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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.