Magazine January 25, 2016, Issue

‘Rhodes Must Fall’

The University of Cape Town’s statue of Cecil Rhodes comes down, April 9, 2015. (Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images/Getty)
The rights and wrongs of a movement

Cecil Rhodes had a rocky 2015. He died in 1902, at the age of 48. His last words, according to lore, were, “So little done; so much to do.” He did a lot, in that relatively brief life. He made British colonialism boom in southern Africa. He also made a fortune in diamonds. And when he died, he left that fortune to a variety of public works.

He never married or had children. In this, he was like Alfred Nobel. And they wrote similar wills.

Rhodes was a racist, certainly in this sense: He believed that he and his fellow British were the superior race. He wanted to bring the whole world under its aegis. His ambition did not exclude the “recovery” of the United States, as he put it.

Back to his rocky 2015 — or to his will, first. He left the University of Cape Town the land on which its main campus now sits. There is accordingly a statue of Rhodes on that land. Or was. For decades, people grumbled about the statue, and this very much included Afrikaners, who resented Rhodes as a symbol and leader of their enemy: the British.

In March 2015, students at the university decided that the statue of Rhodes at last had to go — or, as they put it in their hashtag, “#RhodesMustFall.” Did they go about their protest in an orderly, logical, civilized way? Don’t be silly. Students don’t have the time or patience for that now.

First, they smeared excrement on the statue (human excrement). Then they occupied a university building, making numerous demands. And they revived an old radical slogan: “One settler, one bullet!”

Needless to say, they got their way. Within a month, the statue was felled, and the students had a new black-studies program.

Eight months later, in December, the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement moved to Oxford. This was Rhodes’s alma mater. He attended one of its colleges, Oriel, in the 1870s. On his death, he left the university a great deal of money — some of which was used for a building at Oriel, the Rhodes Building. It has a modest statue of the donor. This is the Rhodes that “must fall.”

There was also money for the scholarships, of course — the famous Rhodes Scholarships, which have now gone to almost 8,000 people. Rhodes wanted to help students who had, among other things, “moral force of character and instincts to lead.” Our Bill Clinton was a recipient. He certainly had instincts to lead.

In addition, Rhodes wanted to promote harmony between nations and reduce the likelihood of war. So, of course, did his contemporary, Nobel.

At Oxford, the anti-Rhodes movement has been led by a law student from South Africa, Ntokozo Qwabe. He is a proud radical. He was disgusted by the widespread sympathy for France after Islamists attacked Paris in November, killing 130 people. “I do NOT stand with France,” he wrote. “Not while it continues to terrorise and bomb Afrika & the Middle East for its imperial interests.” (The young man makes a practice of spelling “Africa” with a “k.” Why, I don’t know.) He also called for the banning of the French flag on campuses such as Oxford’s. He compared the tricolor to the Nazi swastika.

Interestingly, Qwabe is a Rhodes Scholar. Naturally, he has been accused of hypocrisy: benefiting from Rhodes’s largesse while trying to tear him down. Qwabe will have none of it. “I’m no beneficiary of Rhodes,” he wrote. “I’m a beneficiary of the resources and labour of MY people which Rhodes pillaged and enslaved.” In his mind, all he is doing is “taking back crumbs of the colonial loot of Rhodes & his colonial cronies.”

Hard as it may be to believe, Oriel College has not yet taken down the Rhodes statue. It says it will review the issue over a six-month period. From what we know about university administrators, especially when racial pressure is involved, I would not bet the ranch on the statue’s retention.

Like you, I bet, I find some of Rhodes’s views repulsive. Not all of them, but some. Yet I would be perfectly relaxed about him on a building. Would I think differently if I were a black African, or a black anything? Or if I were of Afrikaans descent, for that matter? There is a wise and old sentiment: It’s remarkably easy to bear injuries done to others.

But if Rhodes must fall, what about other figures? Queen Victoria presided over the whole thing — the colonial and imperial enterprise, certainly in that era. Should Victoria Station be razed, or renamed? What about Victoria, British Columbia?

Every generation is appalled by the failings of previous generations. Every generation thinks, “How could they have?” and pats itself on the back for being infinitely better. Someone once said, “Will people in the future say, ‘Can you believe that human beings once kept dogs on leashes and owned them as “pets”?’” That’s far-fetched, though useful as a thought experiment.

I wonder, in all seriousness, how future generations will look on our policy of abortion-on-demand. Some of the best people I have known have been pro-abortion (or “pro-choice,” they would probably say). I think they have a blind spot. What are my blind spots? I don’t know.

If we subjected historical figures to our highest standards, few would ’scape whipping. I think of Gunnar and Alva Myrdal, those progressive heroes. Swedish, no less! He won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics; she shared the Nobel Peace Prize, with a Mexican diplomat. No one would say they “must fall.” But do their fans know about their early flirtation with eugenics? What they wrote in the 1930s might curl your hair. They said that society had to confront the problem of how to “root out all types of physical and mental inferiority within the population, both the mentally retarded and the mentally ill, the genetically defective and persons of bad character.”

Bad character? Well, we can’t all be Rhodes Scholars.

Reluctant as I am to whip erring figures of the past, I would not want to be too loosey-goosey. Not too relativistic. I’m practically the only person I know, left or right, who liked George W. Bush’s second inaugural address — which was loaded with absolutes. “We will persistently clarify the choice before every ruler and every nation: the moral choice between oppression, which is always wrong, and freedom, which is eternally right.”

Once, William F. Buckley Jr. and the Reverend William Sloane Coffin were arguing on the former’s television show, Firing Line. Coffin didn’t like WFB’s moral stance (too firm). He quoted Goethe, to the effect that “I’ve never heard of a crime that I could not imagine myself committing.” WFB said (something like), “Oh? You can imagine yourself pushing them alive into ovens? Really?”

In brief, there is a line between judgment — proper judgment — and judgmentalism. It can be an effort to stay on the happy side of it.

Here at home, we have our own campus controversies. One of them has unfolded at Yale, where there is a residential college named after John C. Calhoun. He had an impressive résumé: House rep, senator, secretary of war, secretary of state, and vice president. He was also an alumnus of Yale, one of its brainy southerners.

There is a move to take his name off the college. I will quote the petition, which explains that Calhoun

was respected during his time as an extraordinary American statesman. But he was also one of the most prolific defenders of slavery and white supremacy in American history. At a time when many of his southern colleagues viewed slavery as a necessary evil, Calhoun infamously defended the institution as “a positive good.” His legacy is built on his vociferous defense of a state’s right to enslave blacks.

So help me, I agree with them. And if I had a say or an interest at Yale, I would be in favor of striking Calhoun’s name. Therefore, do I want to rename Washington, D.C.? Or raze the Jefferson Memorial? Or boycott Madison Square Garden? Let’s not give in to extremes.

It consoles me about Jefferson that he said (concerning slavery), “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.” Calhoun never did any such trembling, so far as anyone’s aware.

But again, where will it end? Elihu Yale — for whom the university at large is named — evidently had ties to the East Indian slave trade.

Not every college can be named for William Wilberforce, that great abolitionist from Britain, born in 1759, when slavery was a norm of human affairs (as it has been since human affairs began). We have a Wilberforce University in Ohio. Most of us would rather attend a Wilberforce than a Calhoun. And frankly, I would rather attend a Rhodes than an institution named after Ntokozo Qwabe, in his present, addled, ideologized state.

I have a friend who bought an apartment in Manhattan not long ago. (I’m not changing the subject.) He and his family liked the apartment a lot. But my friend didn’t like the name of the building, at all: the Oliver Cromwell. Gritting his teeth, he bought anyway.

About ten blocks to the south is Lincoln Center, which has the David H. Koch Theater, named after a man who donated $100 million. Mr. Koch is a libertarian, and the people who work in the theater are generally . . . not. They tend to hate the name of the place, and some refuse to say it. But none has quit over the issue, I gather.

We all have to suck it up a little in life. In the future, no doubt, lots of things will be named after Barack Obama, our first black president, and a progressive hero. I won’t like it, thinking Obama a disaster. When it looked like Iraq was going well, the comedian Jon Stewart said that he was worried his kids would have to attend George W. Bush High School. Unfortunately, he can rest easy.

Cecil Rhodes may not be resting too easy these days. Many people want to dig him up from the Matopos Hills of Zimbabwe — formerly Rhodesia — and ship him back to Britain, where he came from. Whole territories and countries were once named for him. Now he struggles to keep his mug on buildings that he paid for.

Next up for a name change? Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. He paid for that one, too. I don’t say that people should have to live under names that they abhor (though surely donors have some right to be honored). I do say that we should strain to be as wise, and humble, as possible. And that the excrement-smearers and building-occupiers and slogan-chanters should be told to grow up or leave.

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