No country or group of people enjoys being reminded of the dark and immoral bits of its past. Australians are understandably uncomfortable when the subject of their colonial past is brought up and South Africans often shudder when forced to contemplate the less savoury aspects of their history.
I say this as a British person who feels much the same way about the awful things Brits have done over the years. For every railroad, democratic parliament, positive concepts of liberty and individualism, and industrial advance instituted under a British flag around the world throughout history, there is an atrocity committed by a country whose people thought they were part of a more advanced civilisation ready to besmirch it. Most Western nations have morally complicated histories. This is an observation rather than a value judgement; and their people can be forgiven for wanting to shy away from it or for attempting a rewrite.
This cringe forms part of the cocktail of reasons behind recent calls for the removal of Confederate statues and memorials in the USA, most recently in Baltimore, and other historical monuments depicting characters who are out tune with modern sensibilities - alongside genuine grievance, identity politics, and notions of historical justice. The Mayor of Baltimore has claimed that the motive behind the removal of the statue was concern for "public safety", but this seems to be little more than a politically expedient excuse. The matter is surely more complex and includes the factors mentioned above and, most likely, others too.
The desire to sanitise history in this way - to remove the unfortunate reminders of the wrongs committed by our predecessors and to inject a sense of historical balance into the art around us - is entirely understandable. No one wants to stand in the shadow of racists, bigots, and those who have inflicted suffering upon other people. The same can be said about the demands to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University and the litany of other such cases, including some slightly over-zealous arguments to pull down statues of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Karl Marx and Lenin (note: the last two are perhaps most understandable, especially if we're measuring immorality by body count). The desire to pull down these painful reminders is easy to sympathise with and it could even be justifiable. However, on closer inspection, it is not.
Why not pull down these icons of the worst aspects of our history? Why not demolish these exaggerated figurines of the proponents of some of our worst ever ideas, like slavery, imperialism, and prejudice?
Well, first, there's a genuine slippery slope to be avoided. If it's fine to destroy the statues of Cecil Rhodes and the Confederate Army because they are antithetical to our modern values then why not purge all other art that reminds us of injustice? Shall we dispense with all of our copies of Huckleberry Finn because of the overt racism therein? Do we slash and burn all the copies, and presumably the original version, of Rubens' The Rape of the Daughters of Leucippus because of its romanticised depiction of such a hateful crime? Are the Hollywood archives to be purged of every classic movie dripping with sexism and misogyny? While these examples may not be as severe as that of the statues, the rationale is the same and once we permit one then the protestations against the wholesale revision of all art and culture become harder to make. The smashing of an objectionable statue may be done with the best of intentions but doing so paves the road to philistine hell.
Secondly, and most importantly, taking down statues and the like is an easy and insubstantial solution to a difficult and serious problem. All it requires is the right transient political pressure, some construction workers, and a certain amount of discretion. However, as easy as it is to remove these reminders of racism, sexism, and other bigotries; actually dealing with these unfortunate human proclivities is hard and will take a much hard work. Simply tearing down the reminders of these aspects of our flawed human character will not tackle those flaws and doing so is akin to treating the symptoms of the disease while leaving the nasty wasting illness itself untreated.
Bigotry, racism, imperialism, and all the other nasty qualities that permeate our history as human beings, and therefore are inevitably depicted in our cultural artefacts, will eventually be dealt with. The human species is too adept at progress and skilled in problem solving for them not to be. However, if this is to happen then real action to change minds and dispel notions is needed and in this context, unfortunately, the erasing of artistic artefacts, no matter how unpleasant, is a wholly inadequate strategy.