#Charlottesville and why Liberals are fighting a worthy battle

Histories and heroes must be scrutinised and flawed heroes must make way for better ones.

WrittenBy:Abhinandan Sekhri
Date:
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This piece by the gentle and articulate Samrat, who, we are fortunate, writes regularly for Newslaundry, is one that I disagree with – intensely. It was the weekend, I found time to write why.

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This is about the fracas in Charlottesville regarding the removal of a statue of General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army.

Let me start with what Samrat ends with.

“If Liberals want to do something real, they should end the systematic loot of at least one African or Asian country by sharks in suits. Or bring to justice at least one war criminal who destroyed a country and caused the deaths of a few hundred thousand, or perhaps a few million, people.

I am certain they will never attempt anything of the kind.”

This kind of first you do X, then you do Y is a terrible argument, specially made to “liberals” in general. Civil society pressure to get a statue removed in their town is not the same as getting the International Court of Justice to try and convict an alleged war criminal. Ability, resources, opportunity, knowledge, access and many other things including life, get in the way of that. To even suggest the equivalence of civil society mobilisation for a statue to getting a conviction in a court of justice is preposterous. It is as fair as someone telling Samrat that first go get a shark in a suit you are referring to arrested or get a war criminal convicted before you write a piece commenting on anything related to it or asking someone to do the same. Toppling a statue that is a symbol of an inhuman ideology is not as meaningless as an article telling us why it is a waste of time, or one rebutting it, that you are reading now. But they did what they could, Samrat did what he can and I am doing likewise. If none of this matters, then let’s not do a thing. But we do, because – life.

I have said this before in another piece I wrote that made a similar argument, that the biggest problem with giving causes worth fighting for a hierarchy to legitimise them, is that then nothing else matters other than environmental issues. If we destroy the planet and all life on it making it unliveable, then none of our moral, political or ideological arguments are of any consequence because humanity won’t exist. So do I have to prove my credentials by first shutting down a polluting industry and saving the planet, and only then advance any idea that may remain on it? Because you know, no earth, no life. But we all do, because – life.

The piece says.

“In the present debate over the statues of Confederate leaders in the US, President Donald Trump pointed out that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were also slave owners in their time. “Is it George Washington next week and is it Thomas Jefferson the week after? You have to ask yourself where does it stop?” Trump said.

Mr Trump is not popular with Left liberals in the US, to put it very mildly, but in this instance, he does seem to have a point.”

No, he does not. And to understand why we need to understand why the American Civil War took place and what the Confederate Army was. Before I come to the common sense layman argument against this very flawed logic here are historians debunking this equivalence convincingly. But even leaving aside the details provided by historians consider this; the Confederate States of America were the southern states of the United States of America that seceded and fought a war with the Union to what they called “preserve the southern way of life”. A euphemism for a system which wanted to continue with slavery and allow only whites political privilege. The American civil war was a one-issue war. It was not some complicated geopolitical game that included oil, lobbying, local religious tensions, out of control terror groups, tribal militia, refugees and a whole lot of other things that have dictated all modern day wars. It was simply between people who believed human beings cannot be property and those who believed the black man was property – like cattle. That is all. That is what General Lee fought for. That is all he is known for. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson may have owned slaves which many people did, but that’s not what they fought for, and in fact wanted to change. The same logic holds true for Samrat’s use of what Chris Patten said about Cecil Rhodes. If future generations in a few hundred years believe that these slave-owning men and imperialists are not worthy of having public monuments dedicated to them, that’s great. That will mean they have heroes and role models a lot more perfect than the ones that our generations have and I hope they do. Bapu, my absolute hero, was no saint. He had many flaws including treating his wife (like almost all men did at the time and many do today) as an extension of his ambitions, ideas, and whims. Will I fight for every statue of his being taken down? No. Will I be aghast at statues of Nathuram Godse and General Dyer being erected and march against them? Yes. Because Bapu’s fame is for something noble and unparalleled even as he was a deeply flawed man but Godse and Dyer’s fame or infamy is for one act alone. Just like General Lee. What made them famous was evil. Who knows, they may have been wonderful with their families and friends and activists to save plants and cows. People are like that in life.

Now, this.

“What the actions of Hitler, Churchill, Stalin and Truman all reveal is the utter disregard they had for human life. It is a testimony to the power of what Trump calls “fake news” media that Churchill and Truman have escaped anything like the opprobrium Hitler and Stalin got.”

The similarity attempted between Hitler, Stalin, Churchill, and Truman are false equivalences that I see as attempts to normalise the worst kind of despotism with everyone-does-it-so-don’t-single-them-out. Hitler had a world view and his entire existence can be compressed into what that stood for – the SS and Nazi Germany. Do we put Netaji Subhas Bose into the same category for his flirtation with the Nazis? By the equivalences, the piece tries to establish it is possible to push every leader in the world into the same category since injustices at a mass scale have been overseen by the heads of state of every country. But that is not what defined all of them. This is so like Trump saying that there were “many sides” to blame for what happened in Charlottesville. The assumption is that one side has to be perfect in the Jesus’s “let him who has not sinned cast the first stone” kind of attitude. That pretty much suggests all conversations around anything comes to naught if we wait for the perfect being, institution, leader, political party to be the counter balance for a hideous and vicious ideology. If everything is the same then why bother articulating a view about anything? But we do, because – life.

The piece makes similar points about Kissinger and Nixon (not that I foresee any statues being erected in their memory). The airport at Houston named after George H. W. Bush also has his statue up there. When I saw it, I was irritated. Especially since I had been racially profiled at the LA airport a few days earlier, and this when his son was shitting all over the world. Manmohan Singh was more than warm to him and did his best to get India whatever he could, namely the nuclear deal. So Manmohan Singh is responsible for or sympathetic to atrocities in Guantanamo Bay? You see this line of argument is so spectacularly flawed that it takes whataboutery to a level of nihilism because then nothing matters. But many things do because – life.

“The battle against racism has largely been won, in the same sense that Francis Fukuyama said history has ended. The idea of racism is in the dustbin of history.”

Values, ethics, and morality in any age are not in an inert state of a fixed equilibrium. It is a state that is constantly wobbling and shifting with pressures and counter-pressures. Complacency by progressive groupings makes that equilibrium shift in a direction that leads to conservative and primitive attitudes resurfacing as is happening in many countries including our own. There are people who believe in the Nazi ideology across the world. There will be racists, bigots, religious fanatics and ideologues of the worst kind. They will want to impose their world-view and want to shift the equilibrium in their direction to what is called “the new normal” by political pundits and commentators. The same will be true for people who have all sorts of other beliefs, some that we may not even know of yet. All sides will try to achieve this by erecting or destroying statues, burning libraries, by rewriting history text books, hailing cowards as heroes and getting their portraits hung in halls of parliament, colleges, public parks and city squares. This will be done by terror organizations like ISIS, by dictators and by democratically elected governments across the world. It is also not a “left liberal” or a “religious right” divide as the piece erroneously tries to frame it. Everyone does it and will continue to. It is not insignificant. It is how ideologies are established and legitimised. There will not be easy answers all the time for what to pull down and what not to.

People are complex, heroes are flawed, histories are contextual, politicians are clever and politics is convenience. These debates must be had. Histories and heroes must be scrutinised and flawed heroes must make way for better ones. That is how societies evolve, and evolution is – life.

The author can be contacted on Twitter @abhinandansekhr.

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