The conservative case for toppling statues: Why ‘bad men’ shouldn’t be revered in the public square

Interesting categorization of monuments of historical figures:

It may have been the easiest political no-brainer of the year when Conservative leader Erin O’Toole rushed to condemn the unruly mob that brought Sir John A. Macdonald’s statue tumbling down in Montreal last month.

Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has won elections by outflanking the NDP to the left, thought about it for a day or two and then denounced the “vandalism” that has “no place in a society that abides by the rule of law.”

For support and to help convince conservatives, Levy points to the words of 18th century Scottish economist Adam Smith, who gave the world “the invisible hand” of the free market and whose classical liberal economics were vital to 20th century conservatism.Smith believed we are hard-wired to venerate powerful people, whether they are morally upright or not, and that this is an impulse we should fight back against.

“Even when the order of society seems to require that we should oppose them, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it,” wrote Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. We look at political leaders in “delusive colours in which the imagination is apt to paint in,” creating a “peculiar sympathy.”

Levy also points to the words of Lord Acton, who famously said that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

Levy argues that if Smith and Acton are right, then we are honouring the wrong people almost across the board. And that extends to people like Macdonald, whose triumphs in government are marked in equal measure by outrages, said Levy in an interview with the National Post.

“There’s no doing without Macdonald in Canadian political history. But that doesn’t mean that celebration has to be a uncritical or has to conceal what is actually a very complicated institutional legacy,” said Levy.

In an article for the Niskanen Center in the United States, Levy divides these historical leaders into three categories. The first are people who committed dishonourable acts and are celebrated precisely for those acts, like Jefferson Davis, who is remembered as the president of the confederacy during the U.S. civil war and a defender of slavery.There are also people who lived unimpeachable public lives, like George Washington, who also owned slaves in his private life. When Washington is publicly revered, it’s for his role as a founding father rather than his private sins.

In Levy’s view, Macdonald represents a middle-ground because he is venerated for a record that has troubling moments along with the great triumphs.

“His wrongs were official wrongs. The head tax and the treatment of First Nations, those are as much a part of his legacy as building Confederation in a way that differs from the private slave-owning of American founders,” said Levy. “That means that his legacy is contested in the same way that the moral character of Canadian Confederation is contested. And I don’t think there’s any way to set aside either part of that.”

Smith believed that we sympathize with the dead and pile on affection, especially “when they are in danger of being forgot by everybody.” Because the dead can’t defend themselves people are moved to do it for them or to hold off on criticism.

Levy’s response to that is simple: Sir John A. could handle criticism when he was alive and he can surely handle it now.

“We not only overestimate the moral standing of rulers, we overestimate the harm in moral criticism of the dead,” wrote Levy.

Although conservatives are more likely to defend statues and monuments, progressives are not immune from the phenomenon that Smith describes. The death of United States Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg provoked a massive wave of grief, even beyond the borders of the U.S.

“I absolutely think we’re seeing that Smithian dynamic at work,” said Levy. “There’s been 15 years worth of half tongue-in-cheek idolatry about her. There’s a wildly excessive personalization of the relationship to her.”

It’s not just world leaders either. We venerate celebrities and athletes, no matter how many times they disappoint us.

The polling on these monuments suggests that many people are more disturbed by the mob action than the actual removal of the statues. When Trudeau gave his comments about the incident in Montreal he singled out the lawlessness for criticism and almost nothing else.

Levy believes, though, at the heart of it is our out-sized and often irrational affection for the people who lead us.

“There is widespread and justifiable aversion to the sight and the phenomenon of people no one elected taking matters into their own hands,” said Levy. “But the politics of taking statues down through lawful procedures gets so controversial that I’m inclined to doubt that the mob scene is really what’s doing most of the emotional work.”

Source: The conservative case for toppling statues: Why ‘bad men’ shouldn’t be revered in the public square

Douglas Todd: Renowned sculptor touts ‘shock’ rebuttal to, not destruction of, historical statues

Yet another piece on sculptures and monuments of historical figures, with a similar sensible take to Tom McMahon’s Enough with John A. Macdonald. Where Are the Indigenous Monuments?:

Since he sees himself as a creator rather than a destroyer, one of Canada’s most renowned sculptors says his heart is broken almost every time another supposedly permanent public statue is vandalized, beheaded or toppled.

Timothy Schmalz, whose large figurative pieces are on display from Rome to Vancouver, has an alternative idea, which he says might shock.

Schmalz is putting the final touches now on Monument of Oppression in his massive studio in St. Jacob’s, Ont., where he’s also created life-sized statues dedicated to women workers, asylum seekers, veterans, homeless people, miners, Samuel de Champlain and Indigenous and African visionaries, not to mention his musical icon, Gordon Lightfoot.
Detail from Timothy Schwarz’s bronze monument to migrants and asylum seekers, installed last year in St. Peter’s Square in Rome. (Handout)

The Monument of Oppression is made up of two hands stretching up from what looks like a prison cell in the ground. “It’s almost like the figures from the past are coming back and reaching out — and the oppressed are having visibility, and it’s a haunting visibility.”

Instead of demonstrators beheading a statue of Macdonald in Montreal in August, or Victoria City council surreptitiously removing another statue of him in 2018, Schmalz asks us to imagine erecting the Monument of Oppression adjacent to a likeness of Canada’s first prime minister, “with the hands going through the bars and reaching toward the statue.”

That, Schmalz suggests, is a more productive way of dealing with the multi-edged legacy of Macdonald, a dynamic Scotsman who both created the vision for the nation of Canada but also supported establishing residential schools dedicated in part to “Christianizing” Indigenous people.

Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer associated with the “founding” of North and South America, also has a disputed history, which has led activists to recently haul down his statues.

Similar removals and debates have arisen over 19th–century B.C. Chief Justice Matthew Begbie, who had to sentence to death five Indigenous men that a jury had found guilty of murder, but who also learned Indigenous dialects, defended Chinese labourers and had strong friendships with many chiefs.

“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying some Europeans weren’t brutal, say, 100 years ago and further back,” Schmalz said.

“Some early British settlers came to Canada and had this idea they had the real culture and the superior morality. It was actually called the White Man’s Burden. They looked around at the natives and thought, ‘Oh, we’ll make them good British subjects.’ You can acknowledge the settlers’ error and insensitivity.”

But the sculptor says our diverse society should not deal with the inevitable messiness of history by defacing or smashing, in 15 minutes, works of craftsmanship that skilled artists took years to complete.

“You can’t destroy the whole idea of history. Instead of removing it, you have to face it and learn from it. It’s very dangerous to condemn people from 100 and 200 years ago with the morality of today, which is evolving. By doing so you’re saying that our cultural past is absolutely evil. But that’s historically inaccurate and simply untrue.”

Schmalz emphasizes the value of having figurative public statues over more abstract ones, whose meanings are usually vague. He’s created a powerful series called The Homeless Jesus, depicting a shrouded figure sleeping on a bench, one of which is in Vancouver. And he’s currently sculpting a stunning piece, as big as a truck, dedicated to the victims of human trafficking.

Schmalz hopes the piece will serve as a commentary on how slavery, via human trafficking, continues today. Yet somehow, he laments, the modern-day travesty of forced labour, including for sex, is often ignored, unlike slavery of the past.

“I can’t think of one single nation of the world that did not practise slavery, including among Indigenous people. It was a universal thing.” If every historic statue that had some link to past slavery was destroyed, he said, we’d have to eliminate most of the monuments of Rome.

“Should we destroy the Colosseum because it was built by slave labour? We don’t want to just go around the world and destroy. Simply because someone might be sensitive or offended, you can’t edit out our whole history. You have to learn from it.”

Schmalz has worked for three decades as a sculptor, typically 14 hours a day. In addition to standing up for the craftsmanship of artists who creating public monuments, he worries that people who just want to tear them down are revealing their arrogance.

“You are assuming, if you were in that place in that specific time, that you would do something different.”

But, at age 50, he knows most people are simply creatures of their era, conforming to whatever happens to be the unexamined moral beliefs, good, bad and indifferent, of the dominant culture.

That’s why Schmalz reacts when people become devoted to censoring figures of the past. He thinks it’s healthier to focus on the future, and what he calls “finding the truth within specific cultures and philosophies.”

His life-sized piece portraying victims of human trafficking gets us responding to problems in the here and now. And Monument of Oppression forces us to think about how things that many celebrated have caused damage to others.

Destroying symbols from history is easy. But truth-finding, he knows, requires facing up to the moral complexity of the real world.

Source: Douglas Todd: Renowned sculptor touts ‘shock’ rebuttal to, not destruction of, historical statues

Patrick Luciani: If we’re cancelling historical villains, why not Norman Bethune?

Valid question:

The Western world is toppling statues of historical villains at a furious pace. Tributes to everyone from Christopher Columbus, U.S. presidents, colonizers, Confederates, or really, anyone suspected of being on the wrong side of the current political times, are falling around the world.

But the process of eliminating bad guys tends to inevitably get out of hand. Winston Churchill’s statue in London, for instance, had to be covered up for a recent anti-racism rally before the vandals got to it; apparently, helping to defeat the Nazis no longer qualifies as being on the right side of history.

It’s even open season on Christian symbols and statues of saints. That’s reminiscent of the French Revolution, when the Robespierre-led mobs defaced and destroyed such statues as they sought to turn Notre Dame into a “temple of reason.”

Not to be left out, we in Canada are on the way to taking Sir John A. Macdonald’s name off schools and getting rid of his statues, and are now moving on to other historical figures. The alteration and return of a monument to Samuel de Champlain in Orillia, Ont., has been delayed, but statues to Giovanni Caboto will probably be spared given that few recognize his name (hint: Canada’s Columbus). In the case of educator and legislator Egerton Ryerson, who wrote a report recommending special schools for Indigenous boys, an idea that helped lay the ground for the residential school system, I suspect taking down a statue would not be enough; the name of Toronto’s Ryerson University is surely not long for this world. And petitions are out to rename the streets that honour British politician Henry Dundas, because of his weak anti-slavery position. In short, we’re doing anything to rid ourselves of anyone with the taint of past sins.

But apparently, not all history is vulnerable.

One statue that remains unmolested is the one of Norman Bethune that sits peacefully on the campus of the University of Toronto. Yet, if ever there was a statue associated with the evils of a political idea, it is the good doctor’s. While his defenders will remind us of his courageous work saving lives during the war between Japan and China through his battlefield medical innovations, a complete story tells of a nasty and reckless surgeon who never quite earned the respect of his Canadian colleagues, and who sternly defended Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, whose regimes starved and killed millions.

The mythology surrounding Bethune didn’t originate in Canada; it was created by Mao himself in a famous essay read by schoolchildren throughout China. Today, we use Bethune’s memory to attract thousands of Chinese tourists to his birthplace in Gravenhurst, Ont.

The Chinese Communist system he believed in has gone on to cause atrocities – not just during the Cultural Revolution, but also in the 1989 slaughter at Tiananmen Square, in the disastrous one-child policy, and in the continuing oppression and internment of thousands of Uyghurs. And let’s not forget that the government that emerged from that system has illegally imprisoned two Canadians on trumped-up charges to blackmail our government over the Huawei affair. One would think this might merit some reaction by the cancelling community.

There might be a reason that Bethune has been left off the list of political targets: he was a Marxist supporter, and thus a philosophical friend of the modern left. It’s the same reason others on the left, from Tommy Douglas to suffragette Nellie McClung – who both supported eugenics as a solution to extreme mental illness and poverty – are often given a free ride.

But the worm is turning on this cancel culture. In the United States, the name of feminist hero Margaret Sanger is being erased from American history because of her defence of eugenics in the 1920s, despite her position on women’s rights and her founding of Planned Parenthood. Can Nellie McClung and Tommy Douglas be far behind?

Shakespeare was right when he wrote that whatever good people do will be buried with their bones, while their sins live on forever. In a world that loses its historical memory, you’ll find no understanding, no forgiveness and no mercy.

So leave Norman Bethune’s statue in peace and let it stand, warts and all – but let’s also leave the statues of Sir John A., and the memories of Nellie McClung and Tommy Douglas. Otherwise we risk entering a brave new world where history disappears, and all ideas merely favour the present.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-if-were-cancelling-historical-villains-why-not-norman-bethune/

The case for keeping ‘Langevin Block’ – Peter Shawn Taylor, Begbie’s Statue – Bill McKee

I agree with Taylor on the risks of ignoring the historical context and focusing only on one aspect of their role in Canadian society. Those who forget (or erase) history, are condemned to repeat it, albeit with twists. McKee’s point on interpretative panels is a better way:

Taken on its own, Langevin’s quotation is a devastating indictment to modern ears. But what if we let the tape roll a bit longer? Later in that same speech, for example, Langevin said it was his intention to give every native child who graduates from residential school a free homestead. And in response to Langevin, Edward Blake, the leader of the Liberal party of the day, not only used words to describe Indigenous men and women that would be considered horrific today, he also complained that Ottawa’s plan was overly generous. The Liberal party of the day wanted to spend far less on the native file.

Extreme narrow focus on a few sentences of one speech may provide damning evidence of Langevin’s unfitness for present-day memorialization. But in the context of his time, Langevin actually stands among the more enlightened representatives of the federal government. As for the accusation that Langevin believed in assimilation of the Indigenous community—a concept now properly and universally considered abhorrent—he is guilty as charged.

But assimilation was conventional wisdom among all elite thinkers of his era. If statements in support of it are to be considered sufficient reason for removal from the historical record, then every politician of note in Canada prior to the 21st century must eventually be struck from the record—from Macdonald to Sir Wilfrid Laurier on down. Even Pierre Trudeau, often considered the father of an inclusive, multicultural Canada, was a confirmed assimilationist. His 1969 White Paper on “Indian Policy” planned to eliminate Indigenous status entirely. When such a plan was firmly rejected by the Indigenous community, Trudeau replied bitterly, “We’ll keep them in the ghetto for as long as they want.” Is the legacy of Trudeau senior next on the list for erasure?

And entirely ignored within the current debate over Langevin and the residential school issue is his stature as a key Francophone Quebec federalist during the crucial pre-Confederation era, which was the reason his name ended up on a federal building in the first place. Reconciliation between French and English was once considered a great Canadian virtue. It should still count for something today.

As for Cornwallis, in 1749 he did declare a bounty of 10 British guineas for every Mi’kmaq scalp delivered to him during a colonial-era conflict known as Father Le Loutre’s War. Like Langevin’s speech on residential schools, singular attention on this one act seems sufficient to declare him unfit for present-day consumption. By any standard, scalping is an horrific act. But once again history throws up some uncomfortable facts.

Father Le Loutre’s War (1749 to 1755) was the handiwork of French Catholic priest Jean-Louis Le Loutre, who goaded local Mi’kmaq tribes into conflict with the British in hopes of reclaiming New Brunswick and Nova Scotia for the French. For added motivation, he explicitly promised to pay Mi’kmaq warriors a bounty for English scalps. And they delivered. In 1753, for example, Le Loutre was reimbursed 1,800 French livres by the colonial government in Quebec City for sums he paid to the Mi’kmaq for 18 English scalps.

The payment of scalp bounties was unsettlingly common throughout North America during the entire colonial period. It was, in fact, standing French policy to offer payments for the scalps of the English—men, women and children—as a subsidy to ensure the continued loyalty of allied Indigenous tribes. Scalp bounties in the English-speaking colonies generally only appeared when a war was on; and their value waned and fluxed depending on the public’s panic level. It thus seems unfair to use Cornwallis’s scalping proclamation as conclusive evidence against him when both sides in this ancient conflict, including those Mi’kmaq nations who today demand Cornwallis’s expulsion from the public square, were fully engaged in the repulsive tactic.

And while Amherst is widely considered to be the father of modern germ warfare for allegedly handing out smallpox-infected blankets to Indigenous foes, this is a falsehood. There is no proof he ever did such a thing. Amherst responded positively to the suggestion from a fellow officer in a letter dated July 16, 1763, but this came a month after the one and only time British troops actually stooped to such a tactic—during a native siege of Fort Pitt (near present-day Pittsburgh) on June 24, 1763.

Finally, Begbie was indeed responsible for sentencing six Indigenous leaders to hanging for their role in the killing of 20 non-natives during B.C.’s Chilcotin War. Yet condemning him into oblivion on this basis ignores his vast record of support and understanding for the province’s Indigenous communities at all other times. He was fluent in several Indigenous languages, recognized the concept of Aboriginal title in his rulings and took a strong position against racism. Begbie was perhaps the most liberal and native-friendly judge of his time. As for his controversial hanging decision, which the B.C. government recently apologized for, he had no choice. The death penalty was mandatory for murder cases. Despite all this, his own law society has removed him from the firmament.

To our great disadvantage, Canada has become obsessed with replaying a slow-motion, high-definition version of our past. Historical figures are now judged by intense focus on individual statements or actions. One ‘infraction’ at odds with current acceptable standards has become sufficient evidence for expulsion from present-day society. Yet it is reasonable, if not inevitable, to expect that every notable figure from the past has probably said or done something that will grate against modern sensibilities, particularly with respect to Indigenous relations. It is therefore only a matter of time before every statue, park and street named for an historical character in Canada is declared incompatible with the present.

But while the fraught relationship between colonial Canada and Indigenous peoples is an important component of our history, it is not its entirety. We should not allow current attention being paid to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s findings, necessary and disturbing as they may be, to become a mechanism that strips Canada of our most significant characters and events. Or removes the context and detail from the stories of who we are and where we came from.

Source: The case for keeping ‘Langevin Block’ – Macleans.ca

Bill McKee, the former curator of B.C. history at the Museum of Canadian History in Ottawa makes a sensible suggestion on how to keep historical names and statues while acknowledging the less savoury aspects of their legacy:

Removing his [Begbie’s] statue will accomplish nothing of general benefit. It would help to hide this sad part of our history. In its absence, no one will remember or learn a lesson to understand the native side of the Chilcotin War, and the complex story behind the execution of the chiefs.

I would suggest, rather than removing this important statue, a more useful step would be to provide interpretive panels explaining all parts of the life of Matthew Baillie Begbie, around the statue, similar to an interpretive exhibition in Vancouver’s Chinatown, just east of Carrell Street. The exhibition could highlight his impact upon our history, and focus on his impact upon First Nations, not as an aside, but a central part of our history.

Another important way to recognize the cost of the arrival of the British and Canadian fur traders, the participants in the several gold rushes and of the British colonial society upon our First Nations would be to erect another large statue recognizing the story of the Chilcotin War and the resulting executions of indigenous leaders. The funding could come from the public, as well as the City of New Westminster and the governments of B.C. and Canada. It could be located on the site of the former cemetery next to the new high school or near the courthouse, where the remains of the chiefs were possibly buried. I would think the site near the high school would be a chance to highlight the story of our First Nations to young people in New Westminster.

I also want to point out that the statue of Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie was created by Elek Imredy, a refugee who came to Canada from Hungary, after the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolution. Many people will recognize his “Girl in a Wetsuit” statue off of Stanley Park, at the entrance to Burrard Inlet, which was created at the request of the City of Vancouver. These statues are a reflection of the contributions of the many immigrants and refugees who have contributed to our history.

Please don’t remove the statue of Matthew Baillie Begbie.

Source: Opinion: Removing statue of Judge Begbie benefits no one