steepholm (steepholm) wrote,

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.
Tags: current affairs, maunderings
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