No, John Cleese, Confederate Statues Have Little Historical Value, But Only Perpetuate Social Discord

An open letter to a comedian whose work I’ve always admired

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The Emancipation Statue in Washington D.C. is not a Confederate statue, but is deeply offensive nonetheless.

Mr. John Cleese, the British comedian and founding member of the Monty Python comedy troupe, you indicated that you do not understand why Americans would want to tear down statues commemorating leaders and generals of the Confederacy. In your account as @JohnCleese, you stated:

“I’m very confused about toppling statues… The Greeks, whose civilisation [sic] has long been admired in the West, believed that in the Ancient World, a cultured society was only possible if it was based on slavery

So should we be getting rid of statues of Socrates and Aristotle?

His next tweet:

Similarly, the Romans enslaved the British for 400 years. So are we due reparations from the Italians?

And Sir Isaac Newton was a shareholder in the South Sea Company, which included slave trading among its activities

What do we do about his statues? It’s rather complicated

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Screenshot of John Cleese’s tweets (the bottom tweet preceded the top tweet)

[Edit: Some respondents have claimed Mr. Cleese’s tweets were not about statues of Confederate leaders. However, if one checks his Twitter account for that day — June 11, 2020 — the tweet immediately preceding the tweets in question was one insulting Trump for his use of the White House bunker, and he has no other tweets on that day referring to statues outside of America. I stand by my claims in this article.]

Sir, you may not realize that slavery in America is not ancient history. Current Affairs editor-in-chief Nathan Robinson provides a fitting reality check:

Slavery is not only not just ancient history. It is, in fact, incredibly recent. It is so recent that the daughters of ex-slaves are still walking the earth. It is so recent that there are elderly African Americans who remember sitting on the laps of their own grandparents, who were born into slavery. Today, as I write, people are touching the hands that touched the hands of ex-slaves. As far as the lifespan of the species goes, slavery wasn’t just recent. It was yesterday.

And this doesn’t even address the Jim Crow era. I’ve often written how I remember seeing marble plaques reading “Whites” and “Coloreds” above separate entrances to the only doctor’s office in Shaw, Mississippi in 1984 (twenty years after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act), and how the Mississippi state legislature didn’t finalize ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment — the one banning slavery — until 2013. Yes, seven years ago.

Mr. Cleese, being born and raised in the United Kingdom, you cannot know the depth of America’s still-open wound of racism. However, your father served in World War One, and he might have been able to relate to you how Black American soldiers were amazed to find that British and French people treated them as equals, as compared to the segregation enforced on them by White American officers. In fact,

in August 1918 the army drew up guidelines to explain to the French how they should treat black soldiers. Called “Secret Information Concerning Black American Troops,” this document instructed French military and civilian officials in the finer points of American race relations. It noted that whereas many French were inclined to be friendly toward blacks, in America it was imperative to maintain strict separation of the races in order to prevent “mongrelization,” and that white Americans saw such friendliness as offensive. Implicit was the threat that American aid might be withheld if the French did not learn the proper way of dealing with blacks. (Washington Post)

I’m sure you believe as strongly as I do that slavery is always wrong. But as far as I can find, only in America was slavery ever enforced based solely upon the color of one’s skin. What’s more, there is no instance I know of where a nation’s raison d’etre for war was to preserve the institution of slavery. Most tellingly, those statues of Confederate leaders were not erected to commemorate a leader or scholar (as is certainly the case with Socrates and Aristotle), but to cement the tradition of white supremacy here in America. This article by NPR shows how the great majority of statues of Confederate leaders were erected in two periods: the beginning of the Jim Crow era, and during the Civil Rights struggle. The correlations are much too strong to be merely coincidental.

Mr. Cleese, I have always enjoyed your work, and I am certain you, not being American, are ignorant of most (perhaps all) of the information in this article. I can only hope you will read this and become more aware of how strongly racist much of America remains even today.

[Edit: In response to a kind and accurate criticism by a reader, I changed the title of the article to better reflect its contents.]

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