Cecil Rhodes and Oriel College, Oxford
There has been a good deal of sound and fury over the last few days about Oriel College's plans to remove the plaque in honour of Cecil Rhodes on one of their college houses, and to take down his statue from the facade of their "Rhodes building" -- the reason being that his racist views are incompatible with a modern university. As I understand it, they are waiting for local government consent to remove the plaque (which is in a conservation area) and are having a six month thinking period about the statue.
Among all the huffing and puffing, Will Hutton -- as often -- had some sensible things to say in the Observer, and he was careful to point out that (whatever you think about the statue) there was an important campaign going on here about the politics of southern Africa, and the politics of the history curriculum both in Oxford and Capetown. (Whether the opposition to those statues both in the UK and UCT will prove to be a good headline grabbing piece of PR or a miserable distraction remains to be seen.)
But Hutton was with most of the comments I read -- stressing that the campaign to eradicate Rhodes from our consciousness was in many ways a foolish enterprise, which probably did more harm to our understanding of history (and capacity to argue with it and take a different stance) than the campaigners will admit.
For a start, as Hutton suggested, the idea that Rhodes was a particularly dreadful lone racist wolf in the late nineteenth century is completely barking. The chances are that almost every one of the Victorian worthies who decorate our streets and cities held views as bad or worse. And a great statue cull, based on twenty first-century values, would leave few in place.Would Boudicca the sadistic terrorist (or alternatively founder of our island's imperial ambitions -- as the inscription underneath her suggests) survive on the Embankment? I doubt it.
But, you might say, she was a figure from as far back as the first century AD. But, to be honest, I'm not sure that age or longevity is the deciding factor here. Or, at least, where is the logic in suggesting that an ancient or a Renaissance racist might be left with his or her statue, but a late nineteenth century one not?
Much more imporant is to look history in the eye and reflect on our awkward relationship to it, and what we are actually beneficiaries of, not simply to photoshop the nasty bits out. I couldn't help thinking about David Mitchell's reflections a week ago about the removal of Donald Trump's honorary degree:
"I dislike," he wrote, "the trend for “stripping” the disgraced of the honours bestowed on them when they were in our good books. I think if it turns out you’ve made, say, Hitler an honorary PhD in peace studies, the record ought to stand as a rebuke to your whole honorary doctorate admissions policy. Otherwise it’s like a denial of historical fact: the truth is that, in 2010, Robert Gordon University thought Donald Trump was the bee’s knees and they shouldn’t get to erase that from their annals now it turns out he’s a prick."
Rhodes may be a good deal worse than a "prick", but basically the same goes. We get nowhere if we try to conceal the past was aggressively not like us. To put it the other way round, if you go to Turkey now, you will find that the act of smoking in every old movie has by law been pixellated out (makes a bit of a mockery of Casablanca)... but hang on peoplre in the past SMOKED, you know.
Of course, I have some sympathy with the idea that an ethnic minority student in Oxford (the Capetown position may be different in many ways) could find it a bit in your face to have an image of Rhodes or any run of the mill Victorian racist staring down on them. But the battle isnt won by taking the statue away and pretending those people didnt exist. It's won by empowering those students to look up at Rhodes and friends with a cheery and self confident sense of unbatterability -- much as I find myself looking up at the statues of all those hundreds of men in history who would vehemently have objected to women having the vote, let alone the kind of job I have.
And then there's the money. I really dont think that you can have your cake and eat it here: I mean you can't whitewash Rhodes out of history, but go on using his cash. And his cash has done a huge amount of good in bringing foreign students to this country (take a look at those elected to Rhodes scholarships for next year). Wouldn't it be better to celebrate what we have managed to achieve with Rhodes's money, whatever his views. If he was bad, then we have certainly turned his cash to the better... and maybe, to give him for a moment the benefit of the doubt, if he had been born a hundred years later even he would have thought differently.
Cliché of the evening: it's not the job of the present to tick the past off, but to get off its backside and do better!