Historical Statues And The West's Ideology Of Self-Hatred

Empty pedestal after a confederate statue was removed in Baltimore on Aug. 17
Empty pedestal after a confederate statue was removed in Baltimore on Aug. 17
Mathieu Bock-Côté

MONTREAL — In the aftermath of Charlottesville, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio announced that he was considering taking down a statue of Christopher Columbus because it could be offensive to Native Americans. If you were to believe it, this statue risked arousing hate, like so many symbols associated with European expansion and American colonization. In Canada, an Ontario teachers' union has proposed renaming schools that bear the name of John A. MacDonald, one of the country's founding fathers. In Britain, there have been proposed plans to remove the statue of legendary Admiral Horatio Nelson, accused of having defended slavery. There are plenty of other examples of this hunt for statues in the news these past few weeks.

Some only see a new manifestation of the sin of anachronism, which pushes us to abolish history for the sake of a rather foolish adherence to present-day attitudes, as if past eras should be condemned and their traces erased from public spaces. But beyond a basic lack of culture, there are many other factors driving this purifying fury that stirs the masses with vengeance. How can we explain this sudden rage that pushes a certain leftist faction to want to eradicate memory, as if we might somehow create a blank slate? We stand before a demonstration of the power of the penitential reflex that has been written into contemporary Western political culture.

It's understandable that in the momentum of a revolution, when we pass from one regime to another, an enraged crowd will lash out at statues of power. They will break down such idols to mark the decline of a demigod in whom they no longer believe. During the fall of communism, the crowd's euphoria led them to topple the various statues and monuments that represented the tyranny from which they had been delivered. It was necessary to tear down the monuments to Lenin's glory in order to mark the fall of communism. Nothing is really surprising in this. Sometimes, we must destroy to create.

Must any mention of Southern heritage be associated with racism?

But are we currently in a similar situation? The case of the southern United States, the origin of the present ideological tornado, is presumably singular. The memory associated here has not always been defined exclusively as a racial question, which is not to deny that this issue is central and that the white supremacist movement is still looking to exploit this heritage. Still, it cannot be reduced so simply. After all, reasonable, non-racist Americans are shocked by the militancy of the extreme leftists illegally destroying these statues. They find it hard to accept that any mention of Southern heritage must automatically be associated with racism. How can Americans be expected to tolerate, for example, the censorship of a film such as Gone With the Wind, which is what happened when a Memphis cinema stopped showing the movie for ideological reasons?

The question of statues that perpetuate the memory of Confederate generals and soldiers in the United States is complex. But the penitential mania extends throughout the West. It drives us to dismantle statues, to rewrite textbooks, to prescribe certain remorseful commemorations, to multiply excuses towards certain communities, to symbolically hang certain heroes of the past and censor representations of that past that don't align with the caricatural representation that we have today.

We are witnessing the racialization of social interactions in a society driven by tribal rather than national interests.

This terribly oversimplified vision of history takes form as a process that first targets long-admired heroes. Great characters, yet we only hold onto their ideas that collide with the values of today. The West is coming to see itself through the eyes of those that curse it. Sooner or later, we'll lash out at statues of General de Gaulle, of Churchill and Roosevelt and many others: In a certain manner, Napoleon was already the victim of such an undertaking when, in 2005, the French refused to commemorate the victory of Austerlitz. We risk sliding into a retrospective Nazification of the entire history of the West, henceforth personified as a white heterosexual man from whom we must take back all privileges.


Statue of Winston Churchill in Canberra, Australia — Photo: Graham Crumb/

Europe no longer knows what to do with its colonial past, which many are tempted to view as a crime against humanity. In the American frame, it was the very arrival of Europeans that must now be reduced to a brutal invasion, which certain people don't hesitate to qualify as a genocidal undertaking. We invite young Americans, young Canadians and young Québécois to view themselves as the heirs of an odious history that they must ostentatiously repudiate. We teach them to hate their own civilization.

A form of ideological control

We are on the brink of a display of fanatic ideology, feeding off the imagination of the most radical multiculturalism, that pretends to demystify Western society and reveal the numerous oppressions on which it is built. Each public representation of the past is subject to new censors who use their hyper-sensitivity to create the criteria from which they will (or will not) grant an idea the right to be expressed. How can we not see in this a form of ideological control and intolerance? We are witnessing the racialization of social interactions in a society driven by tribal rather than national interests. Everyone shuts himself up in a history built on grievances, and then demands a monopoly on the collective memory.

Men of valor could belong to opposing camps.

What's striking, in this situation, is the weakness of the political and intellectual elite who no longer believe in the right to defend the world for which they are responsible. In July, King's College in London decided to remove the busts of its "white" founders, because they offended the "ethnic minorities." Once again, anti-racism racializes social interactions. It's a new ideological device that inserts itself and contributes to redefining the contours of political correctness. Those who oppose the removal of these controversial figures are accused of being accomplices to the crimes with which the statues are now associated.

Our societies don't have to recognize themselves in the degrading portrait we have made of them. They must defend reason. We should see in these statues all sorts of layers of meaning simultaneously superimposed and intermixed and the irreducible complexity of history. It's because of this that we often find contradictory statues and monuments in the middle of a city or country. They remind us that in major disputes, which today may appear stripped of ambiguity, men of valor could belong to opposing camps. They illustrate the values and commitments that cannot be reduced to the ideologies with which they are now associated. The raving use of erasers and jackhammers are no way to write the history of humankind.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum


SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.

It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!