I have been greatly disturbed by the recent removal of divers monuments to the old Confederacy across the United States of America and the fashion for treating the Confederate flag with contempt. These iconoclastic developments are one of the many symptoms of a decaying civilisation, and it’s certainly what happens when you enfranchise the ignorant. The swine that rejoiced with hideous delight at the removal of Robert E. Lee’s head in New Orleans reminded me of a young man I met in a pub near Westminster Abbey some months ago. I had gone in to refresh myself and to await the arrival of a friend of mine (curiously from America himself) and this disheveled-looking young man looked me up and down, and then asked if I was Irish. So I said: “a little bit, why?” And he said: “you look like a leprechaun,” and laughed. I did not react, but after a few pleasantries I asked what he was doing there. This was shortly after the General Election, you see, and his reply was that he and his friends had been protesting in Parliament Square against the Conservative-Democratic Unionist coalition, and he accused the DUP of being “racist” and “homophobic,” and then proceeded to give me his version of Irish history, which was untested by basic knowledge let alone scrupulous research. No doubt you see the hypocrisy in his protest. He called me a leprechaun because I had a beard and wore tweed, and yet he is riled by a political party he probably hadn’t heard of before the election, ostensibly because they’re “racist.” Were he an American I have no doubt he would have been calling for the erasure of Confederate history, just as the partisans of paedophilia called for the erasure of any memorial to Bishop George Bell. It’s dystopian and hysterical, like the witch hunts of the 17th century or the climate of fear and accusation of which O’Brian spoke in Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Where does it end? Do we erase from the history books and public places the memory of other great men just because they owned slaves, or held dear doctrines and opinions that are no longer in fashion? Winston Churchill might once have uttered something racist or homophobic, and he is the face of the new £5 note! Do we cast opprobrium on his memory? For consistency’s sake, why not pull down the monuments to American Indians because of their grisly brutality, or those of Malcolm X for fomenting civil strife? But I’m not a hysteric; I’m not even American. What about statues that I find odious in Britain, then? The one that comes readily to my mind is that of Oliver Cromwell outside the Palace of Westminster. Some years ago I remember shaking my fist at it with my old Knight of Malta sodomite friend. I still revile Cromwell and curse his name but I wouldn’t dream of petitioning to have his statue removed because his part in British history was a great one, as Robert E. Lee’s was in America (although they were by no means alike). The point is, we learn from history and whatever evils and tragedies that occur are taken up into the narrative of the nation and enhance and enrich the poignancy and the goodness of the present time, the knowing of good and evil in the time of their being.
This controversy put me in mind of Ken Burns’ brilliant documentary The Civil War, particularly the Southern, somewhat patrician, tone of Shelby Foote’s narration (emphasis my own):
“And after the battle, then the slain and wounded will arise, and all will meet together under the two flags, all sound and well, and there will be talking and laughter and cheers, and all will say, Did it not seem real? Was it not as in the old days?”