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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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steepholm steepholm
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Rhodes and Knights
So, Oriel College has decided to keep the Cecil Rhodes statue, as "an important reminder of the complexity of history and of the legacies of colonialism".

The key word here is "legacies", particularly those that the College's present-day beneficiaries had threatened to withhold if the statue were removed. The more general debate however centred on the proposition that removing Rhodes would be a kind of "airbrushing of history" or even an abridgement of free speech (though if putting up a statue is a speech act, assuredly removing one is too). If Rhodes were to fall it would be a first shot in a revolution that would see dubious statues torn down across the country. People would grow up in ignorance of the past, statue-gazing now being (thanks to prudent cuts in library budgets) the primary method of historical education in Britain. The umbilical connection to our heritage of rapine and murder would be irrevocably severed, to everyone's spiritual impoverishment.

These arguments make a very neat distinction between putting a statue up to someone (which is and always has been a mark of approbation) and maintaining it - which is parsed as merely an act of historical curation. I wonder at what point a statue moves from one role to another? Perhaps there should be some kind of ceremony, like the desanctification of a church, so that everyone's clear on the point?

Some have gone further, though, and suggested that maintaining the statue forces us to confront uncomfortable truths about our past. The bad things Rhodes did happened, and shouldn't be denied. We may decry Rhodes's racist exploitation of Africa now (though we've hung on to the cash), but we shouldn't forget that he was once honoured and admired; the statue is a salutary corrective to moral complacency.

And yet, and yet... When Jimmy Savile was posthumously stripped of his knighthood, who protested against that? What salient difference is there in the two cases? Both men were dead, and couldn't be hurt by the dishonour. Both had been loved - even fawned over - by the Establishment. Both had raised large amounts of money for deeds that came to be seen as vile and exploitative, and in which that same Establishment colluded either actively or passively. If taking down Rhodes's statue would have been airbrushing history, so was taking away Sir Jimmy's title. In some ways Savile's is a more heinous case, since the people who had arranged for him to be honoured benefited from the removal of that awkward public reminder of their past folly (or worse), whereas those who paid to honour Rhodes are themselves long dead.

Only 2 thoughts on this - firstly, Savile was never tried. Quite some evidence against him but for proof we must look to the ultimate court.
Finally, Rhodes. As an erstwhile Bristolian I recall the kerfuffle about Whiteladies Rd and Blackboy Hill.
There was a slave trade. Bristol grew rich on it. Ended 1800, deal with it.

I believe Savile was guilty in much the same way I believe in Mount Everest without having seen it. The evidence is pretty overwhelming though it's never been tried in court in either case.

The case of the slaver-philanthropist Edward Colston (after whom everything in Bristol is named that isn't named after Brunel or Cabot) is a very analogous case to that of Rhodes. And yes, there's a big statue of him in the middle of Bristol...

(no subject) - vschanoes, 2016-01-29 04:55 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx, 2016-01-30 11:33 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Nobody has said it was wrong to topple Saddam Hussein's many statues

Or that the former Soviet Union was wrong to clear its public spaces of all their Lenins and Stalins.

And no-one is suggesting that images of The Fuhrer should be brought out of storage and put back in place.

When ideologies change it's normal to make a clean sweep of the iconography of the previous regime.

If there had been a revolt against Rhodes at the time and an angry backlash from his opponents, then I think the statue would have been torn down. In fact it may well be the case that any statues of him that were erected in Africa may have met a violent fate. Should his statue be left alone here in Britain? Should it be removed? I can genuinely appreciate both arguments here and I remain to be persuaded which is the best option.

What I will say is that in Britain we have never previously made a habit of sweeping away the statues of former leaders, nor have we renamed our cities after them and then had to re-rename them when they fell from grace. What is so special about this particular case that we should change our policy now and would removing Rhodes's statue mean having to purge the whole UK of statues of undesirable people from the past?

(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-01-29 01:59 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-29 06:18 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - resonant, 2016-01-30 08:14 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(Deleted comment)
There's no reason not to put any removed statues on display in a museum or art gallery, if they are thought to warrant it in terms of historical or artistic significance.

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(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-01-29 07:13 pm (UTC)(Expand)
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(no subject) - houseboatonstyx, 2016-01-31 03:30 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-01-31 08:56 am (UTC)(Expand)
I am smelling quite a level of that old devil, hypocrisy in all this!

There is a difference, I think, though I speak without knowing all the details of the career of either man.

What we revile Savile for was done furtively, and while it was overlooked and excused by those who knew about it, it was never the subject of general approbation. (I think when you say he "raised large amounts of money for deeds that came to be seen as vile and exploitative," you mean his charity work, which was not bad in itself - what made it bad was the secret deeds it facilitated.)

Whereas what Rhodes did in Africa was known about and approved. It's what he got the statue for.

That leads me to wonder what we are honoring people for today that might be disapproved of in the future?

And yes, despite sarcastic remarks about deconsecration, eventually monuments just become historical. I take it we no longer approve of the events commemorated in Trajan's Column, or even the Arc de Triomphe, and they're not being removed to any museums.

Also, the removal of the statues of Lenin and Saddam took place the moment it became politically possible to express public disapproval of them. We've disapproved of Cecil Rhodes for decades already. Why all of a sudden now?

And yes, I disapprove of the airbrushing of history, including the posthumous removal of Sir Jimmy's title. (Personally, I feel that anybody who goes by "Jimmy" shouldn't be awarded a knighthood in the first place. He lacks the dignity appropriate to the position.) Once in an organization with a one-year rotating presidency, the president was caught embezzling funds. He was removed from his position, which was proper, and the vice-president finished the term. What was not proper is that, in the official list of presidents, he who had been VP is listed alone for that year, as if the trouble had never happened. This even though the embezzlement story is told in the organization's official history, which is where I also found the list of presidents. That, I submit, is grotesque whitewashing.

There are many differences between these two quondam knights of the realm, but whether any of them are salient in this context is another question. But the question is moot, in as much as you disapprove of stripping Savile's title anyway. (Your analogy with the embezzling president seems a good one.)

You're right, eventually monuments do become historical (though sometimes they can be revivified long after they appear to be dead). I would say that applies to Trajan's column - but the Arc certainly still has a powerful political function for the current French state, even if not exactly the one its maker intended. My tongue-in-cheek suggestion of a desanctification ceremony was meant to highlight a genuine problem of ambiguity, one I hadn't seen raised in terms in the debate about Rhodes, but which in this case and others like it is the source I think of a good deal of talking at cross-purposes (in good faith or otherwise).

That leads me to wonder what we are honoring people for today that might be disapproved of in the future?

Why wait for the future? Look down any New Year's Honours list and you'll find innumerable hacks, timeservers and bribers being draped in ermine and less exalted hides. Lynton Crosby was knighted only a couple of weeks ago as a reward for helping the Conservative party win the last election. (I'm Steepholm and I disapprove this message.)

Edited at 2016-01-29 01:49 pm (UTC)

(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-29 06:06 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-01-29 07:09 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-29 08:01 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-01-29 07:33 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-29 08:19 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steepholm, 2016-01-29 10:15 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-30 01:08 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - vschanoes, 2016-01-30 01:30 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-30 04:20 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - newandrewhickey, 2016-01-30 12:48 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-30 02:58 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - vschanoes, 2016-01-30 04:02 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-30 04:18 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - vschanoes, 2016-01-30 02:14 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-30 03:03 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - vschanoes, 2016-01-30 03:59 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-30 04:08 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - vschanoes, 2016-01-30 04:16 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-30 04:22 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-30 04:24 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - vschanoes, 2016-01-30 04:06 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-30 04:19 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - redbird, 2016-01-30 06:33 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-30 11:45 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx, 2016-01-31 12:47 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - vschanoes, 2016-01-30 01:44 am (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - houseboatonstyx, 2016-01-30 11:19 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - steer, 2016-01-30 06:30 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Maybe it is similar to the numerous statues of Robert E Lee and Stonewall Jackson, and so on, in the U.S. South?

(My voice is small and hesitant, as this is probably not my place to speak...)

Maybe such statues can provoke thought-- especially when people who don't know ask 'who is that?'

That analogy occurred to me, too. I suppose one might even argue (perhaps someone has?) that flying a Confederate flag from a state legislature is a historical rather than a political statement.

Maybe such statues can provoke thought-- especially when people who don't know ask 'who is that?'

Indeed, there is that. And indeed, I'm so far from being in favour of airbrushing history that I would like to see a good deal more of it, in the form of information on the plinth explaining exactly what Rhodes did and just how the money that sustains the college and the Rhodes scholarships was made.

(no subject) - kalimac, 2016-01-29 06:14 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - vschanoes, 2016-01-29 04:53 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - eglantine_br, 2016-01-29 05:19 pm (UTC)(Expand)
(no subject) - ethelmay, 2016-01-30 11:58 pm (UTC)(Expand)
I've always thought it's to do with living memory. Once it's more than a lifetime ago, it's history, even if it was regrettable. Of course, those are very imprecise measures, so maybe between 50 and 100 years ago, depending on how sensitive the issues are, and to what proportion of the population.

Rhodes was regarded favourably for long enough after he was gone, by a large enough proportion of people, to have become history before views changed much. Savile was uncovered soon enough for almost everyone to have memories of him and as a result be emotionally closer to what he'd done.

That's seems a reasonable rule of thumb to me. In Rhodes's case, because he spent his career not only amassing African money but also setting up a racist dispensation in southern Africa the effects of which are still felt very keenly and directly today, I think a case could be made for stretching it rather further than 100 years. I think living memory is a wee bit too simple, in other words, because "The evil that men do lives after them" (though unlike Mark Antony I think the same is often true of the good).

As a thought experiment, how would you feel if it turned out that the statue was raised not only under a value system we no longer endorse but for reasons that were not valid even by the standards of the time? As a for instance: suppose there were a statue of Florence Nightingale raised outside the front door of the Royal College of Nursing on her death in 1910 to commemorate her work in Scutari, complete with a fulsome plaque detailing her achievements there. Suppose it then came to light in our own day that Nightingale had actually never been to Scutari, but had sat at home in Embley Park sewing samplers, and the the Lady of the Lamp had actually been a maid named Mary Smith, paid by Nightingale to impersonate her? Would we wish to remove the Nightingale statue? Would we keep the statue and change the plaque, detailing what we now know to be falsehoods? Or would we keep the whole thing unchanged, as a monument to human folly?

(no subject) - ggreig, 2016-01-30 01:09 pm (UTC)(Expand)
Perhaps several purposes could be served at once, by putting a dust cover over each statue. Save money on maintenance. Save cost of demolition. Let the anti-statue group write their own version of history on the dust cover, which can be easily re-written by next decade's group.

That's bound to please everyone!

So they're keeping the statue. So what? It's a COLLEGE. Can't the students find ways to make a mockery of the statue? You know, dressing it up, adding rude appendages, etc.
The "legacies" keep their symbol, the students make their feelings about it known. It's a win-win. Unless, of course, the students have no imaginations...

I don't know what college you went to, but at mine anything ruder than a traffic cone over the statue of the hero* would have been swiftly removed, and the message of a traffic cone isn't a criticism, it's "statue is outside the freshman dorms and this orange thing was lying around."

To be meaningful, the mockery would have to call out Rhodes's misdeeds, and be there at least most of the time: if 300 days a year there's an untouched statue; 64 have variously a traffic cone, a football scarf, a somewhat tattered blazer; and one has him with a sign saying "I murdered Africans and all I got was this statue," the message is somewhere between "this college admires Cecil Rhodes" and "let the youngsters have their fun."

*The hero in question had been executed for espionage.