The Banality of Racism and the Tearing Down of Statues

A vandalized statue of the Belgian soldier, explorer, and official for the Congo Free State, General Storms is seen on the Square de Meeus on June 14, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium. The statue of "General Storms", one of the Belgians commissioned by King Leopold II to colonize the Congo in the 19th century, will soon be unbolted and moved to the Africa Museum, where the bust of Emile Pierre Joseph Storms will be "contextualized." (Photo; Thierry Monasse/Getty Images)

The Banality of Racism and the Tearing Down of Statues

As long as those stone or bronze testaments to a "heritage" or a "way of life" remain fixed in their places, they will continue to permeate our sense of what is just and acceptable in human relations.

In a spurt of public sphere transformations ignited by Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. and worldwide, hoary statues and monuments symbolizing racist and colonial histories are being rapidly toppled, defaced, and removed. Among them are those honoring Confederate leaders (Richmond, Norfolk, Alexandria, and Portsmouth in Virginia; Montgomery, Birmingham, and Mobile in Alabama; Louisville, Kentucky; Jacksonville, Florida; Houston, Texas; Camden, New Jersey), the genocidal adventurer Christopher Columbus (St. Paul, Minnesota; Boston, Massachusetts), and slave traders, colonialists, and propounders of racist philosophy and policies (Bristol, London, Oxford, Edinburgh in the UK; Antwerp, Belgium; Hamilton, New Zealand).

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has long supported the retention of the controversial Columbus statue towering over the city's eponymous Circle, even while vowing to remove symbols of "hate." The murder of George Floyd and the ensuing swell of protests globally and locally to demolish both the symbols and the practices of structural racism have not changed his stance. Meanwhile, at a press conference last Thursday, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo made a convoluted argument for keeping statues honoring Columbus intact. As reported by CNN:

"The Christopher Columbus statue represents in some ways the Italian American legacy in the country, and the Italian American contribution in this country," he said. "I understand the feelings about Christopher Columbus and some of his acts which nobody would support, but the statue has come to represent and signify appreciation for the Italian American contribution to New York so for that reason I support it."

In other words, the guy who set in motion the liquidation of tens of millions of indigenous people has come to represent "the Italian American contribution" to the U.S., thus making it anti-Italian to absent him from daily public view. Perhaps it would be more respectful of Italians to sever the association?

Columbus is a durable favorite in the world of identity politics. In a 1992 essay, "Deconstructing the Columbus Myth: Was the 'Great Discoverer' Italian or Spanish, Nazi or Jew?" the ethnic studies scholar Ward Churchill explored the macabre absurdity of multiple ethnic groups claiming him as one of their own. His conclusion: Columbus stands not as any one of these but rather as "the penultimate European of his age, the emblematic personality of all that Europe was, had been, and would become in the course of its subsequent expansion across the face of the earth." Churchill finds an apt analogy for Columbus in the fictional character Hannibal Lecter, the urbane, refined cannibal who dines on the livers of those he kills by candlelight, the organs paired with a good wine and tasteful music. Churchill observes, "Ultimately, so long as Lecter is able to retain his mask of omnipotent gentility, he can never be stopped. The socio-cultural equivalent of Hannibal Lecter is the core of an expansionist European 'civilization,' which has reached out to engulf the planet."

Today's dethroners of the august slaughterers we hold so dear have by their actions already renovated public discourse; numerous pundits have remarked upon the rapidity of this shift. As Churchill reckons, "If we force ourselves to see things clearly, we can understand. If we can understand, we can apprehend. If we can apprehend, perhaps we can stop the psychopath before he kills again."

What purpose did these stolid artifacts that are now being dismantled serve? The French theorist of propaganda Jacques Ellul might say they were crucial machinery in the "propaganda of integration," his designation for modes of enculturation which are so all-encompassing as to be imperceptible. When most people speak of propaganda, they refer to what he calls the "propaganda of agitation"--which would include, for example, the Pope's exhortation to die in a Crusade in the service of Christ, the Nazi spectacle captured in the film Triumph of the Will, or George W. Bush's "You're either with us or with the terrorists"--all designed to arouse passions that lead to immediate action.

The propaganda of integration, conversely, is so quiet and pervasive it goes unnoticed. It instills an enthusiasm for conformity in individuals through the repetition of customs, rituals, and habits; it stabilizes society by planting ideologies so subtly and permanently in our souls that it effects a "persuasion from within." In the United States, for example, television commercials, "historical" information installed in national park welcome centers, the presence of God on our coins, and the singing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at sporting events all scramble symbols of faith, consumerism, liberty, nature, community, wholesome fun, and patriotism into one deliciously indivisible mix. What some would call "propaganda" or even "indoctrination," others would simply call the everyday facts of our lives.

Theorists of propaganda have long sought to explain the difference between "propaganda" and "education"--with little success, as education is an essential element of socialization, inducting people into the belief system of their particular society. Education and propaganda both find their venues in a wide swath of sites and institutions both inside and outside the walls of formal schooling. Statues of public figures deemed venerable, with plaques explaining their inestimable "contributions" to the lives of those who succeeded them, are among these venues. They dot the landscape and come to seem like integral, inevitable parts of that landscape. As a consequence, they come to seem like integral, inevitable parts of social life and human experience.

The British social psychologist Michael Billig used the term "banal nationalism" to describe the cumulative cognitive effect of those items that regularly signal what is normal and indubitable about everyday life. As with Ellul's "propaganda of integration," they are so omnipresent and thus so unremarkable as to be invisible. For Billig, the national flag is most potent in its "unwaved" state--that is, when it sits, passive and unsaluted but always in eyesight, in front of schools, the post office, and on people's lawns. It is but one of the "reminders of nationhood [that] serve to turn background space into homeland space." Others can be found in cultural artifacts such as Gone With the Wind, mall parking spots reserved for veterans only, and a "World Series" that does not extend beyond national borders.

Similarly, as long as those stone or bronze testaments to a "heritage" or a "way of life" remain fixed in their places, they will continue to permeate our sense of what is just and acceptable in human relations. Those who despoil them lay bare the insidious banality of racism. Like football players taking the knee, they are disrupting civilization as we know it. This is an essential public service.

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