Sharp Edges

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca

Empty pedestals wait for new icons

The name “Winston Smit” probably doesn’t immediately bring someone to mind. Good — that’s what author George Orwell wanted. He deliberately made Smith, the central character in Orwell’s most famous novel, 1984, an unassuming, ordinary, fade-into-the-background civil servant.

Winston Smith did a very ordinary, unassuming, kind of job.

He rewrote history.

Every day, the Ministry of Truth had him amend news reports that had appeared in the pages of London’s most prestigious newspaper, The Times, to make them conform to the government’s latest policies.

The originals were then destroyed.

When 1984 first came out, everyone assumed that Orwell’s target was Stalinist Russia. Which was, indeed, revising both history and culture to glorify communism.

If Winston Smith were alive today, he wouldn’t be working in a musty back room. He’d be out on the streets toppling statues.

Popular movements have taken over Winston Smith’s job. They’re rewriting history to what they think it should be by knocking down the icons of the past. Because the values those old icons represent are no longer looked up to.

The city council of Charlottesville — site of that infamous white-supremacist rally — voted to remove statues of both Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. A statue of Lee was taken down in New Orleans. Silent Sam was silenced at the University of North Carolina. Philadelphia deposed former mayor Frank Rizzo for his opposition to desegregation and gay rights.

In Britain, a statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled and dumped into Bristol harbour. Authorities removed Robert Milligan’s statue in front of London’s famed Canary Wharf, built on the site of Milligan’s old West India Docks.

In Belgium, King Leopold II’s statue was set on fire, then removed. Leopold turned the Belgian Congo into a brutal labour camp for producing rubber. Some 10 million Congolese died.

And in Canada too. Halifax took down a statue of Lord Cornwallis, a British naval officer who once served as governor of Nova Scotia, for his (mis)treatment of indigenous communities.

Out west, Victoria removed from its City Hall a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, honoured as Canada’s first prime minister, but denounced as an architect of the residential school system for indigenous children. Montreal is under pressure to do the same to its statue of Macdonald. And schools named for Macdonald all across the country are considering name changes.

The problem is, once you de-throne one icon, what do you replace it with?

Change the name?

The city of Kitchener was once Berlin, a regional centre for German-speaking immigrants. Until June 1916, in the middle of the First World War.

After indigenous leaders implicated Hector Langevin in the residential school system, Ottawa renamed the Langevin Building — to Office of the Prime Minister and Privy Council. Oh, whoopee!

In the U.S., dozens of cities and states have replaced Columbus Day with National Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The change at least recognizes that Columbus treated Caribbean peoples as brutally as King Leopold II treated Africans.

The Township of Russell, slightly southeast of Ottawa, came up with an ingenious solution. Once called Duncanville, it was renamed Russell to honour a man Mayor Pierre Leroux now calls “a corrupt politician who owned slaves and actively fought against the abolition of slavery in Canada.”

Rather than change its name, the township seeks a more suitable Russell to adopt as its namesake. (Disclosure: this story was drawn to my attention by my friend, James Russell.)

I have no objection to identifying the clay feet of figures we once venerated. I worry about who, or what, we will put up onto those empty pedestals.

Because every one of those iconic figures who have been pulled down was, at one time, admired. Respected. Even idolized.

Who can you find today who will not be equally subject to being de-throned in the future, as societal values change continue to evolve?

Besides, if they are simply “disappeared” — like so many who opposed ruthless regimes in Brazil and Argentina – how will future generations learn from their mistakes?

What we need to remember is that Sir John A was both right, and wrong. At the same time. So was Winston Churchill. And Mahatma Gandhi.

Everyone has flaws that critics, present or future, can and will exploit. Those flaws do not cancel whatever good that person accomplishes.

There is no such thing as wholly wrong, or wholly right.

Maybe the best representative to put up on all those empty pedestals would be Winston Smith himself.

Jim Taylor is an Okanagan Centre author and freelance journalist. He can be reached at rewrite@shaw.ca