In the Critics this week

John Gray on Brian Leiter, Leo Robson on Julian Barnes and Kate Mossman on Kylie Minogue.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, our lead book reviewer John Gray reviews Why Tolerate Religion? by the American political philosopher Brian Leiter. “Why treat religiously based claims of conscience as morally privileged, while denying similar exemption to others?” Gray asks. “How such conflicts can be settled is far from clear but Leiter believes there is no reason for giving religions any special standing.” There is nothing special about religion, Gray goes on: “Clinging to beliefs against evidence is a universal human tendency … Toleration means accepting that most of our beliefs are always going to be unwarranted.”

Also in Books: Leo Robson reviews Julian Barnes’s essay collection Through the Window, and is put off by Barnes’s “rivalrous, gossip-minded and passive-aggressive” writerly persona – “Even the most enthusiastic essays here are full of rib-nudges and eye pokes”; Antonia Quirke reviews Richard Burton’s diaries, the “most captivating book of the year”; Vernon Bogdanor reviews Making Thatcher’s Britain, a collection of essays on the legacy of Thatcherism, and The Conservatives Since 1945 by Tim Bale; and David Shariatmadari reviews Sara Maitland’s exploration of the fairy tale, Gossip From the Forest.

This week’s Critic at large is writer and psychotherapist Talitha Stevenson, who asks why so many of the pathologies of modern life are assuming a form previously thought to be peculiar to creative writers. “As a psychotherapist I see people with solicitor’s block and banker’s block and designer’s block and surgeon’s block – and the pain is the same pain in each case.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: NS pop critic Kate Mossman reviews Kylie Minogue’s The Abbey Road Sessions (“Minogue has become a mannequin upon which her fans project grand abstracts like joy, strength, liberation and love”); Matt Trueman reviews Trojan Women at the Gate Theatre and Arab Nights at the Soho Theatre; Antonia Quirke enjoys an episode of Radio 3’s The Essay; Rachel Cooke defends the BBC’s arts presenter Waldemar Januszczak; and Ryan Gilbey welcomes Thomas Vinterberg’s The Hunt as “a Midwich Cuckoos for the Savile era”.

Kylie Minogue performing in Sydney, 2011 (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)
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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia