In February, the Dean of Bristol Cathedral, the very reverend David Hoyle, announced his ‘openness’ to removing the Cathedral’s largest stain glassed window because of its links to the prominent seventeenth century Bristol slave trader and deputy governor of the Africa Company, Edward Colston. The Bristol campaign against the Colston legacy is the latest instalment in an Anglospheric movement to remove the stigma of the slave trade, colonialism and racism from statues and buildings on campuses and in public spaces.
In Australia, activists annually campaigns to rename Australia Day ‘Invasion Day’ or ‘Mourning Day’.
At Oxford University it assumes the form of student demands to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College. More recently, students and academics at University College London, have demanded the college disassociate itself from the founder of eugenics and IQ testing, Francis Galton.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Georgetown University, taking the advice of its working group on slavery, memory and reconciliation, changed the name of Mulledy Hall, named after a college president who sold 272 slaves in order to pay off campus debts in 1838, to Freedom Hall. At Yale, students agitate to change the name of Calhoun College because of its association with the nineteenth century white supremacist John C. Calhoun. At Princeton, the Black Justice League demands the renaming of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs because the past president of the university (and of the United States) held commonplace views now deemed racist. Not to be outdone in this lacerating process, the Masters of twelve Harvard Colleges abolished their titles because the term ‘master’ has a ‘particular salience’ given the ‘brutal history of slavery’.
In a similar vein, channelling the prevailing progressive moral orthodoxy, David Hoyle observed that ‘opposition to slavery is dead simple. Slavery is wicked and evil’. However, slavery, and for that matter colonialism, has not always appeared wicked and evil. Aristotle thought there were ‘natural’ slaves. Ancient and even modern civilisations were built on slave labour. From Babylon and Egypt, from Rome and the Ottoman Empire to Tsarist Russia and nineteenth century America, slavery was the basis of economic and political development. As historians still recognise, conquest, slavery and oppression mark the troubled origins of most states and empires in the non-Western as well as the Western world. To recognise the fact that the modern state system involved war, conquest and oppression is vital to a thoughtful, secular, liberal, self-awareness. To seek, anachronistically, to impose a modern sensibility on the past and remove its heritage from the present, however, is not.
The illiberal purpose that informs campus anti-racism is iconoclasm and it is worth unpacking its complex legacy. The etymology of the term has enjoyed a notable historical adventure. Its origin is religious, premised on a contested view of the role that images exercise symbolically in a culture or religion.
A compound of two Greek words, eikon and klasma (to break), it denotes the rejection and destruction of cherished beliefs and images. Students of the phenomenon, like Patrick Collinson, Marshall G. Hodgson and David Freedberg, have shown how iconoclasm transmogrifies into a form of iconophobia, a distrust of all images that becomes an accepted cultural attitude premised on religious value and the fear of false idols. Iconophobia characterised the religious fanaticism of the seventeenth century English puritan movement. Indeed, the opportunity for Edward Colston to install his stained glass in Bristol Cathedral arose because the millenarian enthusiasts of the English Civil War, which ran from 1642 to 1649, had smashed the original window.
In its subsequent twentieth century European manifestation, iconoclasm assumed an ideological rather than a religious purpose. The Nazi conquest of Poland involved the systematic obliteration of historic sites associated with servile Jewish and Slavic cultures, notably after the Warsaw uprisings of 1943 and 1944.
In an analogous vein, iconoclasm plays a crucial role in Islamic State’s management of savagery in Syria and Iraq. In its pursuit of an Islamic utopia, Isis rejects all idolatrous reverence for the past, particularly relics of the pre-Islamic era of ignorance. As Franceso Rutelli, former Italian Minister of Culture and Tourism, observed ‘Islamic State reinvented… systematic iconoclasm’.
Islamic State revealed what this entailed after it captured the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, in March 2015. Since 1980, Palmyra had featured on a list of United Nations approved World Heritage sites. From the Islamic State perspective such kuffar approval merely served as an incentive to destroy it.
In Islamic State discourse, the UN approach to heritage merely transfers to other parts of the world a secular, liberal, appreciation of the need to preserve culturally significant artefacts.Consequently, when Islamic State destroys a site like Palmyra, embodying cultural values that a secular Western aesthetic applauds, it can be seen not only as an attack on the heritage itself, but on the culturally pluralist values a liberal Western cosmopolitanism approves.
Significantly, the international community that denounces slavery, nevertheless equates Islamic State’s iconoclasm in Palmyra – a city, like many others built by forced and slave labour – with barbarism. In its iconoclasm, Islamic State employs far more barbaric methods than those currently employed by Western student radicals to achieve its vision. However, the strategy of destroying the past in order to build a purified tomorrow differs only in its utopian end.
Editing the past to meet the standards currently upheld either by Islamic State, the Third Reich or contemporary campus radicals ultimately represents a disturbing ideological attempt to kill history.
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