhodesmustfall are the new and inauthentic Red Guard.

I think of the old revolutionary Deng Xiaoping, a far more admirable man than Mao. He had followed Mao on the Great Trek, and had given his whole life to Communist Party before Mao, seeing him as a threat, betrayed and publicly humiliated him. Deng's eldest son, Deng Pufang, was even thrown from a building by Mao's Red Guards, and crippled. After all of that, Deng assessed Mao thus: "Seven parts good, three parts bad."

Of course, I disagree with his assessment. Even if Deng had the percentile apportionment about right, the categorisation was surely upside down and it should be seven or eight parts really, really bad. However, you get the idea. There has to be a certain sophistication in approaching historical figures. Not for them. They are dead. But for us who are alive and apt to indulge in that sweetest of the great unearned pleasures: righteous indignation.

And I mean by that more than just that it is hypocritical to rail against Cecil Rhodes while longing for diamonds from his company. I simply mean that Rhodes, despite his murderous tyranny, didn't have a different spiritual landscape than most people I meet, only more opportunity to indulge his vices.

- Daniel Thwaites, a 1993 Caribbean Commonwealth Rhodes Scholar, is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns