The Colossus of Rhodes: Why we must keep Oxford University's statue
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Standing tall among the pantheon of my personal heroes is George Orwell. His seminal work Nineteen Eighty-Four distills twentieth century totalitarianism into a barrage of essential maxims, spat out by the insidious O'Brien. Most noteworthy of these is the quote, "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past".
Orwell means something not entirely dissimilar to the point I'd like to make in this article. Viewing the entirety of history through a liberal lens can easily distort it. Many liberals do this and think that they are on the right side of history - that their progressivism will triumph over the dusty forces of conservatism; that their radicalism will annihilate the dastardly reactionaries. And this conflict can best be seen at Oxford University, where far-left students are trying to tear down statues of the university's benefactor, Cecil Rhodes.
Rhodes' views are horrible; less so, however, contextually. That is no excuse for his views, of course. It is undeniable that he did much to help Oxford, such as his creation of the Rhodes Scholarship.
Alongside George Orwell on the plinth of my heroes is Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States, scientist, political theorist, and politician. Carved under the dome of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington D.C. is a plaque with a quote from Jefferson himself: "For I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." So too are the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident.. that all men are created equal".
The towering statesman and consummate polymath is best known today as a staunch defender of individual liberty, and for his role in creating and enshrining the rights which every American enjoys today - so that they can stand up and say, "I am American, and free-born at that". For all he said about liberty, Jefferson did not practice it fully. Like many people at the time, Jefferson owned slaves. His plantation at Monticello in Virginia had around 600 slaves during his lifetime.
Yet, I don't want the Jefferson Memorial bulldozed. I don't want to see his preserved home, Monticello, razed. Nor do I want to see the White House burned (again).
If this seems too temporally distant, just look at another leader: this time, British politician and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Most people don't doubt that Churchill's effective leadership and soaring oratory allowed both himself and Britain to weather the storm of the Second World War, and ultimately purge Nazism from the European continent. In spite of this, Churchill had outstandingly unenlightened views about colonial India.
Yet I (and most people) don't want his statue outside the House of Commons pulled to the ground.
The point of this is that the razing of statues seems to be arbitrary at best. Is it the death toll of someone's actions the factor in deciding whether someone should be remembered through a statue? Then why do we preserve the state of Oliver Cromwell outside the Commons, when he (literally) decimated the population of Ireland? As an ardent Whig myself, I don't cry "violence!" when I see a statue of Charles I.
And now the relevance of the title: to rip down the statues of Rhodes would be pretending that Victorian imperialism never existed; it would be to create a secret of a colossal historical truth. Ripping down Rhodes' statue would do nothing to eliminate it from our cultural conscience - instead, we would lie to ourselves, and pretend that we have forgotten this long-remembered guilt.
Such an act would be as if we were pretending these atrocities did not exist - a kind of self-imposed censorship; a mind-forged manacle that would prevent future generations from thinking about Rhodes and the imperalism he represented.
If we don't remember all of our country's history - the good and the bad, the philanthropic and the imperialist, the liberal and the racist - then we condemn ourselves to be cultural amnesiacs: neither sure or where or who we are, from whence we came, or where we intend to go. Intellectual blank spaces behind us are confusing; the void ahead terrifying. Who will know of our failures and follies if we don't know them ourselves? Far better it would be to put up plaques, explaining the historical context in which the ideas of Rhodes flourished, than to erase it and pretend such atrocities did not happen.
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