LONDON – Oxford University’s Oriel College has decided not to tear down its statue of the British colonialist Cecil Rhodes, because of the “overwhelming message” it received that the statue should stay. The true motive appears to have been money.
The college reportedly cut short its promised six-month “listening exercise,” after it became clear that even to continue a debate on the subject could cost as much as £100 million in donations from alumni. That would catch the attention of any educational institution.
It was the correct decision, but Oriel has offered a poor lesson to its students. Not surprisingly, the #RhodesMustFallOxford campaign, which agitated for the statue’s removal, has cried foul over a “dishonest and cynical” decision. “The struggle continues!” says the campaign on its Facebook page. Well, struggle on. It’s good that students should get upset about the world’s injustices, past and present. Yet students are visitors at universities; they have no automatic right to control what these schools express in their stones.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and the University’s Chancellor, had it right when he said earlier this month that students were free to speak out against whatever they wish — Rhodes, racism or the British Empire — but not to erase history. If that’s what they need, “they should think about being educated elsewhere”:
“We have to listen to those who presume that they can re-write history within the confines of their own notion of what is politically, culturally and morally correct. We do have to listen, yes — but speaking for myself, I believe it would be intellectually pusillanimous to listen for too long without saying what we think, reaffirming the values that are at the heart of Karl Popper’s ‘Open Society’ and the generosity of spirit that animated the life of Nelson Mandela. One thing we should never tolerate is intolerance. We do not want to turn our university into a drab, bland, suburb of the soul where the diet is intellectual porridge.”
Smart people have pushed back against this argument. One point made is that this particular campus controversy is not an issue of free speech or the intolerance of it: A piece of rock carved into a likeness of Cecil Rhodes cannot speak. The question is what we choose to celebrate. And if the argument in favor of keeping Rhodes as a reminder of British history is taken to its logical conclusion, should it be OK to erect statues in commemoration of Hitler? Besides, were all those people liberated from their Communist yoke in Eastern Europe after 1989 wrong to tear down statues of Lenin and Stalin?
None of these arguments stands scrutiny. The point about Hitler and the Nazis is that they are exceptions at the extreme. As the U.S. attorney Mike Godwin famously pointed out, bringing them into any debate simply ends discussion and thought. Better analogies to draw on include other figures in history whom we would today consider abhorrent for certain of their beliefs and actions. Napoleon, for example, or virtually any Roman emperor. Or how about Queen Victoria? She certainly would have agreed with Rhodes, who ran the South African Cape Colony for her, about the gift that the superior British people brought to their imperial subjects by ruling them.
As the novelist Carlos Fuentes once said in (unsuccessfully) proposing a statue of the murderous Spanish conqueror Cortes, for Mexico City: “Our father was Hernan Cortes, whether we like it or not.”
As for other statues that get torn down, the trouble with Lenin and Stalin is that their monuments were planted throughout the Soviet empire precisely to erase history and debate. Every town had to have a Lenin statue, because agreement about the glory of his revolution and the regime he gave birth to was compulsory. Monuments to the pre-Soviet histories of Russia, Ukraine, Poland and others were often torn down to suppress their memories and make room for Lenin. Nothing of the kind could be said of Cecil Rhodes, in his nook on the walls of Oriel College.
Oxford’s students should carry on railing against Rhodes’s racist view of the world. But if his statue disappears, how will the next intake of students continue to learn and make that argument? Oriel should have made this clear from the start, based on the principle of what a university is for, not on popularity or lucre.
Based in London, Marc Champion writes on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal, an editor at the Financial Times and editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times.