Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Thou Shalt Not

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

22 comments:

organic cheeseboard said...

This was a debate about the Empire

I don't disagree, and thank Christ I missed most of it, but I think that it was at roots a debate - if you can call it that - about students being wrong about everything because students are twats, in the eyes of journalists across the country. If this campaign was run by any other types of people - a union, a political party that's not Respect/SWP, a group of concerned locals, just anyone other than students, the tone of the disagreement (and I don't doubt that there would still have been disagreement) would have been very different.

This is largely to do with journos remembering their past as students, when the causes they ended up embracing were in retrospect not Serious, and their seeking to take revenge on their former selves as a result. Of course, being intensely patronising and often badly-informed at the same time has a strong track record of winning over people who spend most of their time reading and thinking. The fact that students have a lot more recent experience than recent journos of e.g. researching things like history and politics, and that they might as a result have a slightly more rational sense of the importance of things, meaning that they won't, for instance, shoehorn in references to Jeremy Corbyn in every single one of their public pronouncements about anything, while also being alive to the still-relevant legacies of Empire, is of course beside the point. Ahem.

flyingrodent said...

That bizarre snobbery certainly a major part of it OC, and it's a hilarious trait when you consider the predictive and analytical abilities of most of the hacks and politicians that weighed in on it.

Both the Times and the Telegraph headlined Tony Abbott chipping in his comments, for Christ's sake, as if he wasn't basically a Tarzanogram with name recognition.

Richard said...

It has probably been going on for some time, but certainly since the election of Jeremy Coryn, the disingenuousness of most media/political commentators has become incredibly blatant. It's like they just don't care how hypocritical they appear any more. They want the world to look a certain way and anything that achieves that goal is absolutely fine and anything that threatens it is monstrous. There's no principle in play at all.

Regarding not messing with Oxford, the funny thing is that Oriel College seemed to be quite amenable to removing the statue. The only difficulty was that the college is a listed building so they can't just rip chunks of it at will, no matter how racist they are.

The real problem was with the old boys network how can't stand the idea that their old alma mater be allowed to look even slightly different from the way it was when they were there.

Harmain said...

I'm glad to see common sense prevailed, just a shame it had to be a bribe/blackmail.

Let's own our history, let's actually educate our children about our colonial past. At present, or at least when I was at school, there's this huge gap of knowledge between the Tutors and WWI. How and why did we rule a quarter of the world's landmass? What made our country so prosperous prior to WWI? Who was Oliver Cromwell? I learnt more about the industrial revolution via english over any history lessons.

I really feel we should learn, accept and draw wisdom from our history as a colonial superpower so that we can take on board the lessons of the past and choose a better path for the future. Not rip down statues so we don't feel weird when we see them.

Phil said...

Some people, at least one of whom wasn't me, have suggested leaving the statue in situ but adding a nice big plaque explaining just who & what Rhodes was. But I imagine that would be just as horrifying to the alums as outright iconoclasm & is thus just as unlikely to happen.

ejh said...

One particular syndrome I remember from being an undergraduate at Oxford, and one that's helped me a great deal in understanding how a certain kind of comfortable Oxford-educated mind works, was how badly people there reacted to any substantial criticism of the place itself, like a sudden whoosh of red blood cells responding to an attack on the organism. People who think in terms of the Bullingdon Club misunderstand Oxford: thinking about them tells you something important about young ruling-class type people, but not so much about the University itself, in which such people are a relatively small minority, and which really does try to encourage and welcome people from very different social backgrounds. It's not an exclusive place in that sense.

However, the moment you attack it, everything changes: that's when you find out you have a chip on your shoulder. Partly because an Oxbridge background is very emotionally important to many people with an Oxbridge background - you're questioning their ties, their achievements, theit sense of themselves - partly because that's how most institutions work when they're criticised and partly because of the very nature of the place, its intellectual elitism, encourages arrogance, encourages a tendency to look down on other people and swat them away. (That's a structural thing, it grows out of the relationship between them and other people, it doesn't mean any given individual necessarily encourages anybody else to do it.)

As I say, this is instructive: when you've had that experience it makes it a lot easier to grasp how this supposedly elite academic institution and its alumni can behave like absolute screaming children when confronted by a little criticism.

ejh said...

Oh, it should go without saying that the pattern "everybody's accepted until something actually comes up" is one that many non-white people may find easier to recognise than many white people.

Richard said...

Harmain, there is a big difference between 'owning' our history and 'celebrating' it. The Rhodes statue at least, arguably, crosses the line into celebration and it's questionable whether we should be celebrating Rhodes.

I'm all for educating people about our colonial past, but I don't think that education should consist of "lets all show the proper respect to the war-mongering rascists".

gastro george said...

"Partly because an Oxbridge background is very emotionally important to many people with an Oxbridge background - you're questioning their ties, their achievements, their sense of themselves ..."

This. It's because they're defined by Oxbridge, so any change threatens that self-definition.

Anonymous said...

ejh and Gastrogeorge: Alternatively, it might be that because freedom of thought is of the essence to a University, any attempt to tell academics what they should think is bound to provoke both resistance and controversy.





ejh said...

Well it might be, but as nobody's "freedom of thought" has been threatened in any way, the relevance of that argument escapes this particular student of history.

flyingrodent said...

"everybody's accepted until something actually comes up"

That fits pretty well with every job I've ever had, now I come to think of it.

Having read the summary in this week's Private Eye - one of the most cheerfully ignorant pieces ever to grace that magazine's pages, I think - the really noticeable thing is that the students' position is just immediately dismissed out of hand. Their actual points are barely referred to, since they obviously have no value whatsoever and need not be considered even briefly.

Which is pretty much in-keeping with the rest of the coverage, I think. Even my post above does considerable violence to the students' position, which was considerably broader than I've given it credit for.

ejh said...

the students' position is just immediately dismissed out of hand.

And that's the aforementioned arrogance.

I'd not heard of Nigel Biggar, so I looked him up. Hey, he's written a book called In Defence of War! Highlights include...

Includes painstaking analysis of the 2003 Iraq invasion, concluding that it was justified

Good Lord, I never saw that coming. And guess what...

Contains a moral analysis of Britain's involvement in the First World War, concluding that it too was justified.

Harmain said...

Richard, I know it's a tired point, but if we removed Rhodes' statue, why not Churchill's, Gandi's or Mandela's? All these people have unfavourable traits and actions in their past, why should they get a pass? Hell, many of the buildings around Westminster are direct references to our colonial past.

I just see it as two options, either we remove all the problematic, questionable references and tributes in our country to avoid having to think about our vicious past, or we accept it, educate ourselves and en devour to not repeat those actions.

Someone proposed a plaque explaining Rhodes and who he was. I am down with that. Down on that like beans on toast.

flyingrodent said...

Richard, I know it's a tired point, but if we removed Rhodes' statue, why not Churchill's, Gandi's or Mandela's?

Well, indeed. Why not?

Richard said...

"why not Churchill's, Gandi's or Mandela's?"

Well possibly we should, or at least there should be room for debate. On balance I would think the positive points of Mandela and Gandi outweigh the negative, Churchill is less certain but there are certainly positive points.

On the other hand, Rhodes was a massive racist even by the racist standards of his time who made a fortune by plundering large chunks of Africa and killing the population. What's the positive side, that he didn't keep all the plunder for himself?

Personally, I would be supportive of the big plaque idea as well, but I certainly don't think removing the statue should be ruled out out of hand. Nor do I think the removal of one statue implies we have to remove all of them. There is room to balance the good and bad within a person's character before deciding whether they should get a statue.

gastro george said...

@Anon - to expand on ejh's reply, it's a pretty crap academic whose thoughts are dictated by the presence or absence of a statue. To state the obvious, statues don't think, they are symbols and signifiers of what is deemed to be important and proper. Why not leave Saddam's statue in Baghdad? He commanded the building of much of it. But the US understood its symbolism. Leaving Rhode's statue there, without comment, dignifies him. Personally I'd be happy with a plaque, but the status quo is unacceptable.

flyingrodent said...

To be honest, I don't even much care whether the statue stays or not. I do get quite wound up when the hacks try to piss down my leg and tell me it's raining, however.

Chris Williams said...

ejh's summary of the Oxford self-defence mechanism rings a few bells. I'm not sure if it's always a case of entire organism mobilising to confront a threat, though. Another interesting debate was had last year when the fellows of Hertford College decided to take down the pictures of past Principals (all men) from the wall and replace them with pictures of women who'd attended or contributed to the place, in order to mark their anniversary of going co-ed. Much pearlclutching ensued, but the College was not held hostage by alumni, and the new pictures stayed up. But maybe I think this way because it's just another iteration of 'us' for me.

As for Rhodes, the 'Rhodes was a racist and that's the problem' trope is all cant designed to protect him. _Everyone_ was a racist in the C19th, by our standards: that's no reason to pull down a statue. Rhodes was a man whose life's project was to mobilise Britons to invade other lands, take control over them, kill anyone who fought back until they stopped resisting, then make the original inhabitants serfs. To the extent that it worked, he was able to amass a considerable fortune based on the taking of other people's stuff, some of which he then gave away so as to buy legitimacy, in the usual manner of successful gangsters. _That_ is a pretty good reason to tear the fucking thing down.

Ken Eadie, the prince of strikers said...

After the Ndebele people of Matabeleland rebelled against the British in 1895, the response of Rhodes and the British was so intense that one historian remarked there was “a spirit of fury amongst the whites unparalleled since the Indian Mutiny” where Rhodes insisted personally on counting every single African body after the maxim gun led carnage.

Another scion of Victorian and Edwardian imperialist morality, Robert Baden-Powell was at the forefront of the crushing of the Ndebele admitting “the extraordinary blood thirst of our men” of which he felt himself.. However:

“Don’t infer from these remarks that I am a regular nigger-hater for I am not. I have met lots of good friends among them. But however good they may be, they must, as a people, be ruled by a hand of iron in a velvet glove. In the present instance they have been rash enough to pull off the glove for themselves and were now beginning and were now beginning to find out what the hand was made of”

dib dib dib.

organic cheeseboard said...

Like I said, I've come to this late and haven't followed much of the commentary, thank fuck. I was wondering, though, what the response of the British commentators who are so opposed to these idiot students was, to the original Rhodes Must Fall stuff - in South Africa?

I mean, it's one thing telling a bunch of Oxford students that they should stop obsessing about inconsequential things like statues (even if lots of them are not in fact trustafarian rich kids, but are in fact from countries where the wounds of colonialism and its legacies are still pretty raw). It's surely another to tell black South Africans that they should stop getting all uppity about the elite institutions of their country glorifying men who oversaw the murder of thousands of their ancestors and the theft of their natural resources. Rhodes University is probably going to change its name now, for instance. Shame, denying history, etc etc?

I'm shocked - shocked, I tell you - that there might be double standards involved here on the part of people who are opposed to e.g. Cultural Relativism etc. (in fact, on the part of my favourite obsession, Nasty Nick, the thinking on RMF is even less sense-making than this - he seems to agree completely with the movement, but because one of its members said something Cohen decided was insufficiently anti-terrorist, Nick gave up thinking about Rhodes because Lefties Are So Awful).

if we removed Rhodes' statue, why not Churchill's, Gandi's or Mandela's? All these people have unfavourable traits and actions in their past, why should they get a pass?

They shouldn't necessarily get a pass, and I'm all for history which highlights the flaws and evildoings of 'great men' etc, but their statues were erected to commemorate their positive actions, which led to generally good things, I'm guessing, and that usually (and I think in all the above cases) the positives, and what they led to, outweighed the negatives.

With Rhodes, aside from him donating lots of ill-gotten cash to already elite universities (aha - I see a link here to the reason for the statue staying up), there isn't really anything to celebrate, surely. That's why this is surely closer to the Confederate Flag business than it is to people wanting to either erase history or take down statues of Churchill.

Though in this instance I say leave it up - it's a very public demonstration of Oxford's longstanding policy regarding donations, whereby if you're rich enough, you'll get your name on a building and your face on a statue.

Chris said...

International politics isn't about morality or justice or any other such waffle. It's about power and wealth and at one stage we were the best in the world at it. That's something to be proud of.

God bless Cecil Rhodes.