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Must Cecil Rhodes fall?

Must Cecil Rhodes fall?

A number of years ago, a Liverpool councillor suggested renaming some of the city’s streets because they were connected with its slave trading past.  A number were nominated and it was only the fact that one of them, Penny Lane, had other, more positive, associations that the plan came to nothing.

In the other corner of England, residents of Colchester have long debated whether to rename Stalin Road in that town (I’m rather tickled by the idea of a suburban street in Essex named after a brutal, Communist mass murderer, but the fact that adjacent roads are named Churchill Way and Roosevelt Way helps explain why). Quite a few people have cast doubts over the ongoing presence of Sir Henry Havelock, the general who played a lead role in the Indian Mutiny, in several street names and in Trafalgar Square.

And of course, we are presently enduring the saga of Cecil Rhodes, the target of some irate Oxford students (one of whom is – ironically? – a Rhodes scholar himself), who want the university to remove his statue on account of his allegedly being an apologist for “racist mass murder”. 

Cecil Rhodes would not stand much of a chance if he applied to head up the Equality and Human Rights Commission today. But, as Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, has explained Rhodes was not the monster of these students’ fertile imaginations. An imperialist, no doubt, Rhodes nonetheless compares well to the standards of his time – although not of course to ours because we are much more enlightened, civilised, humane, and decent that our great-grandparents.

The problem with this saga is how far do you go. Should the multitude of Martyrs’ Lanes be renamed to avoid offending atheists?  Or the many St. Mary’s Streets to avoid offending Protestants?  Or the uncountable number of roads named after English monarchs to avoid offending republicans? More or less every Oxford College has some deep Christian foundation: should we grub these up for our more secular-minded undergraduates? Marshal Ferdinand Foch (pronounced Fosh, in case you were wondering) might have been a compared to Napoleon as military commander by his contemporaries, not to mention a man of some prescience (describing the Versailles Treaty as not a peace but an armistice for twenty years) but military historians have been more critical of his achievements, pointing out that he was largely responsible for the futile and bloody French offensives early in the First World War: is that enough to remove him from his statue outside Victoria Railway Station?

Biggar made a similar point last night in an Oxford Union debate on the Rhodes issue, for if Rhodes must fall on the stated grounds, so should Churchill, and probably Abraham Lincoln, neither of whom were exactly racially egalitarian.

The Rhodes campaign marries two trends of our age – liberalism and identity politics – which, when untethered from any objective understanding of the good, wreak havoc. The former treats the individual as sovereign and encourages us to mould everything – gender, race, history – around what we presently feel to be good; the latter grounds our personal identity in that of a (usually oppressed, usually minority) group and allows us to draw on deep-wells of moral indignation rather than careful argument to get our way.

Sharper eyes will notice the two trends have enormous potential to clash, as they have recently when feminists like Germaine Greer have come into conflict with transgender campaigners, or when white American civil rights activist, Rachel Dolezal, claimed she was black. The fact that untethered liberalism dissolves precisely the identity markers needed for identity politics is an uncomfortable fact for those who seek to draw on both.

In truth, the Rhodes debate is less about race than about history, and specifically how we deal with the seemingly immobile subject of what is past.

At one extreme, we do not: it deals with us.  ‘There is nothing but the past/ Brittle with relics’, the poet R.S. Thomas wrote in one of his (many) gloomy moments.  The past tells us who we are, where we are and what the future holds. We cannot change it. It is our gaoler.

At the other extreme, fired by the arrogance of posterity, we abolish it.  Renaming streets and toppling statues is different to, but on the same spectrum as, erasing events, documents and people.  We manage the past by re-inventing it or by pretending it never happened.  Stalin Street is, perhaps appropriately, airbrushed from history.

Living with the past – recognising but transcending it – is more difficult.  ‘If anyone is in Christ, new creation,’ Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘the old has gone, the new has come.’ 

But what does ‘gone’ mean?  The resurrected Christ had scars where Roman metal had sliced him open. The marks of his torture and his triumph had not ‘gone’. But nor did they retain their power.  They had been overcome, like the weapons that inflicted them, by the one they sought to overcome.

Perhaps such marks of the past, like the streets named after those who grew rich on the misery of millions, or statues of people we feel uncomfortable about today –should remain with us, not as signs of who or where we are, but as reminders of whence we have come.

Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos and the author of Atheists: the Origin of the Species | @theosnick

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