Toppling statues sends crucial signal to racists

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/31 19:18:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Before I wrote this piece, I had to go to Manhattan's Chinatown to take a look at two statues there. It's not that I've never seen them. The statue of Confucius, the ancient Chinese philosopher, and the statue of Lin Zexu, a Qing Dynasty government official known for his iron fist in banning opium, have been there long before I arrived in New York. They were erected in the 1970s and 1990s.

Normally, there is little chance these statues will make my sightseeing list - I've been to Chinatown too many times to gawk at any of its cultural aspects. But this is not a normal time. When more and more statues all over town - the bigger town of New York that is - are under attack, I just wanted to make sure they were OK

The movement that aims to topple statues - if it can be called a movement - has been brewing for years and has quickly picked up momentum after the collision between white supremacists and their anti-racist opponents during a rally in Charlottesville, Virginia led to one death and many injuries.

The tragedy happened at a demonstration of the so-called "alt-right" to protest against the removal of a statue of the Confederate icon General Robert E. Lee. A white supremacist protester, apparently agitated by those on the other side, sped a car into their crowd.

After the tragedy, President Donald Trump blamed "many sides" at a press conference and taunted the statue cops on Twitter: "Robert E Lee, Stonewall Jackson - who's next, Washington, Jefferson? So foolish!"

The question proved to be legitimate. Since then, statues, monuments and name plaques around the country have come down one after another. Most of the symbols represented the Confederate side in the Civil War, from General Lee and General Jackson to anonymous soldiers.

But now the sights have been set at a broader range of candidates: Christopher Columbus, the Italian voyager who initiated the European colonization of America for the suppression he brought to the continent's indigenous people; J. Marion Sims, a 19th century physician known as the father of modern gynecology for having conducted experimental surgeries on slaves without anesthesia; Peter Stuyvesant, the Dutch governor who ruled New York before it was named New York for being anti-Semitic.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has announced a task force to review all the statues and monuments in the city and remove those that are considered "symbols of hate."

No one has mentioned the statues of Confucius and Lin in Chinatown yet. But if the fever gathers pace, who knows what's going to happen.

The philosopher, although known for his wisdom and high moral standards, called for people to be absolutely submissive to their emperors and women to their husbands. He was a diehard defender of a vicious feudal system. And Lin, although touted as a hero in China, was blamed for blocking international trade and even for causing the opium wars between Britain and China by some historians. 

Of course, this sounds absurd. And these two statues are safer than many other statues because they are located in Chinatown, where most people think statue-toppling activities have reached a ridiculous pitch. And people outside of Chinatown normally don't care what's going on inside the insular area.

But, hey, who knows? Given that ESPN decided that it couldn't afford to have an Asian-American sportscaster called Robert Lee as its commentator for a college football game in Virginia after the Charlottesville incident, it won't be a surprise that any absurdity could occur in this brouhaha.

The fact is that history always has its dark periods, and no one can behave out of the context of the historic period he or she lives in. The key for reasonable criteria for the hall of fame is to see whether the dark side of a person can define his or her whole life. By this standard, some of the figures listed above are not defensible, while others can certainly be forgiven.

In normal times, this article would have served its mission by coming to a sensible conclusion like this. But again, this is not a normal time.

This is a time when the president is considered a friend by white supremacists, hate groups are increasingly active, and racial tensions are boiling over.

So let me wrap up with this note: toppling statues without boundaries may sound meaningless and even laughable. But the message it sends out is critically important - racism, no matter who, when, where and how, won't be tolerated. 

The author is a New York-based journalist.


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