Quest to tear down statues over past racism is intellectually vapid

January 21, 2016
The statue of Cecil John Rhodes is bound by straps as it awaits removal from the University of Cape Town (UCT), April 9, 2015. UCT's Council voted on Wednesday to remove of the statue of the former Cape Colony governor, after protests by students. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTR4WMJ3

The statue of Cecil John Rhodes is bound by straps as it awaits removal from the University of Cape Town, April 9, 2015. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings

The late 19th century was a great age for putting up statues, and the early 21st, for pulling them down. As the states of the European empires gained their independence, the statues and other memorials of their colonial masters came to seem ridiculous. 

The Congolese President Mobutu Sese Seko ordered the statue of King Leopold II of Belgium — a more than usually rapacious imperialist — removed from the capital, Kinshasa, in 1967. Re-erected in 2005 on the grounds that the king had some “positive aspects,” it caused widespread offense and was taken down again in hours.

The British businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes has fared less well. The man who “created” Rhodesia lived and died in southern Africa, making a vast fortune from diamond mining. He believed that Britain should run the world — a version of his will directed the trustees to fund a “secret society… the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world.” Though his 

The novelist John Buchan, himself strongly imperialist, described Rhodes as “a murky and distorted genius.” Rhodes lived in an age where the doctrines of Herbert Spencer, Thomas Malthus and even Charles Darwin inclined the imperialist British to regard British white men as the summit of a descending hierarchy of intelligence and fitness to rule: to believe the empire’s motherland should inherit the earth was no large stretch.

The statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town was removed last April, as the university authorities supported the students’ “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign. Yet in neighboring Zimbabwe — once Rhodesia — President Robert Mugabe has not bowed to pressure from war veterans to dig up Rhodes’ body from its grave near the city of Bulawayo: Godfrey Mahachi, head of the country’s museums and monuments, said that “it is part of national history and heritage and therefore it should not be tampered with” — and it hasn’t been.

No such view among many students of color in Britain’s most famed university. The “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign has come to Oxford, where there’s a Rhodes statue in a niche of Oriel College, Rhodes’ alma mater. Brian Kwoba, a PhD. student and leader of the campaign, said that “Cecil Rhodes is responsible for all manner of stealing land, massacring tens of thousands of Black Africans, imposing a regime of unspeakable labor exploitation in the diamond mines and devising proto-apartheid policies” — and he’s right.

Oxford’s chancellor, the former Conservative cabinet minister Chris Patten, has robustly told the protesters that if they “aren’t prepared to show the generosity of spirit which Nelson Mandela showed towards Rhodes and towards history… then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere.”

In the United States, as in the United Kingdom, students have seized on memorials they deem oppressive and speech they deem offensive — and are prepared to campaign militantly to have these wrongs removed. The campaign at Yale University, where racial tensions began to escalate last fall, is the most complex. In a detailed piece on the dispute, the Columbia Journalism Review’s Danny Funt wrote that “protesters demand exemption from the rules of open discourse.”

That isn’t how they see it. One of the exhibits in the racism charge is that black women students seeking entrance to a fraternity party last October were allegedly turned away, because the organizers would accept “white girls only”: the reporting of the event by the Yale Daily News was judged as racist, according to the CJR piece, because its account “incensed some students, who felt it made the denial too prominent and reduced allegations to a he said, she said stalemate.”

Around the same time, back in the UK, the writer Germaine Greer, a leading, highly individualistic feminist of her generation (she’s in her mid-70s) was the target of an attempt by students at Cardiff University to ban a talk she was to give because she did not believe that transgendered men were women. She was labeled “transphobic” for expressing views hurtful to transsexuals. She seemed at first inclined not to give the talk — but assured of security, she did, and repeated her views with her usual clarity: “I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock. You can beat me over the head with a baseball bat. It still won’t make me change my mind.”

A recent poll by the magazine Spiked showed that half the UK universities have some form of curb on free speech, applied by the student unions. Many of those restrictions are at the top universities, such as the London School of Economics, Edinburgh and Cardiff. 

At both Yale and Cardiff, the notion that speech should be free is being inverted: freedom can be oppression, where what is freely said is judged to hurt, or show lack of respect, or contain masked prejudice. That’s intellectually vapid: it speaks to a space populated by groups and individuals unable to speak to each other, struggling for the right to have their view accepted before they discuss.

The Yale protests, and those against Rhodes’ statues in Cape Town and Oxford, however, raise the more substantial matters of race, the legacies of imperialism and the low representation of students of color in the student body, and even more among scholars. On this, something can be done: at Oxford, especially, student admissions are heavily skewed to pupils from British private schools, who tend to be white. (Though a rising proportion are of Asian descent. Afro-British student numbers are rising more slowly, and Afro-British scholars even more so.)

But the statues of Rhodes should be left where they are (too late, for Cape Town). In keeping with the spirit and practice of a university, they could be accompanied by a plaque of some size, linking to a website, with an unvarnished history of the man’s actions, illuminating what Buchan called his “murky” qualities, as well as what Mahachi wants: an account of his contribution to Zimbabwe’s, and South Africa’s, heritage. 

Statues erected to commemorate should remain to spur reflection, and criticism. In these eruptions of cultural warfare, the only guide is mutual commitment to understand — which can never end, if we retain liberal values. 

10 comments

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Quest to tear down statues over racism is intellectually vapid -by some old racist white guy

no thanks

Posted by shelostcontrol | Report as abusive

Well Robert E. Lee, for example, was a failed general of a terrorist organization. The confederacy started a war against the United States and lost. Would we put up a statue of Hitler or a Japanese Emperor?

I agree these statues should not be taken down however. They should be blown up with dynamite, and the ceremony uploaded to Youtube.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

While the old(white male)-guard fights to retain the hold they’ve enjoyed over the highers of life in Western society – higher education, higher learning, higher morals, higher worth, etc – the rest of the world is waking to the con. What you deem vapid is but a revolution of compassion. We no longer need statues to commemorate the wrongs of your institution, we have our lives to show us that men like Rhodes don’t deserve reverence. They never did.

Tear them down and plant in their place the seeds of acceptance.

Posted by tenebrisvaccum | Report as abusive

Cultural revolution in 21st century. Revise history from the loser’s perspective.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

Well yes, but nobody would, or should, tolerate a Hitler statue. And Lenin statues have been pulled down throughout Ukraine, as they should be, though some leftists have tried to pull the “historical monument” argument there as well.

Posted by bluepanther | Report as abusive

But the statues of Napoleon, Lenin (too late, for Kiev and Sofia), Hitler (too late, for Berlin, Nuremberg and Vienna), Stalin (too late, for Moscow, Tsaritsyn – earlier Stalingrad), and Brezhnev (too late, for Sofia and Kabul), should be left where they are. And new ones should be built of Churchill and Roosevelt (too late, for Dresden), of Johson, Nixon (too late, for Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Vientiane and Phnom Penh), of Regan (too late, for St. George’s), Bush (too late, for Panama City), of Bush – Jr. (too late, for Kabul and Baghdad), of Putin (too late, for Grozny), of Sarkozy too late, for Bamako), etc.

Posted by Ifandiev | Report as abusive

Intellectual vapidity is now a major in most American and European universities. It also goes by the names “Sociology” and “Ethnic Studies”.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

Too wonderful that even feminazys have now tired of Greer. May she spend her remaining years muttering to herself in some distant corner of Oz.

Posted by DavidHume | Report as abusive

I have been urinating on the Robert E. Lee Statue in New Orleans for over 24 years now. It is finally smelling like the rest of New Orleans.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Meet the New Boss! Same as the Old Boss!

Posted by MattInWisconsin | Report as abusive