Our­p­re­sen­tis buil­ton­these great stat­ues

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - HISTORY JOHN NATHAN

IF CER­TAIN peo­ple had their way, Oliver Cromwell would be top­pled à la the Bagh­dad statue of Sad­dam Hus­sein, Arthur “Bomber” Har­ris would be pushed off his pedestal and, if the new Rhodes Must Fall cam­paign launched by Ox­ford Univer­sity stu­dents is suc­cess­ful, Ce­cil Rhodes will soon be chis­elled off his perch at Ox­ford Univer­sity’s Oriel Col­lege.

The move­ment ar­gues that be­cause Rhodes was a white su­prem­a­cist, and the founder of white su­prem­a­cist Rhode­sia, he should be dis­qual­i­fied from be­ing im­mor­talised in stone.

Whether the cam­paign­ers would agree that the glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of be­ing pub­lished should not be be­stowed on po­ets such as T S Eliot or Philip Larkin, who both gave vent to an­ti­semitism in their re­spec­tive hey­days, for in­stance, I don’t know. Maybe they would be okay with keep­ing the statue of Rhodes if his poetry was good enough.

The school­boy er­rors made by Ox­ford Univer­sity’s anti-Rhodes stu­dents are many. And they sug­gest that this lot are not the bright­est of the univer­sity’s cur­rent bunch. But among the most ob­vi­ous is the be­lief that stat­ues only glo­rify past events and peo­ple.

That’s not true. They are also his­tor­i­cal sign­posts to past at­ti­tudes and par­tic­u­larly the at­ti­tudes of peo­ple who erected them. Take down that statue and you not only de­nude the world of a re­minder of who Rhodes’s was, but the chance to think about, dis­cuss and judge his deeds.

Imag­ine, through some strange align­ment of events and stars, that the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure in ques­tion was not Rhodes but Hitler, and that be­cause Hitler had be­stowed the univer­sity with a schol­ar­ship, and pos­si­bly at a time when many in the Bri­tish es­tab­lish­ment ac­tu­ally rather ad­mired the fu­ture Fuhrer and his forth­right man­ner, there still ex­isted at Ox­ford Univer­sity a Hitler Wing.

I of­fer this anal­ogy to the Rhodes Must Fall cam­paign as a sea­sonal gift, be­cause they ap­pear to need sim­plis­tic com­par­isons to understand com­plex is­sues.

I can hear their cry of “hyp­ocrite!” If you wouldn’t tol­er­ate a Hitler Wing, they will in­evitably say, then you can’t tol­er­ate a Rhodes statue.

Well, ac­tu­ally, I might well keep the Hitler wing given the choice. How bet­ter to re­mem­ber the ad­mi­ra­tion that Hitler en­joyed even in a coun­try that fought hard­est against him, than to keep some cor­ner of Eng­land that will for ever be Nazi Ger­many? What bet­ter way to re­mem­ber our less shame­ful past than by keep­ing them con­spic­u­ous in the present?

Six months ago, a Span­ish vil­lage voted to change its name from of Mata­ju­dios to, Mota de Ju­dios: or from Kill Jews, which had been the vil­lage’s name since the early 17th cen­tury, to Jews’ Hill. They should have kept the old name. Bet­ter that than a place with a Jew- killing past called, say Cam­ber­wick Green.

Al­though, in fairness to the denizens of Kill Jews, the vil­lage’s history is ap­par­ently no more an­ti­semitic than most other places in post-1492, Span­ish In­qui­si­tion Spain. Cer­tainly, there is no record of Jew killing on the scale of the east­ern Pol­ish town I once vis­ited to re­port on a play about how, in Racist: But the legacy of Ce­cil Rhodes can­not sim­ply be erased 1941, its res­i­dents herded their Jewish neigh­bours into a barn and set it and them alight. The town is and was called Jed­wabne. It means Silk. I’d rather it was called Kill Jews.

Ox­ford’s history-cen­sor­ing stu­dents are be­ing a bit thick about this. Stu­dents love to be icon­o­clasts; to tear down sym­bols of an op­pres­sive es­tab­lish­ment.

But of­ten their in­stinct is just to ban stuff they don’t like; to stop a par­tic­u­lar speaker from speak­ing or, as in this case, erase from pub­lic view our morally du­bi­ous or down­right in­de­fen­si­ble past.

And yet, al­though those who would cen­sor our statue plinths are do­ing so to pre­vent fig­ures such as Rhodes from be­ing glori- fied in the minds of those who view it, it’s not the stu­dent’s minds that the stu­dents think are at risk of be­ing cor­rupted.

Like all cen­sors, they cen­sor for the ben­e­fit of ev­ery­one else. It’s not they who are in­ca­pable of tak­ing a view on whether Rhodes was a force for good or ill. Oh no. It’s us. Thanks. Never mind that by ban­ning, eras­ing and cen­sor­ing things they are per­pet­u­at­ing ev­ery es­tab­lish­ment’s favourite method of con­trol.

They are like those who would pre­fer never to see Shy­lock on stage be­cause he and his play ex­press views they find of­fen­sive. And they are just as wrong.

The Shake­speare scholar James Shapiro put it this way: “To avert our gaze from what the play re­veals about the re­la­tion­ship be­tween cul­tural myths and peo­ples’ iden­ti­ties will not make ir­ra­tional and ex­clu­sion­ary at­ti­tudes dis­ap­pear. In­deed, th­ese darker im­pulses re­main so elu­sive, so hard to iden­tify in the nor­mal course of things, that only in in­stances like pro­duc­tions of this play do we get to glimpse th­ese cul­tural fault lines. That is why cen­sor­ing the play is al­ways more dan­ger­ous than stag­ing it.”

And that is also why lop­ping vil­lains off their plinths and hid­ing them from our sight does noth­ing to op­pose their deeds, how­ever heinous. It just hides them.


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