In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing at the hands of police in 2020, citizens around the world began demanding that monuments of slave traders and other colonialist figures be permanently taken down. This desire for physical, palpable symbols of retribution has led to many different civic disputes unfolding simultaneously. In New York, a racist Teddy Roosevelt statue was recently removed from the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History, but in the United Kingdom, cultural institutions have been warned that they risk jeopardizing their government financial support if they take down controversial statues. Now, according to new reports, UK culture secretary Oliver Dowden is planning to tell cultural leaders that retaining these statues is essentially a matter of national identity.
Dowden, who’s already defended statues of figures associated with the transatlantic slave trade by writing that they “were created by generations with different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong,” is reportedly planning to tell British cultural leaders at an upcoming meeting that they have a responsibility to “defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down.” The UK government is also currently seeking Parliamentary approval for laws that would require individuals to first obtain explicit permission before removing any historic statue.
If these laws are approved, it may mean that the City of London Corporation will be prevented from following through on their plans to remove two statues of British politicians, William Beckford and Sir John Cass, who were linked to the transatlantic slave trade. It’s clear that the United Kingdom is invested in keeping symbolic reminders of the nation’s past in full view of its public, whether or not those symbols are now recognized to be problematic. Meanwhile, in the United States, the NYPD is reportedly keeping 24/7 watch over monuments to Christopher Columbus across the five boroughs due to fears of them being torn down by “psychotic leftists.” The more contentious things get around the world, the more bizarre the state and governmental response becomes.