Modern Iconoclasts

When the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar ordered the destruction of the monumental  Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001, and when ISIS demolished the Tetrapylon in Palmyra and pillaged museums in the territory it occupied, the world was astonished to witness the heritage of ancient peoples being erased, justified by a warped interpretation of religious texts. Is there not a danger in our own society that something similar is happening to our cultural heritage, albeit less brutal but just as effective? 

We are increasing being presented with an interpretation of our history through the prism of the woke agenda. Whether it be Britain’s involvement with the slave trade or literature that is deemed racist, misogynist or white supremacist, and while we are at it, why should music be exempt: Wagner was an acknowledged anti-Semite! The sequela of identifying certain artist, benefactors, entrepreneurs and even scientists as inherently “suspect” of peddling rather nasty ideas is to discredit them and consign their works and wealth to the biggest dustbin the world has ever seen. Where to start? Well, Shakespeare has to go, and so, I would argue, should Dickens, and T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound voiced racist views; and I am sure you could add to the list. Charles Darwin and Francis Galton could be put on the list for their views on race. 

Cancel Culture and Critical Race Theory are designed to discomfort the inheritors of what has shaped our society for better or for worse; by robbing people of what defines them you effectively render them barbarians, without meaningful culture. Apply the same reasoning to non-white cultures and the house would be brought down around your ears. Ancient civilisations accepted slavery and history books do not disguise this fact; but that does not prevent us from appreciating the artistic, literary and scientific achievements of these cultures. Those who study ancient Greece and Rome  have a rounded appreciation of these civilisations; and what is important is to resist the tendency to judge them by the mores of our time: that is bad history! One could justify, in a perverted, absurd way,  the destruction of the Parthenon and the Colosseum on the grounds that  women were rarely treated as equals, and certainly slaves were not; and what about animal cruelty? What is so apparent from the stream of accusations about white privilege and the exploitation of non-white populations is that bits of history remain untold, unacknowledged. Was slavery, for instance, peculiar to white populations in Europe and America? It certainly wasn’t, because we know African countries, particularly Nigeria, traded in salves, and Arabs were also heavily involved.

Rather than tearing down statutes, demonising past generations,  and accepting that no one racial group is better than another, let history tell its story, warts and all. How is a critical faculty to be developed if the past is edited to fit the prevailing value judgements? The young should be allowed to study with an open mind, not to be indoctrinated to view every episode of the past through the perspective of ideology.

About the Author
Peter John Beyfus is an historian, published author, poet, and a person who prides himself on “thinking outside the box”. I have written many essays on Jewish themes, published in various journals, including ‘Wessex Jewish News’ and ‘Westminster Quarterly’, the magazine of Westminster Synagogue, London.
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