s Black Lives Matter protests sweep through US and European cities, many cultural icons are being erased from history or, as we now call it, “cancelled”. Statues of historical figures associated with colonialism and slavery are being toppled from their plinths, painted, burnt and thrown into rivers. Media companies are taking down popular films and TV programmes from their streaming services or qualifying them with disclaimers.
The BBC removed an episode of the 1975 comedy series Fawlty Towers from iPlayer and all three seasons of Little Britain, which first aired in 2003. The Jungle Book (1967) and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) are now preceded on Sky Movies by a warning that the films contain “outdated attitudes, language and cultural depictions which may cause offence today”.
Iconoclasm – literally, image destruction – has an ancient history. It’s a theme that runs through rabbinic tales of Abraham smashing his father’s idols, destruction of Arabian deities in seventh-century Mecca and the sacking of churches by Puritans during the English Civil War. In more recent decades, we’ve seen mobs tearing down statues of deposed tyrants, from Lenin to Saddam, and Isis militants reducing ancient archaeological sites to rubble.
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