It seems now that Cecil Rhodes is set to stay up in his eerie on the front of Oriel College, Oxford, looking out at the High Street, after the decision of the Governing Body of the college. I’m not entirely convinced by their reasoning, but you take the good where you can.
However, what this means, of course, is that there is a stack of protestors now in search of a new cause to demonstrate for (or actually, against; it has always struck me as somehow depressing that the demonstrations are always against something, rarely, if ever, in favour of anything. Negativity rules amongst the protesting classes, I fear.)
Anyway, #rhodesmustfall doesn’t cut it any more, so what to do? Well, there’ve been the small victories of the swimming Edward Colston and the replacement of the name of Gladstone on a residence hall of some provincial university with that of a nonentity no-one has ever heard of, but where is the next big target?
(Incidentally, just to be clear on this one: Gladstone was one of the great liberal (in the true, traditional meaning of the word) Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom. The suggestion that he is unfit to be commemorated in such a way is at the same time laughable and insulting. Just a personal view, of course…)
But there’s lots of scope for redundant #rhodesmustfall specialists. Already, Darwin, Newton, Shakespeare and Jane Austen (yes, really) are being drawn into the frame. And for the truly creative reputation-trasher, why not have a look at Hardy, Dickens, the Brontës, Chaucer and the Venerable Bede; must be lots to objet to there - they were in the past, so almost by definition they must have done something beyond the pale. In fact, one shouldn’t be too Anglo-centric either about whom should be banished from thought forever. Why not also have a go at Balzac, Voltaire, Racine and Schiller? Bound to have said something that could be cited as controversial or unacceptable in 2021.
This is a serious matter, though. There are things - injustices - today, right now, that shatter lives and kill suffering people. I have no way of proving this statistic, but it occurs often enough for me to be persuaded that it probably has some relationship to the truth: there are something like forty million slaves in the world today. Most of them not in the UK, the US or western Europe; but that’s where most of the shouting takes place about events - truly horrible events, I agree - that happened two or four hundred years ago. Today, as I write this, and then as you read it, children are being obliged to risk their lives in unsafe, artisanal (such a comforting word for such a dreadful meaning) mines to dig the cobalt, for example, that enables the batteries that power the i-phones that enable the photos to be taken of the jubilant, ‘virtuous’ protesters standing next to the fallen Colston, or the daubing of ‘Churchill was a racist’. And in that photo - “oh, and let me just get the right pose for Twitter/Instagram/whatever” - the T-shirt was quite likely produced under conditions that we would find very close to slavery.
How have we got here? How is it that hundreds of thousands - maybe millions globally - of people can rant about past failings, yet are indifferent to real injustices now? Is it just because it’s so much easier, and that photo proves how virtuous you are? Couldn’t the now supernumerary #rhodesmustfall crew begin to understand that people are of their time, and those times may not conform with what we want now? Bad things have happened, but they are not banished just by making them invisible. The time when you can change things is now; throwing Colston in the river or pulling Cecil off his perch isn’t going to change anything for those children in the Congolese mines.
Or perhaps they’re just like me, I’m sorry to have to admit, and able to close their eyes because of the i-phone, the laptop, the electric car and all the other paraphernalia of twenty-first century western society……….