Friday, 29 January 2016

Bringing Palmyra to Oxford

Oriel College, of which I am proud to be a member and to which I have donated annually since graduating, recently announced, and today backed away from, "a listening excercise seeking the views and ideas of a wide range of groups" regarding a petition the college has received for the removal of its statue of Cecil Rhodes. I am publishing my views here as well (because I am interested to hear what others think of them), and because I have already written favourably about the statue in the past, before any controversy had arisen.

The sad irony is, that the whole reason I've always loved the Rhodes statue is because Rhodes' legacy is one that defies simplistic appraisal. (Or so I always thought!) It's intellectually challenging. On the one hand, you have an outstandingly generous philanthropist, on the other, a ruthless colonizer. Yet the colonial legacy in Africa is less ruthless, in fact, than in America or Australia (if the extermination of native populations is what we measure by). On the one hand, you have an astonishingly successful business man, on the other hand, an arrogant racist. Yet his views were widely held at the time, so why single him out for being a product of his time and place?

Most challenging of all is the legacy of Rhodesia. Is it a racist, oppressive legacy, that deserved to be destroyed? On the surface, anyone with left-leaning views would have said so. Certainly at the time of the Bush War it seemed clear which side held the moral high ground, from afar. And yet, anyone who thinks that Rhodes' treatment of Africans in his day was appalling should read a bit about what life is like for many in Zimbabwe right now. This is not about abstract ideology, this is something that profoundly affects the lives of millions of people. It is impossible to argue, I would submit, that the country is better off for having been ruled by the anti-imperialist Mugabe, than it would have been had it continued as Rhodesia. For all inhabitants. The fact that black Zimbabweans would have been better off had they remained under white rule, even though white rule was patently immoral and unethical, is a hard paradox to reconcile.

Nelson Mandela, of course, understood this paradox profoundly, and was able to chart a way forward from it. It is thanks to the fact that he did that South Africa has not become another Zimbabwe. And, with regards to Rhodes' legacy, not only did Mandela not fight to erase it but actually added his name to it, via the Mandela Rhodes scholarship. Sadly, today, with movements like Rhodes Must Fall, and the push to marginalise the Afrikaans language (the majority of whose speakers are not white), there are signs that South Africa may be heading down the path of Zimbabwe now.

To say it straight, the rigid groupthink calling for the removal of the statue is uncritical, blind to historical context, and wrong.

Take for a moment the contrary opinion that they are right. There is no reason why a rigid standard of contemporary political correctness should stop at Rhodes' statue. What about the chapel? ("Offensive to non-Christians") What about the Codrington library? ("Built by a slaver") What about the Queen as our Visitor? ("Offensive to republicans") Was not British colonialism far more destructive in North America and Australia than it ever was in Africa? Or can that history safely be glossed over, since those indigenous populations have been reduced so close to extinction that they do not have the numbers to protest? Singling out Rhodes' statue makes no sense, since if the values espoused in the petition are taken to their logical conclusion, the entire university should be destroyed, since the entire institution is the product of imperial inheritance (as well as a pre-imperial history which does not meet any of the standards of modern political correctness either).

Clearly, if any and all legacies of the past which offend modern sensibilities of political correctness needed to be done away with, then Oriel College, the University of Oxford, and the country as a whole will need to be erased as well.

This being the case, I am saddened that the college has seen fit to take this petition as seriously as it has, since it is immediately obvious to anyone with an ounce of historical sense that the purpose of the statue (and naming the Rhodes building, and the Rhodes scholarship) is to show praise and gratitude to his (outstanding) philanthropy. It is not a canonization affirming his sainthood! To take a more contemporary example, I might not agree with every choice Wafic Saïd has made in his life, or its impact on the world, but I will absolutely praise and thank him for the specific action of funding the creation of the Saïd business school, an action which has benefited thousands of people and made a major positive impact on the world. And it is to recognise that action that the school is named after him.

If perfection were a prerequisite for public recognition at Oxford University, all the colleges would have to be named Jesus College.

The college's statement on this issue includes bien pensant sentiments about "being at the forefront of the drive to make the University of Oxford more diverse and inclusive of people from all backgrounds". This is not, it should be noted, what the college was founded for. It was founded to house "scholars studying various disciplines in honour of the Virgin Mary", a mission statement which eo ipso limits its "diversity" in the modern sense.

I am not in any way arguing that the college today should seek to conform itself to the ideals of 1326, nor that being at the forefront of helping the university be more diverse is not a laudable goal; it was always implicit in the college's mission that, as knowledge was discovered, the institution devoted to its pursuit would adapt itself accordingly. But in order for Oriel to be what it is today (which is a phenomenal, diverse, and inclusive institution), Oriel must not forget what it was yesterday. I for one would never have studied at Oriel (or at Oxford) were it not for its traditions. There is always a balance to be had between remembering traditions and being bound by them, to the detriment of progress, but it is simply impossible to maintain any memory of Oriel College, Oxford University, or England as a whole if one erases all "racists" from their histories (in scare quotes since the term itself is anachronistic across most of said history). It should hardly need to be said that the correct approach is to develop a fuller understanding of the history of race relations, in order to situate contemporary values in their proper context, and take proper steps to correct the consequences of past mistakes. The college's measures to take part in this process, needless to say, I strongly support. But tearing down statues or burning books is no way to achieve that, and I am disappointed that, in responding to the iconoclasts in this way, the college implicitly is conceding to them that they have a point, when they do not.

To my eyes, this whole exercise is more worthy of Robert Mugabe than Oriel College (though perhaps the petitioners' aim is to have his statue erected in Rhodes' place). There is contemporary precedent, of course, for destroying all traces of the past which do not harmonize with a certain group's radical ideology. It is to be found in the Islamic State. May such denial for the objective facts of the past (however unpleasant) never hold sway at Oriel College. If leftist political correctness is to be a prerequisite for being a donor to the college, than I shall cease to remain one.

I thankfully read today's announcement that the statue will remain, but the damage done to the college's reputation in entertaining the iconoclasts seriously is bound to be significant, and that makes me sad.

Posted by jon at 11:43 AM in Oxford 
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Non enim id agimus ut exerceatur vox, sed ut exerceat.