Some fairly long-winded thoughts on that whole Cecil Rhodes statue-removal thing, here:
First, a bit of context - and I apologise if this turns out to be insultingly simplistic, since I'm nothing if not insulting and simple.
Throughout history, tribes of people who got their shit together and could raise and support armies, would invade lands belonging to their neighbours, kill everyone who took up arms in defence against them, and then make off with everything valuable that could be strapped to the back of a cart.
And so it was, for thousands of years, and everyone understood the rules - the strong did what they could, and the weak suffered what they must. This rocked if you were strong, and it sucked quite a bit if you were weak.
Anyway, let me cut this short. Matters came to a head in two shattering World Wars in the twentieth century, the latter of which was such an epic, globe-spanning catastrophe - a megadeath slaughter filled with almost incomprehensible destruction and suffering, like Independence Day, but real - that it spoiled war and empire for almost everyone, forever.
World War II was pretty much our darkest moment as a species, the nadir of human stupidity and cruelty. Still, one good thing came out of it - it tainted for all time the idea that invading other countries, taking over their governments and stealing all of the locals' stuff, was acceptable behaviour.
Now, it's fair to say that the politicians and intellectuals who agreed upon this idea hadn't thought through the full implications of such a huge philosophical shift. There were a few glorious postwar years where everyone agreed that Hitler and the Nazis could only have risen to power in the specific circumstances of 1930s Germany, what with the "natural obedience of the German people" and so on. And then, the real trouble started.
The difficulty was that, the more closely that people looked at National Socialism, the more apparent it became that something akin to Nazism could've happened almost anywhere*, and that it shared so many characteristics with good old-fashioned imperialism, that it somehow began to retrospectively taint all the good old-fashioned imperialism too.
Suddenly, nations all over the world looked at their own ancestors and national heroes, and they started to pick up a whiff of jackboots and racial supremacy.
Which created a whole load of problems. Nobody who looked at e.g. Rhodes exploiting fuck out of Africa and the Africans, or Churchill yammering on about gassing uncivilised tribes or whatever, wanted to think of these lovable old coots as Anglicised versions of certain nattily-uniformed German speakers.
Nonetheless, the problem remained - most of our great warriors' and politicians' behaviour now looked a tad questionable, in retrospect. It might theoretically be possible to invade other countries, install colonial rulers and steal all your new subjects' shit over several decades, while operating a racially-based caste system, without also being a bit of a grasping, thieving, murderous, racial-supremacist bastard. I can't think how, but it might be possible.
Still, this created a singular problem for most of the industrial nations on Earth. If your most visible successes were built on murder, repression and theft, how are you supposed to retain that pompous air of self-righteous moral superiority that leaders all over the world so love to project? And if your great heroes were mostly bastards and killers, how are you supposed to bask in their reflected greatness?
Well, the answer was this - you get incredibly butthurt about it all, and start accusing everyone who speaks negatively about your national icons of terrible personal failings.
And so it is that any public figure in pretty much any country who talks smack about the crimes of their ancestors can expect to be deluged in finger-waggy, tut-tutty bullshit, or much worse. Historians in Ankara who try to speak forthrightly about Kemal Ataturk will be angrily shouted down. Japanese and Russian scholars who focus too closely on their own forebears' war crimes can expect villification. In Britain, you get sneery put-downs in the pages of the Telegraph and the Times and a lot of boo-hoo whingeing about political correctness.
A lot of other countries are much like ours in this regard, and many are significantly worse. Still, this is why the Argentinian President can issue lengthy diatribes about British colonialism, without too many of her countrymen guffawing and asking how come there are so many Spaniards knocking about the pampas, thousands of miles away from Spain.
Anyway, back to Rhodes. A couple of things to note about this big Rhodes statue kerfuffle:
- Notice how most of the public figures making whiny statements about the Rhodes statue row keep saying that okay, maybe Rhodes was a racist, but everyone was a racist in those days, so it's no biggie.
Of the imperialists of yore, I'd say that being racist was one of their lesser offences. I mean, say what you like about e.g. the Roman Empire or the Mongol Horde - they both displayed plenty of moral flaws, but I think that being a bit sniffy about the inferiority of foreigners was one of their less problematic behaviours.
When the entire row is repeatedly reduced to, like, some folk being a bit thin-skinned and unreasonable about so-called "racism", you should probably smell a rat.
It's also worth pointing out that saying "Everyone was racist, so who gives a shit" is probably fine if you're talking about a Conrad or a Twain, people who brought considerable joy to the world. It's less appropriate for defending vast, aggressively expansionist empires and their individual plenipotentiaries.
- The Rhodes statue dislikers are also accused of "doing-down Britain", of focusing on the crimes of the Empire to the exclusion of the equal misdeeds of other great powers. This point is every bit as valid as it is when it's deployed against Mexican historians who show an interest in where all the Aztecs went, rather than in the countless crimes and affronts perpetrated by the Gringos. Israeli or Palestinian scholars who look too closely at their own histories can expect to be equally unpopular with students and politicians alike.
In addition, I'd note that for all the complaints about "doing-down Britain", popular history in the UK can be boiled down to 1) Us whipping Napoleon and 2) Us boxing Hitler's ears, and that the main UK history channels show little but World War II documentaries.
And as an aside - the only time that the average Briton is likely to encounter the Empire in popular entertainment is in a reshowing of Zulu - a cracking film, but one that portrays a plucky band of hopelessly outnumbered Brits fending off a massively superior force of Africans. Which isn't exactly representative of the era, to say the least.
But anyway, the great fear that incidents like the Rhodes statue one create is usually summarised thusly - if we're saying that Mr Rhodes was an appalling shit of a man, then what are we to say of Winston Churchill, or of Queen Victoria? Are we to say that they too were appalling shits?
To which the logical answer is, well, yes.
You don't have to tear down their statues or rename the pub in Eastenders or anything, but that's the good thing about honesty - it may hurt some feelings but ultimately, it helps us to understand ourselves a little better, it prevents us from looking quite so much like raging hypocrites, and it costs us nothing. Nothing tangible, at any rate.
All you have to do is be a bit more honest about your country's past. You don't have to pay anyone a penny, and nobody goes to jail.
Really, the only expense involved is that you have to let go of some pleasing myths about your collective virtue, and you won't be able to get up on your high horse to bullshit people quite as readily.
And there, I think, we see why the Rhodes statue - a pretty small issue - is being treated like a national outrage, and why similar occurrences would be treated as such in half of the countries on Earth.
Update: A reader points out that Churchill's infamous comment about using poisonous gas on angry natives was a reference to tear gas, in preference to the more murderous mustard variety, which is entirely fair enough. Consider that comment retracted.
*A caveat here - maybe not with the precise racial fixations and military paranoias and so on, which did owe a lot to the specific context, but definitely with the invading and the killing and the totalitarianism and so on.