July/August 2020: Letters to the Editor

The opportunity deaccessioning creates for activism


Dizzy the Master 

Disraeli would have smiled indulgently at Simon Heffer’s attack on him (Sacred Cows, April). He was bombarded with similar insults throughout his career. Most had an element that Heffer could not get away with. One of his senior backbenchers, Sir Rainald Knightley, never ceased railing against “that hellish Jew”. He was amazingly forgiving. When he died, a young gay Liberal admirer, Reggie Brett, wrote in his diary: “He was the most magnanimous statesman of our time” who in the end prevailed over “all but his most bigoted opponents”. A bigoted opponent like Heffer will never find it difficult to be rude about him.

There is material to spare. In 1841 he asked Peel for office, but flatly denied doing so in the Commons during the Corn Laws crisis, a classic Victorian high political drama with no holds barred. Peel showed himself the lesser figure in the merciless world of party politics by letting Disraeli get away with it.

Gladstone praised Dizzy as the master of the Tory party “which he understood perfectly and governed completely”. It has profited hugely from his richly varied legacy, emphasising imperialism in one era and social reform in another while turning time and again to his great theme of national unity.

All are documented in a slim volume of his wit and wisdom published in 1992 by his brilliant biographer, Robert Blake, and recently reissued. Though deplorable in its mean-spiritedness, Heffer’s diatribe is in a perverse way a testament to his enduring importance. Who today would bother to launch an onslaught on Gladstone?

Lord Lexden

London SW1

Simon Heffer writes: It says much for Lord Lexden’s conception of politics, honour and statesmanship that he should regard Peel as a “lesser figure” for his refusal to humiliate Disraeli for the appalling lie he told in the Commons during the Corn Laws debate; but then, as the “official historian of the Conservative Party”, Lexden knows better than perhaps anyone the crucial role that hypocrisy, deceit and treachery have played in his party’s successes right up to the present day. It shows questionable taste, however, to admire such traits.

As Lexden says, there is material to spare in making the case against Disraeli. It is impressive that in light of that material — not just the lie, but Disraeli’s undignified and corrupt position during the Corn Laws controversy as a bankrolled client of the Cavendish-Bentincks, his cynical abandonment of principle during the 1866-67 Reform crisis, and his chronic, self-parodic toadying to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales — that Lexden should have manufactured so high an opinion of him. It does, though, explain his unthinking disdain for Gladstone, whose reputation and probity require no defence from me.

Lexden’s addictive self-advertisement in writing letters to the press from his retirement home is tediously familiar, as is his occasional resort to the ad hominem method. My argument about the common overestimate of Disraeli was made without resort to antisemitism, not least because (as even Lexden must realise) the exercise of prejudice instead of fact is no means by which to conduct a historical argument.

That Lexden felt the need to refer to the antisemitic case against Disraeli when it did not even occur to me to make it says something about him that he would be well advised to reflect upon before he sounds off again.

Beware the Activists

I read with interest the views of David Ekserdjian and Michael Prodger on deaccessioning (June). But they miss the most important potential hazard: the opportunity deaccessioning creates for activism, a threat our institutions are ill-prepared to resist. Imagine that the Museums and Galleries Act (1992) is amended to permit deaccessioning in public museums without sanction. There will be no shortage of lobbyists, politicians and activists with lists.

Items from former colonies should be “returned”; art depicting slavery of racial minorities should be sold; pictures glorifying hunting must go; victims of sexual assault should not have to face depictions of rape or abduction. Marxists will push for removal of portraits of the aristocracy, and feminists will lobby for disposal of paintings that “degrade women”.

Every week a new cause to repatriate this item or sell that painting would whip up thousands of Facebook “likes” and Twitter “retweets” in an unending cycle of virtue signalling. Social media mobs of a few thousand individuals — with momentary attention spans and a minimal grasp of history — will be mobilised by small cadres of committed campaigners.

We live in an age when politicians, intellectuals and the general populace are ever more sceptical of the Enlightenment values upon which our museums were founded. Politicians and public officials alike are vulnerable to pressure from full-time activists who pose as victims and simulate outrage.

Progressive education has inculcated deep guilt in administrators, academics and politicians, eager to acquiesce to pressure. Graduates in such diverse fields as Gender Studies, Black Studies, Queer Studies, Feminism, Post-Colonialism etc., view cultural objects not as products of social collaboration or individual expression but as evidence of class hegemony, societal injustice and marginalisation of minorities.

Discussions about financial propriety and ethical consensus may be beside the point. Deaccessioning is a critical fault line that activists with unbending dedication, fuelled by righteous anger, will use to control and ultimately destroy our cultural heritage.

Erasing history by renaming buildings and removing statues has already yielded results. Deaccessioning would allow activists to dismantle our heritage through changing demands, moving goalposts and revealing that ever more of our past is “problematic” and “toxic” and only curable by permanent disposal of artefacts.

Alexander Adams


No Jobsworth

While I found David Starkey’s column (May) thought-provoking and engaging, I must challenge the characterisation of the hastily assembled Covid-19 drive-through testing facilities as being “jobsworths’ paradises”.

I worked (complete with high-vis jacket) at one of these sites in the North of England after being furloughed from my job in the aviation industry. I found myself working alongside, among others, a company director, a landscape gardener, a former sergeant-major, a restaurant manager and a sous-chef. Each had their own motivations, but we all shared a desire to be part of the solution rather than being bystanders during a time of national crisis.

Not one of us is a jobsworth. We understood the importance of the job we were doing and the anxiousness of those who simply wish to be tested and to get back to their part in the effort against Covid-19. We all stood outside in the English rain, wearing PPE, helping key workers to navigate their issues with bookings and reservations through closed car windows.

Where we encountered restrictive bureaucracy we used our collective experience to engage with the system and found that with patience, change and improvement were possible. Not one person was turned away from the facility during my time on shift.

Dr Starkey is willing to forgive supermarkets for “an initial hiccough or two”, and I would encourage him to do the same for those of us who found ourselves in this unexpected position.

Paul Sykes

Harrogate, North Yorkshire

At One Remove

Gerald Frost (May) leans heavily on the admiring portrait drawn by Luigi Barzini in the years between the wars of the English national character. His eulogy to English stoicism and “the ability of the English to act as one in times of danger” might have been tempered had he consulted the verdict of Barzini’s contemporary, the witty Dutch historian Gustaaf Johannes Renier.

In The English: Are they Human? (1931) Renier identified the same features in English life, but regarded them with rather less admiration.

“The English go through life as though each of its moments were part of a prescribed ritual,” he wrote. “The English always seem to stand at one remove at least from life, and between their perception of its stimulus and their response to it a series of modifications arises which makes the response entirely unexpected and unrecognisable to anyone who is used to the psychology of the mere normal human being.”

Renier also noticed a propensity among the English to believe “that they are, that they own, and that they produce all that is best in the world”. This spirit seems alive and well in Mr Frost’s rapturous panegyric.

Dr David Gelber

London SW10

Way Off-limits

I enjoyed Christopher Bray’s review of Woody Allen’s autobiography (June), but offer two small but perhaps needful corrections to his comment on Allen’s wonderful early film, Love and Death.

In that movie, the ancient religious man who makes a disturbingly horny reference about young girls is a Russian Orthodox priest, not a rabbi. And clearly Allen depicts him as a pervert.

The priest is shown as semi-senile, deaf, incoherent, and quite a lunatic. After his comment on desiring 12-year-old girls, Diane Keaton, as Sonia, refers to him in disgust as “Your Grubbiness”.

So we can find comfort that Woody Allen viewed girls of that age as flagrantly way off-limits. It was a 17-year-old who evoked a different sentiment a few years later.

Rob Friedman

New York City

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