Rhodes must remain.

For months, Oriel College, Oxford University students have campaigned to remove its statue glorifying the racist mass murderer, Cecil Rhodes. They were inspired by the campaign in the University of South Africa, which succeed in removing a statue glorifying Rhodes.  students believed that by removing depictions of Rhodes, they signalled the University's commitment to inclusivity, and was a step forward in dispelling Oxford's reputation of inherent racism. The issued was debated by the Oxford Union, a private student's debating society, link here.  The chamber ruled for Rhodes' removal by 245 in favour to 212 in opposition.  However, this verdict precipitated outrage from donors, who threatened to withdraw gifts worth 100 million.  After this intervention, On the 29th January 2016, the University announced the statue would remain.  

This campaign was interesting for a number of reasons; it raised notions of freedom of speech, institutionalised racism and our representation of history.  

Students want to create a more inclusive environment, for ethnic minority students in particular, even if it means altering the University's history.  This action can often be justified. For example, Dutch painters in the 17th and 18th centuries were fascinated by the different races encountered by colonists – “negroes” and “hottentots” as they were called. And such words were used as titles for the paintings. In 2017 the words are inadmissible, and the Rijksmuseum is retitling its works, in order to lose all racist connotations. Yet there is no escaping the truth of this action. The Rijksmuseum is changing the words of the time – airbrushing, a period of Dutch life – and its attitude to newly colonised peoples – out of Dutch artistic history. An art historian may be enraged, but a non-white Dutch citizen,  will be as delighted that past misfortunes and injustices are being addressed. As long as the original titles are not exorcised and entombed, it is a more than justified move.

However, the problem facing Oriel college is not quite as black and white, Cecil Rhodes was a student there. Not only did he create Rhodes scholarships but gave generously to his college – and the Rhodes building that fronts on to Oxford’s High Street commemorates their donor with a life-sized statue.  Rhodes was the quintessential racist, British supremacist and imperialist, and many argue that he should not be celebrated in a 21st-century university.

Oriel however, has to tread carefully. Rhodes, as influential as he was, cannot be removed from the history of Oxford, Britain and South Africa. What’s more, Rhodes cannot be regarded as a lone wolf, an especially repugnant racist; the pseudo-scientific concepts of race and breeding as explanations of good character were widespread within western culture in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. John Keynes, the acclaimed economist, was an advocate of eugenics as a young man; Woodrow Wilson, a great progressive American president and founder of the League of Nations, believed non-whites did not have the character to govern. Winston Churchill was as convinced of the inherent superiority of the Anglo-Saxon peoples as Rhodes.

For all their lofty achievements,  they are profoundly flawed objects of veneration; at worst, they are object lessons in how not to think. The only way through this maze is to understand the historical context – which requires an open mind, freedom of debate and unobstructed access to facts: a combination that 'Rhodes Must Fall' campaigners have lacked throughout.

The argument to topple Rhodes is fundamentally flawed because of its lack of a endpoint.  Once Rhodes falls for his crimes in the Cape Colony, what is to stop Churchill from falling for his views of forced sterilisation of the 'feeble minded'? or Cromwell from falling at the hands of the Irish, having decimated 41% of their population? Once Rhodes falls, every minority group will have sufficient justification to topple symbols of prejudice and oppression. As idealistic as this appears, we cannot simply alter the nature of our history according to the views of contemporary society.  Therefore, for the absolute necessity of preserving our history from the destructive forces of political correctness, Rhodes must remain.

The statue of Rhodes being removed from the University of South Africa


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