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In Defense of Statues of Bad Men

William Beechey, Sir Thomas Picton (1815-17), via Wikimedia Commons.

As Governor of Trinidad, Thomas Picton “owned slaves, ordered the execution of a dozen others, and allegedly made money from the slave trade. Most notoriously, however, he was accused of authorising the prolonged torture of a 14-year-old mixed race girl, Luisa Calderon, to extract a confession of her suspected involvement in a robbery.” There is a statue of him in Cardiff, a blue plaque at his birthplace in Haverfordwest, and several other public memorials. Should they all be removed? No, says Nigel Jones:

Calderon was suspended by one arm from a rope pulley with one foot resting on a wooden peg as her only support. She was subjected to this excruciating treatment twice for hours at a time. When news of the incident reached London, Picton – who himself maintained a mulatto mistress on the island – was tried for the crime.  Convicted, he successfully appealed on the grounds that Calderon – who gave evidence against him – had actually been sentenced by local magistrates under the Spanish colonial laws which still governed Trinidad, and which allowed the torture of suspects. He pleaded that he had merely been carrying out the letter of the law in permitting Calderon’s ordeal to go ahead. Interestingly, Trinidadians subscribed thousands of pounds to pay Picton’s legal expenses.

By the time of his second trial and acquittal, Picton, a villain in the eyes of Liberal opinion, had become a national hero. He was one of the Duke of Wellington’s bravest and most accomplished commanders in the harsh Peninsula War against Napoleonic France, although even the Iron Duke – no shrinking violet he – described the Welsh ruffian thus: ‘…as foul-mouthed and irascible Devil as ever lived’.

The fire eating Picton fought his way across Spain and Portugal, across the Pyrenees and into France. Leading from the front, he played a crucial part in Wellington’s victories. Wounded in the savage storming of Badajoz, he presented a guinea to every man who survived the engagement, retired to Britain to recuperate, but insisted on returning to the fray to share in the Duke’s final triumphs. By then an MP, he was called out of retirement in 1815 to take part in the Waterloo campaign against the old enemy.

Wounded once more at the Battle of Quatre Bras, Picton refused to leave the field, and at Waterloo itself he held a key sector of the British front. Aged 56, he died as he had lived: in the heat of the action leading a bayonet charge to repel a French cavalry assault. His last words were ‘Hurrah! Hurrah! Charge! Charge!’ Shot through the head by a musket ball, he was the most senior officer killed in the battle. His body was borne back to Britain with great pomp, and laid to rest at St George’s Church, Hanover Square. He was later exhumed to lie with his old chief, Wellington, in St Paul’s cathedral.

In other news: Flannery O’Connor canceled: “Thirteen years after naming a new residence hall at Loyola University Maryland in honor of the Catholic author Flannery O’Connor, Jesuit Fr. Brian Linnane, the university’s president, removed the writer’s name from the building.” Ralph Wood, Angela O’Donnell, and many others have been working on a letter signed by many distinguished writers and professors opposing the move. I’ll link to it here when it is available.

Feeling sorry for yourself, and worried about the future? Memorize a poem, Eliot Cohen says: “It is trite but true to say that we live in a time of acute anxiety—about the pandemic, social injustice, even the very foundations of our political order. We live, too, in a time when a posture of victimhood and one of its more dangerous variants, fragility, has become characteristic across the left and the right. Robust poems committed to memory can counteract the corrosive effects of self-pity. They can offer a different way of viewing the world, particularly to generations that did not suffer the buffetings of the early and mid-20th century, and are now bewildered by the calamities that seem to arise from nowhere, and leave them powerless.”

The art world has a money laundering problem: “Shell companies with hidden owners. Middlemen who shield the identities of buyers and sellers. Inadequate safeguards to keep out shady money. It’s all part of the ultra-secretive art world, according to a bipartisan Senate investigation released Wednesday. And that’s why it’s susceptible to money laundering and sanctions evasion, the report found.”

Huxley’s Brave New Worldrevisited: “For decades I believed that George Orwell was the better writer, but Huxley the better prophet. Orwell’s futurist novel 1984, with its Thought Police and shabby, dystopian brutality, seems dated. The technopoly that now envelops us seems much closer to Huxley’s sunny, pastel brand of coercion. That’s what Huxley himself believed. He argued in a foreword to his novel’s 1946 edition that ‘as political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends compensatingly to increase.’ In a ‘welfare-tyranny of Utopia,’ Huxley said, distractions and sexual license help to reconcile ‘subjects to the servitude which is their fate.’ Later, in a 1949 letter to Orwell, whom he had taught at Eton, Huxley added that ‘the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.’ Maybe so. Huxley sounds quite sensible. But I’m no longer convinced by his reasoning; it’s too reasonable. If today’s street violence and political extremism serve any good purpose, it’s this: They remind us that humans have a chronic appetite for destruction.”

Learning to play a musical instrument won’t make kids smart: “A study published in medical journal Memory & Cognition has found learning music does not have a positive impact on children’s cognitive skills, such as memory and academic achievement. Giovanni Sala at Fujita Health University, Japan, and Fernand Gobet at the London School of Economics and Political Science in the UK, examined evidence on the effects of music training on children’s cognitive skills and academic achievement. Previous research indicated a link between music training and better skills and performance, with some researchers even suggesting that playing an instrument can raise your IQ. But after analysing data from 54 studies conducted on 6,984 participants between 1986 and 2019, Dr Sala’s team found music training was ineffective at enhancing cognitive or academic skills, regardless of the skill type, participants’ age and duration of music training.”

The first bestseller list: “Before the New York Times best-seller list, there was The Bookman. Founded in 1895, the illustrated monthly literary journal was the only place to find out what were supposed to be the country’s top-selling books and remained so until 1912, when Publishers Weekly began producing its own best-seller lists. The Bookman’s first editor, Harry Thurston Peck, a Latin professor at Columbia, took his inspiration for the lists from a monthly British magazine combining industry news and book reviews with poetry, essays, and serialized books that was also called The Bookman, founded in 1891. Subtitled A Monthly Journal for Bookreaders, Bookbuyers, and Booksellers, it served as a kind of model for its American namesake. Published by the major New York publishing house Dodd, Mead, and Company, The Bookman offered its readers bookish news, profiles of prominent authors and their work, both long and short reviews of new books, and, of course, lists of best-selling books. These lists, with all their vagaries and inaccuracies, began to shape discussions about popular literature almost immediately. Books that appeared on these lists, whether or not they were truly the top-selling books of their day, became best sellers because the lists said they were.” 

Photo: Vila Nova de Gaia

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about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University.  His work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Pleiades, The Washington Times, and many other publications. His latest book is The Soul Is a Stranger in this World: Essays on Poets and Poetry (Cascade). Follow him on Twitter.

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