Back in February 2016 in this space, we reported on the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement. This little gem of anti-historical political correctness was cofounded by one Ntokozo Qwabe, a young South African law student who was attending Keble College, Oxford, courtesy of a Rhodes scholarship, which paid not only his school fees but also provided him with roundtrip airfare from South Africa and an annual stipend of £13,658. Despite—or was it partly because of?—these benefactions, Mr. Qwabe dedicated himself to having a statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College, the great philanthropist’s alma mater.
The “Rhodes Must Fall” movement enjoyed its mayfly’s moment of attention. Students at the Oxford Union voted 245 to 212 to remove the statue of Rhodes as part of a wider movement of “decolonization.” (This was the same body that, in 1933, resolved by a vote of 275 to 153 that “this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country.”) The movement found grateful echoes in the United States, where calls to remove statues of Robert E. Lee, Thomas Jefferson, and many other Southern heroes and statesmen enjoyed a brief and shameful publicity. (In the States, this embarrassing animus against history has mostly moved on to the field of literature: schools in Duluth, Minnesota, for example, have removed To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from their curricula because the books contain words of which the P.C. Gauleiters disapprove.)
Eventually, however, some modicum of common sense, leavened by a strategic dollop of self-interest, stopped the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement in its tracks. Speaking up for common sense were professors like Nigel Biggar, who pointedly observed that if the statue of Rhodes were removed, then statues of Winston Churchill would be next on the list of proscribed figures. “If Rhodes must fall,” he said, “so must Churchill, whose views on empire and race were similar. And so probably must Abraham Lincoln. While Lincoln liberated African-American slaves, he doubted they could be integrated into white society and favoured their separate development—their apartheid—in an African colony.” Professor Biggar’s central point was this: “If we insist on our heroes being pure, then we aren’t going to have any.”
If we insist on our heroes being pure, then we aren’t going to have any.
The element of self-interest raised its head when donors to Oriel made it clear that were the statue of Cecil Rhodes to go, so would their millions of pounds in donations. In the end, public opinion swung decisively against the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, and it sputtered to an inglorious end, much to the disappointment of historical revisionists and champions of divisive identity politics everywhere.
A friend introduced us to an illuminating footnote to this drama. While the controversy was unfolding, the London Telegraph ran a story about the reaction to Rhodes in Zimbabwe, the country formerly known (until 1980) as Rhodesia, where young Cecil made his name and his fortune. Surely, Zimbabwe would act to efface every trace of the man who conquered them and imposed upon them colonial rule.
In fact, the Zimbabweans have tended to act about Rhodes with far more historical savvy and common sense than preening African academic exports like Ntokozo Qwabe or Western social justice warriors. Cecil Rhodes is buried on the Matopo Hills some twenty miles south of Bulawayo, the second-largest city in Zimbabwe. A brass plaque proclaims the grave’s tenant. There have been occasional calls to exhume Rhodes from this place of honor, but they have always been successfully, and intelligently, resisted. The Telegraph reports on Middleton Nyoni, then the Town Clerk of Bulawayo, who dryly responded to a demand that Rhodes’s grave be moved: “It is the Taliban who destroy history—and I am not a Taliban. After Rhodes’s grave, who is next?”
Good question. Even the notorious Robert Mugabe, in effect the dictator of Zimbabwe for nearly forty years until he was forced from office in November 2017, understood that Cecil Rhodes was an inextricable part of Zimbabwe’s history. “I say to my people ‘listen, let him stay down there.’ Cecil Rhodes, well, that is history now.” As the Telegraph noted about Rhodes, “this particular Victorian helped to make them what they are. To erase his memory would be to erase part of themselves.” It is sad that so many Western progressives are innocent of that basic historical understanding and human sympathy.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 3
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