5 thoughts on that statue at Oriel #RhodesMustFall

by Stephen Tall on January 29, 2016

rhodes oriel

‘Cecil Rhodes statue to be kept by Oxford University college’, the BBC notes. Here’s my hot take…

1. I’m glad I’m not working in the alumni office at Oriel College – having been an Oxford fundraiser for 13 years, I can only begin to imagine the correspondence they’ve been dealing with since this storm erupted. Oriel says its decision to rescind its earlier decision and to let Rhodes statue stand has had nothing to do with the response of its old members. Yeah, right! I’ve no idea if the £100m threatened cost in lost donations and legacies is at all likely, but – let’s remember – Oriel was the last college in Oxford to agree to admit women (1986): there will be little sympathy with tearing down its heritage.

2. I find myself quite conflicted on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. I go to Spain regularly (my partner is Spanish and our son has dual nationality), and to see the fascist dictator Franco publicly commemorated to this day, most notably with his tomb at Valle de los Caídos (The Valley of the Fallen), is jarring. Why haven’t the Spanish torn down these monuments, as Iraqis famously did when the statute of Saddam Hussein was toppled? Because both right and left made a conscious decision in 1975 to avoid any form of truth and reconciliation and instead to commit to el pacto del olvido (‘The Pact of Forgetting’) — which is easier said than done for those whose lives were torn apart by its brutal civil war.

3. Oliver Moody in The Times wrote the best defence of the Rhodes memorial I’ve read:

If the Rhodes statue must be a symbol, then let it be a symbol of our freedom to demur without hating; to criticise without silencing; to live in civil disagreement with our own history. It seems a bit thick that a boring effigy of a man you could very reasonably call a complete tool should become a monument to the established British tradition of not being a complete tool. But so be it. Rhodes must stand.

While Ian Dunt rightly reminded us not to conflate this latest student furore – an entirely legitimate debate about how we come to terms with our dubious past – with pathetic, infantilising attempts by student unions to close down debate through no-platforming controversial speakers:

The Cecil Rhodes statue does not have a voice. It is not talking. It cannot shut up any more than it already is. The petition calling for its removal does not demand that those who hold racist views or believe in colonialism should be censored. It is, admittedly, full of the usual rhetorical devices of the student censorship movement, including the insistence that the university is a “home” rather than a place of learning and a systematic misuse of the word “violence”. But the issue itself, whether the statue should be removed, is not a free speech issue. The only free speech issue which would arise is if those supporting “Rhodes Must Fall” are silenced from what is a perfectly valid debate.

4. Of course if Rhodes is pulled down, clean-up efforts won’t stop there. Just as US students at Princeton have turned their attention to the segregationist views of Woodrow Wilson, why wouldn’t British students question Winston Churchill’s racist attitudes and culpability for the Bengal famine? Once we put history in the dock, we won’t be short of blokes with dodgy pasts to put on trial.

5. My personal view is that there are far more important, useful ways of trying to make amends for our past than to debate bits of carved masonry. But, I’m aware (and many opposing Rhodes Must Fall would do well to imagine themselves into the protesters’ shoes for a moment) that is easy for me to say.