Let's return to the Rhodes statue debacle, which has now ended with a decisive victory for the forces of major financial donorship.
To recap quickly: A small group of students at an Oxford college felt that the on-campus presence of a statue dedicated to Cecil Rhodes, one of the British Empire's more rapacious exploiters and infamous thieves, is anachronistic at best and actively offensive at worst. They demanded that the college remove the offending sculpture, mainly for symbolic reasons.
A terrific rammy then ensued, in which the national press hurled a series of astonishing insults and accusations at these students. The row finally ended when the college's big money donors threatened to withdraw their funding if the statue was removed. And so now, the statue will stay.
I've left it a few days before responding to these events, to allow for reaction to this hilarious decision to play out. Having done so, I think we can draw a few lessons here:
Threats are fine, provided they're financial
It's amusing to note the contrast in the treatment that the people involved in this row have received.
In the pages of the UK's quality press, the students were repeatedly accused of dictatorial attempts to throttle free enquiry and open debate, and were denounced over and over for trying to delete or sanitise history. The hacks joined with noted academics and former statesmen in issuing fiery accusations at a few students for iconoclasm and intellectual thuggery, even going so far as to angrily compare the students' actions to ISIS's destruction of antiquities.
And yet, when the issue was resolved by a couple of very wealthy geezers issuing actual blackmail, the very same people were either silent, or openly celebratory.
The lesson here is this - When a plurality of punditry and former politicians agree that some trifling squabble represents an unacceptable threat to our most treasured abstract concepts, they're usually pulling a fast one.
It's difficult to tell from the muted reaction, but I think we can now conclude that many of the students' detractors may have been arguing in bad faith.
After all, it is possible to argue that a request to remove a statue constitutes an outrageous attempt to throttle debate, while also believing in the rectitude of actually throttling the debate with financial threats.
It's just not possible to do both, without also being an outrageous bullshit-merchant of the first water.
Let's note here that it was the students that were repeatedly accused of being "hysterical"; of "throwing tantrums" and so on, and yet it was their opponents who e.g. deployed the ISIS comparisons. It was the students who were accused of "throttling debate", but it was the donors who issued the threats that won the day.
For me but not for thee
In the United States, they've been pulling down Confederate banners and statues for months, as they damn well should do and should've done decades ago.
In Ukraine, the removal and defacement of Soviet iconography is routine. Statues and flags have been torn down all across the Middle East for years, and all of these terrible acts of iconoclasm have happened to the sound of loud celebration in the UK press.
And yet somehow, when the action is moved closer to home, far milder forms of the same behaviour are treated as an unacceptable national outrage. The mere suggestion that Cecil Rhodes might meet the same fate as, say, Confederate officer Nathan Bedford-Forrest - a roughly comparable historical figure, IMHO - is met with screeches and wails of terror.
No doubt you can imagine how the UK press would've responded to similar controversies involving likenesses of Che Guevara in South America, or Kemal Ataturk in Ankara. I suspect that a press-room whip-round for pick-axes might not be out of the question.
But one may not sully the Great British imperialists of yore. It's worth noting that, had the Americans reacted to anti-Confederacy objections as our own academics and scribbling classes have done with the empire, most of those Stars-'n'-Bars would still be flying today.
You mess with Oxford at your peril
A fairly obvious one, this - I think we can all agree that a row along similar lines wouldn't have attracted a fraction of the vituperation, if it had instead broken out at e.g. the University of Dundee.
One of the many comical and undeclared undercurrents of all the recent campus controversies is that of old boys getting riled by the suspicion that they might not be entirely welcome at their former stomping grounds. And indeed they might not be, and I'm sure that you're all just as concerned about that prospect as I am.
Thou shalt not fuck with the Empire
And here, I think, we reach the fundamental issue. This was a debate about the Empire - about the industrial-scale theft and wanton cruelty that is part of any imperial project, be it British, Roman or Soviet. The students, not unfairly, regarded the likeness of one of the imperial era's more prominent plunderers as an affront, not simply because of his racism, but because of his conduct.
The response from our pundits, academics and former politicians was very telling, I think. Almost all chose to interpret this instead as a debate about racism and political correctness, and issued exculpatory statements about Rhodes' philanthropy, and how Rhodes was no more racist than his contemporaries. The Times - incredibly - allowed one of its columnists* to claim that Rhodes wasn't that racist, since he believed that Africans could be trained to become civilised.
And this has always been the standard British response to any complaints about the undisputed savagery of our former Empire - to emphasise the good manners and good breeding of our empire-building forebears, as a partial excuse to ignore their profound lack of good character or even good behaviour.
The hysterics and amateur dramatics that this row has inspired suggest to me that it's touched a raw nerve. I get the feeling that Rhodes is the wobbly brick at the bottom of the wall. If we question him, then that surely calls into question all of the participants and beneficiaries of empire.
And let's be clear: if we do that, then we'd have to question most of the people and institutions that make up our great national self-image - family members of famous and wealthy people, historical figures, great schools and universities, businesses, maybe even kings and queens.
That's why almost every opinion piece on the Rhodes row has contained some variation upon the following question - If we're going to disown Rhodes, then wouldn't we have to look again at e.g. Queen Victoria, or even Winston Churchill, with a critical eye?
The ludicrous nature of this entire incident - with its near-deranged tone, its almost entirely one-sided insults and its hilarious, slapstick outcome - strongly suggests that, well, maybe we should.
*Nigel Biggar, Message to students: Rhodes was no racist, The Times, 22 December 2015