25/01/2016 05:39 GMT | Updated 21/01/2017 05:12 GMT

In Defence of Falling Statues

Since the dust has started to settle over the debate around whether Oxford University should topple its statue of Cecil Rhodes, the constant nonsensical refrain seems to be that doing so would be 'whitewashing history.' It's as though his name would suddenly be wiped from all history books and Wikipedia pages the moment it came down, with his legacy expunged in a sea of political correctness.

Yet it ignores the fact that statues themselves are an attempt to 'whitewash' history - often a stab by public figures with chequered careers at out-living their own mortality, ensuring the less unsavoury aspects of their legacies are cemented in the public consciousness. Few historians would consider them unbiased sources of fact. A casual stroll through central London serves as a grim reminder; the statues of General Charles James Napier in Trafalgar Square and Oliver Cromwell outside the Palace of Westminster give few respective details of Napier's fondness for brutally suppressing rebellions in India, or Cromwell's massacres of Scottish and Irish Catholics.

In the eyes of many who want his statue to stay up, the considerable sums Cecil Rhodes gave to Oxford University - an institution not historically famed for being cash-strapped - is meant to atone for his crimes in South Africa and the former Rhodesia, which involved violent land-grabs and systematic attempts at disenfranchising the black populations who dwelt there. Yet the debate over whether or not to pull down his statue is a needed one. It sheds light on which public figures deserve monuments and whether simply because a statue exists, all arguments should be shut down about whether it should have been there in the first place.

Examples abound elsewhere. Brussels still boasts a statue of King Leopold, a man responsible for the deaths of millions of Congolese labourers, while Spain hosts the Valley of the Fallen - a lurid and grotesque tribute to fascism given how the bodies of the scores of Republicans who fought against Franco still lie in unmarked graves. It's an interesting contrast to how we often applaud modern examples of statues being pulled down, such as those of Saddam and Gadaffi, but as other blood-drenched figures who inspired monuments start to recede into history, we are content to close down debate by insisting that 'it's what they did back then' - an argument which seems to frequently be trotted out in defence of the statue in front of Oriel College (an institution, it's worth pointing out, that Cecil Rhodes only attended for one term).

The need to be aware of how modern bias can colour our reading of the past is an important dimension to any debate about history, but it's often a lazily-deployed tactic. In this case, the sub-text seems to be that Rhodes was merely a man of his time. While this might be true, it ignores how his views were extreme even by the standards of the 'civilising mission,' and skates over the many stakeholders of empire, particularly missionaries, who were appalled by the sort of violent and exploitative imperialism that Rhodes championed.

Iconoclasm also has a long, and some would say distinguished, tradition in art, particularly in the UK - the Tate Britain paid tribute to it recently with its exhibition 'Art Under Attack.' The idea that a statue shouldn't be pulled down for its own sake misses how important it has been in the history of art to challenge the idea that physical tributes to public figures should always be unquestioningly protected.

It also feels like to many, the reluctance to topple Uncle Cecil betrays a nostalgia for a time when Britain's rule over vast swathes of the globe was unparalleled. We still seem to be a bit too fond of our despots, and as such, a fall from grace is well overdue. Far from whitewashing history, it would be a re-balancing act.