We have been discussing the destruction of public art and history monuments by mobs who are often allowed to carry out such acts without police intervention, a problem that pre-existed the current protests (here and here and here). It was particularly alarming to see statues defaced or destroyed in London, including (bizarrely) a statue of Abraham Lincoln. The response in London and Paris is strikingly different but, in this tale of two cities, it is London that seems to be surrendering to the hysteria of the moment.
Protesters often faced no intervention in London as they defaced public art and later London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced that he would yield to demands to take down statues of imperialist figures and create a commission to “review and improve diversity.” In his statement, Khan said that he no longer wanted to see “statues, road names and public spaces reflect a bygone era.” He declared “The Black Lives Matter protests have rightly brought this to the public’s attention, but it’s important that we take the right steps to work together to bring change and ensure that we can all be proud of our public landscape.” To that end, he said that the city would replace historic statuary with representatives of the black and Asian minority ethnic communities, as well as women, the LGBTQ community and disability groups.
I have previously discussed my love for London and its rich history. As a history nut, walking around London is an overwhelming and inspiring experience. To see the response of Khan to this destruction and his plans to remove historical monuments is terribly distressing. I have long supported adding to historical monuments to bring greater context and diversity. This however seems like a pledge to remove history, literally, from the streets of London.
Over in Paris, the response has been very different from French President Emmanuel Macron who vowed to stand with history and resist efforts to down statues of controversial or colonial-era figures. Macron showed incredible courage in refusing to rewrite the history of France and declared “the republic will not erase any trace, or any name, from its history … it will not take down any statue.” Instead, he insisted that “We should look at all of our history together with lucidity.”
I would not only say lucidity but logic. Paris and London are magnificent examples of the history of civilization, struggling with our best and worst motivations. The public art is a reminder of that history. We should work together to understand it, not rewrite it. Yet as discussed today, we have professors and teachers leading the mob in tearing down monuments and public art.
I have been highly critical of Macron for his anti-free speech efforts. However, he deserves praise for this principled stand, which must be very difficult for him in Paris where mobs have demanded the destruction of public art and monuments.
So there you have it. Two cities and one profile of courage. As Charles Dickens wrote:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”