It's time to think about who really deserves a place on those plinths

It’s time to think about who really deserves a place on those plinths

Remove the statues and let the plinths stand empty for a time. It is an opportunity to choose from the very best of our past and decide, together, what our future story will be.

I wonder what Churchill, who no doubt studied Percy Shelley and Horace Smith at school, would think about his numerous visages boarded up and guarded by the constabulary. When he pointed on a map of London and proclaimed that this is where his statue would be erected, he must surely have known that no statue of any single living person, short of Christ and Buddha, has ever survived time and societal change, and he must have anticipated that his bronzed position, too, would come to an end.

I wonder what Cook, who did not study either version of Ozymandias at school and did not choose a spot for his future effigy, would think about his statue in modern Sydney, and the large police guard around it over the weekend – the one which erroneously proclaims to this day that he ‘discovered’ the continent of Australia in 1770.

Cook, in fact, was rather indifferent to the place he is now credited with ‘discovering’ and might be rather bemused to find himself the anointed progenitor of modern Australia. Rather it was Joseph Banks who advocated for the British settlement of New South Wales, a point seemingly lost upon those who stood at Cook’s bronze feet with placards on Saturday night.

As the discourse around statues grumbles on, it seems the key problem stems from the mischaracterisation that the intent of a statue is to depict history. Typically, statues in public spaces cast a countenance not only as an expression, but as a moral position, mythologising the stories we tell as, and about, a society. These are legends, told by those who hold power, with the idea of constructing a narrative about how members of their society should define themselves, and what they wish to share about that society with the world. 

To a certain end, statues are historical, but not because they accurately represent the moment of history they depict (Cook’s statue in Hyde Park was erected a hundred years after his death). Their history lies in the story, the narrative, the fable that some people with money and power wished to tell at the moment it was raised. Stories are told in many ways, some more public than others. The placing of a statue in a public space foists one story on everyone who walks past.  

Unlike the remnants of whole civilisations, which preserve the fire pits, the pottery, the paintings, the religious relics and the graffiti of the common person alongside the figures of The Orator and The Patrician (and deserve our ongoing protection) statues are not representative or inclusive; their intent is to exclude those whom the protagonists see as their antagonists in the chronicle they are dictating.

It is for this reason that many currently standing statues, both here and in the Old World, predominantly venerate the figures and actions of men, who were seen as explorers, warriors, scientists, industrialists, and leaders of both family and society.

It is also, for this reason, why we should not be surprised that statues have traditionally found such a short life span upon their plinths. Societies do change, and with it, increasing numbers of people in those societies may find they no longer feel resonance with the stories those statues represent. As the tale becomes less relevant, the figureheads of those stories also fade in significance, eventually representing a dangerous anachronism. 

Acknowledging that both despots and revolutionaries have sought to change narratives, it should not be change in and of itself that is considered so irregular that we must oppose it, but the intent for change that determines whether we embrace or resist.

Churchill may have been an active participant in his own memorialisation, his ego bloated from leading a nation through war, but Cook was not. Rather it was Joseph Carruthers, supporter of federation and former Premier of New South Wales who championed Cook as the face of a new Australia.

Carruthers chose Cook specifically – he could have chosen any number of other early explorers or colonisers for his white hero – because Cook represented a particular version of political and economic philosophy. The son of a labourer, he rose through the ranks of the merchant navy to become an accomplished navigator and sea captain, an example of a self-made man, living an idealised life achieved through grit and hard work. That his children all died young of disease or in the service of their country, or that he himself was killed so far from home is forgotten in the myth of a man rising to power despite his origins. His moral value lay in his professional successes alone; his brief time commanding a ship for the British empire meant to stand as inspiration for a new society; his life a “noble example to the people of Australia, who live under institutions which freely open the door of fame and power to all those who display industry and ability.”

Unfortunately, these egalitarian institutions were a myth in the early 1900s, and remain a myth today. Structural inequities continue to place significant barriers against not only fame and power, but basic humanity, for many groups of Australians.

If we are honest, Carruthers, an ardent believer in the White Australia Policy, never intended Cook to inspire all Australians, only the white ones, and arguably only the white men, and arguably only the white men of British Protestant descent.

The myth of the self-made man is an important cornerstone of capitalism, a powerful motivator of the productivity required to create wealth for others in the hope that some of that wealth might flow to oneself. Black and migrant Australians didn’t need inspiration to work for others; policies of indenture guaranteed their labour. Women didn’t need inspiration either; their unpaid labour was likewise already assured.

We continue to have a legacy of institutions which still perpetuate these inequities. Despite the howlings of those in power, asserting that any of us can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps if we just choose to, modern Australia – where conservative and damaging economic policies dominate, inequality is rising, a shecession is being actively orchestrated, and the various gaps between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is as large as ever –remains unarguably inequitable.

It is therefore not surprising that the orchestrators of these inequitable policies continue to protect the myth, and the effigy, of Cook. Likewise, in a nationalistic post-Brexit Britain, it is not surprising that current leaders wish to protect a certain representation of Churchill.

It is not lost upon those who are pulling the statues to the ground that this is an act of public disorder and civil disobedience. Whatever political philosophy is considered, from Rousseau to Rawls, civil society only exists where there is an agreement between those in power to provide certain protections, and those who agree to certain rules in order to benefit from those protections, and both parties keep their end of the bargain. Where those in power do not provide the promised protections, and enough people notice and care, then political protest and civil disobedience is not only the natural consequence, but the instrument of change.

Civil disobedience ends not with stern words or guns, or even with temporary guards and steel boxes, but when inequitable systems are genuinely fixed, and the social contract is restored. In America, after hundreds of years of Black oppression, it has taken a pandemic, widespread death, economic collapse, and the increasing recorded testimony of the violence to which Black Americans are regularly subjected, to finally bring down many of the confederate statues and flags, as a small first step towards long-overdue reconciliation and justice.

To suggest that our own history of violence against Black bodies and lives is somehow ‘better’ is a factual inaccuracy and a moral disaster. To dismiss the Black Lives Matter movement and the threats on Australian memorials as an imported contagion is missing similar points about Australia – how strongly non-Indigenous Australians increasingly feel allyship with Indigenous Australians and want to help facilitate genuine change; and how, from a place of base self-serving interest, these statues and associated narratives are failing us all.

For a brief moment in April, as Australian policies tended to be more inclusive and equitable – when social welfare was brought up to a living wage and childcare was free; when Indigenous communities were protected and the government commissioned an urgent report into the challenges faced by disadvantaged students; when the private hospitals were nationalised and small businesses supported – there was hope that the pandemic would leave us with a better, more equitable country. The sorrow and anger that this is clearly not to be the case, and that our leaders and policies have not actually changed is the real danger to the anachronistic monuments that stand in our public spaces.

The threatened and actual desecration of these monuments is not a wanton act of vandalism, but a direct and deliberate statement that the values and morals they uphold should no longer be sacred. It’s the unwise leader who does not understand this.

Even if Cook, and the mythologies created around him, was ever relevant to an Australia of bygone days, they are clearly irrelevant to modern Australia. His effigy, and his story, is now less for public celebration, and more for historic preservation in a museum and in the recorded annals of history, where his contribution can be measured rather than simply valourised.

The time has come for Australia to think about who does deserve a place on those plinths, whose morals and stories align with the stories we wish to tell, and who we would point to as inspiration for our youth today. Did they live their values and suffer for them, like Peter Norman? Did they create significant change for the women of Australia, like Zelda D’Aprano? Did they inspire a nation, like Evonne Goolagong Cawley or Cathy Freeman? Did they fight for important collective rights, like Eddie Mabo? Can some industries be collectively represented – fire fighters, gold diggers, scientists, nurses, artists, teachers, musicians, factory workers, farmers – for their contributions?

Let us move the anachronistic statues to museums, and let the plinths stand empty for a time. It is an opportunity to choose from the very best of our past and decide, together, what our future story will be.

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