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Let us now praise famous men (or erase them)

February 16, 2021

Sir Redvers Buller was a famous British general who fought against the Zulus and subsequently the Boers. Even though he wasn’t much of a general, he was a brave soldier who won the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest military honour.

He’s fairly typical of those imperial figures without whom the British Empire would not have been built. Unlike some of his peers, such as General Gordon (known as Gordon of Khartoum), who was something of a religious fanatic and met his end at the hands of the Sudanese Mahdi (someone we’re not allowed to call a religious fanatic), Buller was considered at the time to be a decent and level-headed chap.

So decent, in fact, that his mates organised a public subscription that paid for a statue to be erected of him on Biffin, his favourite horse, in his hometown of Exeter.

According to The Times, the local council had put the wheels in motion to remove Buller from his plinth after the Black Lives Matter protests last year. Those wheels included commissioning an “equality impact report”, presumably at public expense, that concluded:

The General Buller statue represents the patriarchal structures of empire and colonialism which impact negatively on women and anyone who does not define themselves in binary gender terms. The consultation will need to ensure that the views of women, trans-gender and non-binary people are captured and given due weight.

So the statue debate continues, with the added spice that we must now consider the views of trans-gender and non-binary people in determining whether the likes of Sir Redvers should be banished to a mouldering outhouse far from the public view.

And yes, of course the views of trans-gender people should be taken into account, though not because Sir Redvers offended them particularly. I should have thought that descendants of the Zulus might have a prior claim to be offended at his veneration. The Boers don’t count, we’re encouraged in certain quarters to believe, because they were white supremacists and the ancestors of those who created the wicked apartheid regime in South Africa. So they were as bad as Sir Redvers, even though he didn’t, by the way, have anything to do with our notorious concentration camps in which so many of them were incarcerated.

But as for women, non-binary and trans-gender people, their views matter not because of who they are, but because they are people. Like the rest of us.

Far be it for me, as a binary, male, non-oppressed person to mock those who feel that they are defined by their identity rather than their humanity. And yes, the historical record does need to be revisited so that the context of events can be seen through the eyes of more than binary, male, non-oppressed people.

But that’s happening already, through the efforts of female historians whose voices are as popular as those of their male counterparts: Mary Beard, Margaret McMillan and countless others. Although widely-read trans voices are a bit thin on the ground, we still have the late Jan Morris, whose genius has long been recognised, even if her transgender back story has always taken second place to admiration of her skills as a writer.

Where does this end? Are we at the point where any eminent person of British extraction who lived from the seventeenth century onwards is subject to censure because directly or indirectly they benefited from the colonisation of the New World, the African slave trade, the rape of South-East Asia, land grabs in Africa, the extermination of indigenous Australians and the robbery of opium-addled China?

Surely we should not be limiting our attention to Robert Clive, Edward Colston, Cecil Rhodes and other flagship targets of the statue hunters? Should we not be condemning every monarch, prime minister, merchant adventurer and banker who benefited from empire, which is just about all of them? And as for the rest of us, who even today study, work and participate in the institutions they endowed, should we not insist that their dubious origins should be expunged, so that their existence appears to be a miraculous thing, conjured out of nowhere?

We’ve not yet arrived at the point at which all aspects of our lives are reviewed to ensure that they meet the guiding principles of compliance with “the views of women, trans-gender and non-binary people”. Yet already those whose views are deemed non-compliant are subject to cancellation. Ask JK Rowling.

As of today, there is no high priesthood and no dominant creed. Just a number of influential advocates and their followers. Although there is no scripture, the various shades and flavours of opinion make me think of clouds of matter in the universe as they steadily congeal into suns and planets. Already we are being encouraged, as Lionel Shriver noted in The Sunday Times, to expunge the language of biological difference with bizarre replacements. Chestfeeding instead of breastfeeding; individuals with cervixes instead of women; “perinatal” instead maternity services; human milk instead of breastmilk. Anything, it seems that serves to acknowledge the difference between men and women.

Not that I’m seeking to brush away the pain of those who have suffered from gender dysphoria. But I worry that sooner or later there will be the ossification of belief, followed by rigid orthodoxies, that gain wide acceptance. And at that point there will surely emerge institutions. Governments will create departments in order to scoop up the votes of the faithful. No longer the over-broad Ministry for Women, but soon perhaps a Department for Gender.

Fine, so long as compliance with non-binary and trans orthodoxy doesn’t lead us down the path towards something equivalent to religious observance, wherein self-appointed censors issue fatwas such as the one dictating that cucumbers and tomatoes should not be sold next to each other since the former is symbolically male and the latter female. (This little nugget comes from an Iraqi cleric quoted by Brian Whitaker in his book Arabs Without God.)

But back to statues. You could argue that such monuments to famous people as remain in place can have a role as the cultural equivalent of graphite rods that prevent a meltdown in public discourse. The key, some believe, lies in explanatory plaques. While the statues themselves should remain in place as reminders of people who shaped events, influenced others and achieved extraordinary things, the plaques beneath them should be mutable. They could be temporary things that reflect the consensus of the current era, but would be subject to change as the received wisdom changes, which it undoubtedly will.

The plaques could also feature barcodes that link to sites moderated by museums, enabling you to discover more about the subject and to contribute your own perspective. Or perhaps not. We have enough online equivalents of Speaker’s Corner already.

As it happens, I agree with those who suggest that erecting statues of historical figures is an outmoded way of celebrating famous lives. There are very few historical figures who will not provide an opportunity for some section of the population to object to them for one reason or another.

And this, it seems to me, is the point of the fashion for targeting long-forgotten sculptures mouldering away in obscure corners of the country. The objective is not so much to get rid of them, but to stir up debate and discussion by trying to get rid of them. Whether that debate is based on fallacious reasoning, poisonous ideology or a genuine attempt to re-think historical orthodoxies depends on the campaigners, and whether the campaigns succeed depends on the willingness of officials and politicians to take up the cause. I like to hope that our willingness to think for ourselves also plays a part.

As for the “reappraisal” of icons such as Winston Churchill, I’m fine with that. A conference at the Cambridge college named after him in which he was roundly vilified as a racist monster is unlikely to do more than illustrate that no reputation is sacrosanct. Even if we end up re-writing school history books to reflect new orthodoxies, those orthodoxies will be challenged and replaced. The woke will fall asleep and wake again. History only dies when we forget it. The more we argue about it, the greater the chance that it will stay alive.

Besides, don’t we have more to worry about for the next few years than the reputations of Sir Redvers Buller, Winston Churchill and Cecil Rhodes? And however we describe them, breasts, cervixes and prostates have been around for all of recorded time, and they’re not going to disappear at the urging of a tiny minority that wishes to re-invent the English language.

“Let us now praise famous people with prostates” is not a phrase likely to echo down the centuries.

  1. Instead of “erasing”, or “canceling”, how about calling for “teaching”?

  2. I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling lonely.

    • Sorry to hear that Debby. Do you have no neighbours around you? Or are they all Trump supporters?

  3. (TWICE now, hit the wrong thing.)

    … because I can’t believe that idea is so hard to come by.

  4. I agree with all that you say, Steve. We cannot/ should not erase history, as long as there is a dialogue about it, we will always learn from it.

  5. Thanks Rohini. And actually, there has never been a better time to immerse yourself in history. There is so much brilliant work being done by historians and archaeologists at the moment.

  6. Instead of “erasing”, or “canceling”, how about calling for “teaching”? I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling lonely … because I can’t believe that idea is so hard to come by

    Does that help clarify?
    I’m about as cogent as this in person. Can you imagine trying to have a conversation with give and take?
    I don’t know what the in real time equivalent to hitting the wrong button is, but that kind of skip and jump is becoming my new norm.

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