Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Culture wars are about our society

The notion of collective racial guilt undermines all institutions

“Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

Well at least everyone then is equal, the iconoclast might proclaim, but the close of Shelley’s Ozymandias captures not only the fate of all human ambition but also a more specific sense of the decline of civilisations in the face of historical processes.

Iconoclasm is a particularly abrupt form of such extinction. It is the death of history proclaimed by many revolutionary movements as they seek to enforce a new order of priorities. The past therefore has to be destroyed, and it is not some accidental by-product of the revolutionary process but a key to its purpose, policy and means. For The Guardian therefore to proclaim the current episode as Britain’s Cultural Revolution is to offer an echo to an episode of horrific violence and destruction.

There are fundamentally different approaches to society and history at work, and there are few options for any solution to bridge them. The notion of history as a trust between the generations, one in which we do not have to agree with our predecessors but we need to try to understand them, as our descendants we hope will do for us, is an organic notion, and is crucial for continuity and the sense of values that comes with that.

The opposing view is one in which the present, or an account of the present, or what is argued as the necessary present, is enforced and the past discarded. In philosophical, moral and ethical terms, there are all sorts of problems and confusion with that view, but that might be too abstract, so we can dramatize it by reference to Martin Niemöller’s “they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist…” quote. After all, if you validate a determination to remove all traces of Britain’s imperial past because you hate it, what about moving on to religion or capitalism, or meat-eaters. If you dislike political creeds, what about Karl Marx’s tomb; or for those who went to call on Hitler anything to do with Lloyd George; or for those who expressed racist views anything to do with Gandhi.

And why just statues. If these people are supposedly evil, surely all their books should be removed from libraries, and we can have a trace and track system to hunt down all those who ever expressed interest or even just read any of these books. And, of course, since “white society,” whatever that is, is supposedly institutionally racist, the views of “whites” are of no consequence unless expressed in terms of abject contrition. And presumably, those of mixed race are only half acceptable and so on ad infinitum, for we are back in the Nazi world of supposed race guilt and racial classification.

If that seems too far, I suggest you just try reading the Twitter feed of many of the commentators that find a ready platform in the Guardian and on the BBC. You get very strange rationales. One prominent Oxford academic, whom I wrote about in the Article, regretted that Britain had not been conquered in World War Two as then, he alleged, it would have understood what it was like to be under imperial control. Presumably all war memorials will have to go because a cause was the protection of the empire. So the attacks on Churchill and the Cenotaph are not add-ons by those who are out of control on exuberance or reacting against Covid-19 lockdown (including sexual frustration), but crucial to the determination to rewrite our history.

Again, you might think my reference to the Cenotaph over the top, but the Bomber Command Memorial at Hyde Park Corner has already been attacked, and more attacks on war memorials will follow.

Back to “white privilege.” As in America, many “whites” are poor or went to prison or die from drugs. There should be no desire to compete in misery, but it is very odd to see, in my university and others, pampered public sector workers with good pensions and status, most the product of several generation university families, think that their privileges in any way accords with the vast majority of the country, ‘white’ or ‘black.’

This is not about statues but a culture war, one in which the forces of illiberalism, intolerance and hatred brilliantly masquerade behind the call for righting the past

The prospect of a political mess of the first order is there, in part due to a failure of political intelligence, let alone skill, on the part of government(s). If commentators are able to create a view of politics organised around racial lines, while institutions are in the hands of the sympathetic Left or an establishment unable to confront the situation because of its fear of offending people, then we are in for a dire period of all-round anger and entrenching the narratives of unfairness and racism, narratives that are socially divisive and psychologically dangerous, although they provide jobs, influence and status for agitators and for the commentators. The economic shock of Covid will greatly exacerbate the situation, and the notion of collective racial guilt or systemic racism in practice undermines all institutions because there is never enough in this situation. And clearly, the commentators who push these views, whatever sophistry they indulge in, are in practice vindicating assaults on the police.

From the historical perspective, the current agitation about memorials ignores not only the trust between the generations but also the subject’s most essential foundation, a sense of context. For example, the agitation over the Dundas monument in Edinburgh on the grounds that he delayed the abolition of the slave trade ignores the context of the extraordinarily bloody (terrible black on black violence part of it, alongside white on black, black on white, and white on white) Saint-Domingue slave revolt in 1791 and the concern that immediate abolition of the slave trade and slavery would encourage similar massacres in the British colonies. Dundas’s gradualist approach was seeking a way forward that might avoid this. It is the old battle between the fanatical well-intentioned idealists and the practical politicians who had to work with realities.

In providing a snap judgement, modern judgements also appear to take little account of the degree to which people change their minds; and also, alongside views that today lack favour, did things of benefit, as with Colston, Guy and Rhodes, all great philanthropists where are we going to stop? Take Elizabeth I. She signally honoured Drake, knighting him on board his own ship, and she benefited financially from his exploits and those of other interlopers into the Spanish empire. Should we remove all statues, images etc of Queen Elizabeth? Or every monarch under whom colonies with slaves were founded or run, for example Charles II. Or writers whose views on race are now unacceptable, for example Dickens with his comments on those more concerned about the Governor’s very harsh response to the Morant Bay Uprising on Jamaica in 1865 than about the plight of the poor in Britain. And of course, there are the “guilty” who should have said more about race: Austen, Joyce, Eliot, Woolf et al.

As for the teaching of the history of the slave trade. Of course, but any realistic discussion of the trade would have to give an important place to the African kings, merchants, slave hunters, and others, who supplied the European merchants. There would have been no slave trade without the active and willing participation of generations of African suppliers. Somehow I doubt that that fits in with the theme of collective white guilt.

Certainly not given the propaganda push. Thus, Fope Olaleye, black students’ officer at the National Union of Students, quoted in The Guardian on Friday:

“Decolonising the curriculum means providing an accurate portrayal of history and providing students and staff with the tools to critically identify [how] the university reproduces colonial hierarchies. This will empower them to confront and reject the status quo and ensure knowledge production reflects our diverse society.”

And so on with comments by academics and Rebecca Long-Bailey, now Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary.

Distorting our knowledge and understanding of the past by making it a matter of good or bad is a reductionism that is lazy and crude and stupid and dangerous. Academics serving up explanation in terms of race are similarly reductionist and similarly stupid.

This is not about statues but a culture war, one in which the forces of illiberalism, intolerance and hatred brilliantly masquerade behind the call for righting the past and very much to the profit of a conceited and self-interested cadre of would-be revolutionaries; but do let them go first-class to their conferences, and remember that his/her title is Professor.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover