13 June 2020

Fallen Idols

Over the last few years there has been a lot of talk of statues, and some have been removed after people have protested about them. This has occasioned a flurry of articles about whether this is a good or a bad thing. One of the better ones is Statue wars | blog post by Mary Beard - The TLS.

I'm rather curious about what provokes such heart-searching, though. I didn't notice such articles when the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in 2003 was in the news. Nobody seemed to be complaining then about the loss or destruction of history.

Yet when people were demanding the removal of statues of Cecil Rhodes, quite a lot of people were bemoaning the "loss of history". What is the difference?

There are actually quite a lot of similarities between Saddam Hussein and Cecil Rhodes.

Saddam Hussein sent the Iraqi army to invade a neighbouring country, Kuwait.

Cecil Rhodes sent his private mercenary army to invade two countries -- first in 1890 he invaded Mashonaland and later used that as a springboard for a botched invasion and attempted putsch in the South African Republic, which was stymied rather as Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was stymied.

The major difference between the two was that Saddam Hussein used his country's army, whereas Rhodes's invasion was a matter of private enterprise.

Another difference is that Saddam Hussein's statue was erected while he was in power, and its fall was almost simultaneous with the fall of the prototype.

Rhodes's statue, on the other hand, was erected after his fall from power and more than 30 years after his death. I am not sure about Saddam Hussein, but the various statues of Cecil Rhodes were symbols of a cult that grew after his death.For more details on that, see That hideous strength and Rhodes must fall | Khanya.

It is not unusual for political leaders to become the centre of cults,  and Christians have a tradition of objecting to this -- see here, for example Russian Orthodox Church Outraged by Appearance of 'Stalin Icon'.And some lovers of "history" deplore the Christian tendency to destroy pagan cult statuary. As the historian Ronald Hutton puts it:

The pagan Roman empire executed hundreds of Christians for refusing to endorse the validity of its system and its religion, and it did so in appalling ways. By contrast, once in power the Christians tended to attack deities but spare humans. There is no recorded case of an execution of a pagan in the first two centuries of the Christian Roman Empire.

And in many cases, attacking deities is what the modern iconoclasts are doing. I don't generally feel strongly about statues that are not linked to active cults. Most of them are of people who were morally flawed like most of us. The equestrian statue of Louis Botha in the grounds of the Union Buildings is not, as far as I am aware, a pagan cult object. While he was alive and in power he had his supporters and detractors, and he, like most of us, did good things and bad things. Let him be.

But Rhodes was definitely the object of a cult, as was Edward Colston, whose statue was recently uprooted from Bristol and tossed into the harbour, like the sick slaves from his ships that through illness had lost their commercial value. That statue, like most of those of Rhodes, was erected long after his death, and it too was the centre of an idolatrous pagan cult.

So I tend to agree with the author of this article Expert: Why I Welcome the Decision to Throw Bristol’s Edward Colston Statue in the River | The National Interest.

I'll conclude with the same quote from G.K. Chesterton that I used my my review of the book on The cult of Rhodes | Khanya:
Rhodes had no principles whatever to give to the world. He had only a hasty but elaborate machinery for spreading the principles that he hadn’t got. What he called his ideals were the dregs of a Darwinism which had already grown not only stagnant but poisonous. That the fittest must survive and that only one like himself must be the fittest; that the weakest must go to the wall, and that anyone he could not understand must be the weakest.

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