Friday, January 29, 2016

Rewriting history

A big fuss is being made at the moment about the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College, Oxford. Certain student groups are pressuring the college to remove the statue because they claim that Rhodes was racist and exploitative toward black people in Africa, i.e. that his fortune was built on the backs of native South Africans and therefore should not be celebrated, they demand that the statue be removed.

I don't agree with this position, not because I don't think Rhodes was racist or exploitative, I've no doubt he was one of the biggest bandits of his age but I don't think writing him out of history will solve anything useful. However, it may set a rather insidious precedent around the idea that it's necessary to "sterilise" the past, and to do this only from the perspective of the present-day. I believe this is dangerous. Modern morality deems that racism, colonial empires and imperialism are wrong (although Putin may be bucking that trend), in all of past history up to the middle of the last century this was not the case, empires were seen as fair game, by everyone! In fact the word "imperialism" was coined to refer to the exploits of Napoleon a full century before Rhodes. If we write Rhodes out of history then we need to write pretty much every successful leader up to that point out of history too, from Alexander, Xerxes, Genghis and Caesar through to Napoleon and Victoria. Empires, caliphates, dynasties and theocracies are always built on the backs of weaker people, if they weren't they'd be unions, trading zones or commonwealths; this is simply what the history of evolved primates half a chromosome away from chimpanzees looks like, we can't undo it but what we can do is learn from it, warts and all.

In almost every mass human movement there has ever been, some people benefit and some lose out (from their own perspective), religions, political systems, kings, queens, popes and empires all bring a mix of advances and injustices, we can learn things from both but we cannot easily apply moral judgement on them from the perspective of our position in the time-line for the simple reason that the moral zeitgeist changes over time. For example, even to this day the Rhodes estate provides a scholarship to non-English students at Oxford, it has so far been awarded to over 8000 students, should all those degrees now be rescinded? Our history is what it is, by looking at it we aren't in any way condoning it, rather preserving it for future generations to learn from. If we selectively erase the bits that don't suit current views on what is moral and acceptable then we make ourselves just like the regimes, imperialists, theocrats and despots that we are claiming to oppose, rewriting history is the first thing they all do.

No comments: