Monumental follies

NORTH Korea has lately stood out as a nation determined to keep pouring its meagre resources into nuclear weaponry and means of delivering it. A missile that flew over Japan last week was followed by a purported hydrogen bomb test, and the claim that the two technologies are now capable of being jointly deployed, with devastating consequences.
Perhaps inevitably, the American riposte has also revolved around the threat of mass destruction, alongside Donald Trump’s almost universally discounted warning to break off trade relations with any nation that has economic dealings with North Korea, given that a global recession is deemed to be a likely consequence of shutting down US-China commerce.
One can only hope that whatever comes next will not entail any bloodshed. In some eyes it boils down to a contest for craziness between the US president and Kim Jong-un – and, ominously, everyone knows that Trump is determined to be seen as second to none, to the extent of seemingly even suggesting that the horrendous scale of Hurricane Harvey somehow redounded to his credit.
Pyongyang, meanwhile, does not restrict its ambitions to nuclear and missile technologies. It also excels in putting up monuments, all too many of them taking the shape of larger-than-life representations of Kim’s dad and granddad, respectively Dear Leader Kim Jong-il and Great Leader Kim Il-sung, their invariably golden visages beaming down at citizens who cannot risk walking past without a respectful bow. Whether or not there is another Korean war, it is more than likely most of these statues will crumble one day, with the remainder possibly carted off to some kind of museum of horrors. This is obviously not a debate that is consuming North Korea at the moment, but the arguments over history reignited by last month’s clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, are being echoed across the Anglosphere, from Canada and Britain down to Australia.
In fact, well before Charlottesville appeared on the international radar, a controversy raged in and around the English university town of Oxford over a statue at Oriel College of Cecil Rhodes, an 18th-century colonialist who made his fortune in southern Africa, and whose surname was incorporated in the nomenclature of Rhodesia. It lives on in the Rhodes scholarships. No one seriously questions the fact that Rhodes was deeply racist in his attitudes, like most colonial administrators. But then, European imperialism by its very nature was based on white supremacist notions – which, it must be acknowledged, live on in various forms. On the other hand, given that hardly anyone associates Rhodes scholars with the abhorrent attitudes of the man whose name the scholarships bear, does the tag really matter? Well, perhaps it does if it substantially contributes to the whitewashing of history – and not just in the colonial context. The recent arguments against demolishing statues have revolved around pretty much the same arguments. That they are historical monuments whose removal would be tantamount to destroying the past. That the figures represented by the statues may seem reprehensible in retrospect but they had redeeming features in the context of the times in which they lived, and it’s unfair to judge the likes of Admiral Nelson and Captain Cook from the vantage point of 21st-century morality.
Some of these points cannot be dismissed out of hand, and one of the proposed remedies has been to rewrite the plaques on the plinths of the statues to reflect a closer approximation of reality. But the supplementary questions in that case would be: who will do the rewriting, and would it be any less contentious? Another alternative, which has already been the practice in some countries, is to remove the statues from public spaces and place them in museums, where there is greater scope for a more fruitful debate on the pros and cons of particular personalities.

Source : Dawn


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