The Selective Iconoclasm Of The Far-Right
Dr. Carmen Aguilera-Carnerero is a lecturer at the department of English and German Philology at the University of Granada (Spain) as well as a senior research fellow at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR).
On May 25th, a great part of the world was shaken after watching how the 46-year-old US citizen George Floyd was killed at the hands of four local police agents while he was in custody in the streets of Minneapolis. Floyd’s agony – as he begged for breath – and his ultimate death was video recorded and became viral in minutes. A civil uprising was quickly sparked, entailing a lot of protests in different parts of the country led by the Black Lives Matter movement.
Despite the fact the world was just opening up after the globalized lockdown imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the seriousness of the event woke up the consciences of many citizens and impelled them to take immediate action. Lootings, riots, and mostly peaceful demonstrations started in many parts of the US as a way of channeling the outrage for the oppression the African-American population has been going through for too long. Just in 2019, 999 citizens were killed in shootings by the police with a disproportioned higher percentage of black victims, evidence that was dismissed by the US president.
Donald Trump quickly reacted against the protests by making the public announcement that Antifa was going to be listed as a terrorist group as well as declaring he would arrest and fine those who vandalized the confederate monuments, attacked by the protesters as the epitome of discriminatory values inherited from the past. With both decisions, not only did the president disregard the root of the problem- the deeply ingrained structural and systemic racism in US society- but found an easy solution in blaming an imaginary scapegoat: a group of far-left, anti-fascist and anarchist citizens who were presumably the instigators of the riots. That was an empty threat, though, since Antifa is not an organization with a clear membership or an overt leadership which makes it virtually impossible to arrest. As usual, Trump’s decisions were quickly backed up by Spanish far-right party VOX on the name of concepts such as the defense of freedom and private property.
The civil uprising triggered by Floyd’s death was not only restricted to the African American population or circumscribed to the US territory, it was also extended to other historically oppressed ethnic, religious, and social groups. In many countries all around the globe, citizens fought against the racism they’ve experienced, vandalizing busts of slave traders or colonial rulers. Thus, statues of King Leopold II were attacked and removed in Belgium; in England, sculptures of Edward Colston, Cecil Rhodes, Robert Milligan or Winston Churchill among others were pulled down while in South Africa -a nation with a long tradition of attacking images set in public spaces- took out the statues of Queen Victoria among many of the controversial historical figures mentioned above. President Macron in France and Prime Minister Boris Johnson in England contended that they were not going to tolerate the removal of images in their countries.
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Both the practice and the debate on iconoclasm is not a recent topic and one just needs to go back to our recent history to find examples of attacks on statues in the public urban space. As historian Enzo Traverso argues, the Vendôme Column was removed by the commoners during the French Revolution and in the 60s Stalin’s figure was taken out in Budapest by the insurgents, just to give a couple of examples of the hundred we can find. However, this “iconoclast rage”, as Traverso qualifies it, does have different consequences depending on who does the pulling down and who the removed character is since the acceptance or refusal of the action is simply based on the political agenda of those in power.
It’s not easy to find the dissident voices who complained when Sadam Hussein’s images were torn down by American soldiers in Baghdad in 2010. On the contrary, a great part of the world applauded the gesture as the symbol of the liberation of a country from an unbearable dictatorship. President Macron stated he was not going to allow the erasure of their history and the achievements of their country. Actually, we all agree that history cannot be undone, edited or re-written but at least, it should be approached critically and the first consequence of this is the reconsideration of the place given to problematic historical figures in prominent public spaces.
Spanish’ society is in so many ways radically different from the US’, and the country – still very much wounded by the socio-economic sequels by COVID-19- has not been immersed in racial struggles even remotely alike to the North American country. Without a doubt, the most controversial figure in the history of Spain in the context of these protests, is Christopher Columbus, considered by many as the father of the colonization of the Americas which would explain that images of him were removed in more than 20 states in US.
In Spain, VOX’s spokesperson, Jorge Buxadé, stated that only illiterate people would want to remove the statues while he considered that kind of symbolic acts were symptomatic of societies that had uprooted their traditions and customs. hey also demanded the government condemn and arrest the vandalizers of public property. Indeed, the far-right party organized a march to make a human chain to physically protect the emblematic Columbus’ statue at Las Ramblas in Barcelona on the 27th june against what they called the threats of the “progre(ssist), terrorist and antifa vandalism”. It was presented as a symbolic act to defend the Spanish and historical values as they showed in their campaign below whose motto was “our history is untouchable: it is to be defended”.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
What is a bit striking is that VOX’s fervent defence of statues is working for the far-right force only on certain occasions. During the political campaign for the presidential elections in 2019, Rocío Monasterio, the candidate of the party to become the president of the Autonomous Community of Madrid, promised the Ché Guevara’s bust would be taken out from the city of Leganés since a totalitarian ideology such as communism should not be glorified. The removal of the Che’s image was not justified in terms of national identity (he is not a Spanish historical character, for instance) or in terms of context (what the relationship of the Ché with that city in Madrid was) but merely based on ideology.
So, VOX is not against iconoclasm but against a selected type of iconoclasm. Since its birth, the far-right party showed their preferences for specific events in the history of Spain such as the Reconquista, la batalla de las Navas de Tolosa, los Tercios de Flandes, la Toma de Granada as well as for political figures such as el Cid, Don Pelayo, Ferdinand III ‘the Saint’, the Catholic Kings or just to mention a few and overtly dispreferred others such as Almanzor, Blas Infante or Al-Andalus. That kind of ideological sieve is also erasing our history, shadowing part of our glorious past where Al-Andalus, just to mention one of the examples they reject, turned the country into the cradle of knowledge in the Western World from the 8th to the 11th centuries.
We can support or disapprove the methods of protest, discuss the attacks on images in public spaces or even open the dialogue for the inclusion or exclusion of busts and statues in urban landscapes but we should also question what kind of motivations compel people to display such extreme behavior and try to tackle the roots of the problem. Deviating the attention towards the vandalization of public property -as bad or as good as we could think it is- implies choosing to be blind about deeply rooted problems that affect a great sector of the population and therefore foster the perpetuation of them in a not so distant future.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.