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Oxford’s civil war

The never-ending fallout over Cecil Rhodes has bleak consequences for the future of academia

Artillery Row

“Does Cecil Rhodes Still Stand?”, the last words of a Tigrean clergyman murdered by Eritrean soldiers last week, captures the extraordinary salience of the fate of the statue, one that is seen throughout the world as the lodestar of the battle between good and evil.

Well, no. The world of British discussion is not as central or important as the participants like to imagine. Moreover, there is an incongruous, if not somewhat disgusting, element about the focus on the statue when so many states are actively pursuing colonial enterprise today. Possibly an engagement with the latter issue might be more beneficial to the sum of human happiness than getting angry about a past whose direct link with the present is very limited. I will come later to the historical context, but a comment on the proposed inaction by the latest round of Rhodes complainants is worthy of attention both in itself and with reference to wider points about freedom of expression.

In essence, there is the proposal for a limited strike, one designed to penalise students and others at a specific college. This is presumably a case of what our American cousins (I have several) call, with the ugliness of language, “blowhards”; but it poses a serious problem, to institutions and individuals alike, if it becomes a matter of widespread would-be policy; indeed as another iteration of the statue-toppling procedure. There would be those judged acceptable and those that are in some way excluded in order to signal their lack of conformity. In short, a form of apartheid.

You may, or may not, agree with the goal over Rhodes, but the means is clearly that of every bigot in the land. In order to be “inclusive”, those who might appear “offensive and exclusionary” are apparently to be castigated. So, if you work for a publisher or broadcaster and find my views or your views reprehensible, presumably you should ensure that they are not published or broadcast. And so on. The issues are serious, indeed cut to the quick of the nature of our democracy and civilization; and it is bizarre in the extreme that the Times has sought to belittle the culture wars as inconsequential and transient.

History’s place at the fore of culture wars is no surprise. The destruction of alternative values, of the sense of continuity, and of anything short of a self-righteous presentist internationalism, is central to the attempt at a “Great Reset”. Moreover, in a variety of forms — including cultural Marxism and Critical Race Theory — such a “reset” is part of a total assault on the past, one that is explicitly designed to lead the present, and determine the future.

This assault is a long-term process that owed much to the Marxist side in the “Cold War” that began in 1917, but it has been revived and given new direction in recent years. In part, this reflects the extent to which those who were the rebels of the late 1960s are now very much in the driving seats of intellectual and cultural would-be direction.

Those who hold contrasting views are readily dismissed and shunned

The “long march through the institutions” beloved of the Left has succeeded, in part because conservatives devoted insufficient attention to trying to contest this march. In particular, the degree to which institutions and companies controlled by, and for, the “soft left” could become the means for propaganda, indeed indoctrination, by the “hard left”, while appreciated by many right-wing commentators, was given far too little attention by Conservative governments. This was true of Reagan/Thatcher/Bush senior, all of whom understandably focused on international relations and economic affairs, and then again of Bush junior/Cameron. Other issues thus came to the fore but so also, in a lack of adequate response to the culture wars waged by the Left, did an understandable wish not to use the power of the state in order to limit the autonomy of institutions. That, however, left conservatism at a serious disadvantage, one that has become increasingly apparent.

This situation was very much of concern before the storm of protest and virtue-signalling associated with the Black Lives Matter movement of 2020. However, but the latter helped rapidly to drive forward the pre-existing tendency, not least by leading many organisations, institutions and companies to endorse and adopt attitudes and policies that were at best tendentious and at worst extremely damaging to any practice of rational enquiry. The last, indeed, was unsurprising, as there was an explicitly anti-Enlightenment argument at play and notably so with Critical Race Theory. This acted to deny rationality, presenting it somehow as an imperialising project, whatever that meant, and was a deeply ironic ally for the companies and others that offered endorsement as their entire ethos was based on rational planning.

The wash of protest in 2020 was given concrete form by being taken on board in mission statements, hiring policies and other such mutually supporting practices. Ideology was also focused accordingly.

In Britain, historical issues, such as the slave trade, empire and the reputation of Winston Churchill, have received attention to an unaccustomed degree, and history of a type was thrust into public debate. As an empirical basis for critique, “history wars” has scarcely been to the fore and the situation has not changed. There is a tendency to write in terms of undifferentiated blocs of supposed alignment, to move freely back and forth across the centuries, and readily to ascribe causes in a somewhat reductionist fashion. This idea, that education has to lead to atonement, captures the extent to which those writing were not interested in critical debate.

Divorcing the Arts and Social Sciences from empirical methods meant less work and no real standards

What is possibly most striking is the apparent suspension of any real sense of critique of the new order. Maybe, debate is so beneath you when you possess all truth. Much better just to steamroll people into compliance. Debate is seen as oppressive. Those who hold contrasting views are readily dismissed and shunned: if you do not think you are a “white supremacist”, which is the subtext I would suggest of the term white “privilege”, that means that you are inherently guilty. If you feel uncomfortable about being accused of being a white supremacist — that means you are guilty. This is like a blatantly constructed trap; as is the reference to having “a conversation”, when, of course, that is the very last thing that is intended.

In practical terms, we are seeing a bringing to fruition of the attack on positivism that has been so insistent since the 1960s, an attack that is bridging from academic circles to a wider public. There was, and continues to be, a critique of subordinating scholarship and the scholar to the evidence; and a preference, instead, for an assertion of convenient evidence that was derived essentially from theory. Empiricism from then was discarded, or at least downplayed, as both method and value, and there was a cult of faddish intellectualism heavily based on post-modernist concepts.

Divorcing the Arts and Social Sciences from empirical methods meant less work and no real standards. It invited a chaos that some welcomed as such, but that others sought to reshape in terms of a set of values and methods equating to argument by assertion and proof by sentiment: “I feel therefore I am correct”, and it is apparently oppression to be told otherwise.

Linked to the lack of adequate contextualisation for imperialism, there is also a sense of “so what?” Is it surprising that leaders and intellectuals, whether or not presented as apologists, offered a view of the world in which they associated their values and interest with progress and civilisation? This is not exactly news; and, ironically but all too predictably, those today imposing their views on the past displays very much the same tendency in her work, identifying values with her own concept of progress.

Debate often is not accepted by the Left if it involves questioning assumptions

That raises, of course, the bigger question of how best, in the context of modern history, to discuss imperialism; and history in general. Personal commitment does not excuse any fondness for argument by assertion and without adequate qualification or sufficient caveats. Nor is such a practice acceptable simply because the author is at a major institution or is published by a leading press. Would the low standard faddish approach be allowed for junior academics, let alone students? Presumably only if they agreed with the precepts, a point that is more widely true of an approach that seeks not pluralism, but rather the apparent certainty of an imposed zeitgeist. This is a one-dimensional history, a uni-directional account of heroes and villains. Whether or not you welcome the specifics, that is history simply as propaganda. It is a world away from debate.

The conventional academic spaces, the geopolitics of academic hierarchy and method, from the lecture hall to the curriculum, have all been repurposed to this end. And so also with public spaces: the statues that are unwelcome are treated not as isolated residues of allegedly outdated and nefarious glories, but a quasi-living reproach to the new order in a culture wars of the present in which there is no space for neutrality or non-committal, or, indeed, tolerance and understanding.

In part, possibly, and as an aspect of decolonisation, the legitimacy of opposing views is dismissed, indeed discredited, as allegedly racist and anti-intellectual because there is an unwillingness to ask awkward questions and to ignore evidence which does not fit into the answer wanted and already asserted. Examples of the latter might include the extent of slavery and the slave trade prior to the European arrival in Africa, or the major role of European powers and the United States in eventually ending both. Indeed, the extension of British imperialism was frequently linked, as in Nigeria and Sudan between 1860 and 1905, with the ending of slavery.

Historians need to understand why practices we now believe to be wrong were legitimate in the past

It is possible to debate these and other points, but debate often is not accepted by the Left if it involves questioning assumptions. However, such questioning is crucial to understanding the past, which is the key aspect of history as an intellectual pursuit, rather than as the sphere for political engagement. Historians need to understand why practices we now believe to be wrong and have made illegal, such as slavery or (differently) making children work or marrying them, were legitimate in the past. It is not enough, in doing so, to present only one side of, and on, the past simply because that is allegedly useful for present reasons. Nor to refuse to recognise debate in earlier, plural societies. People in the past believed that they were right for reasons that were perfectly legitimate in terms of their own times, experience, and general view of the world. These elements deserve consideration as part of the inherently pluralist conception of values of a democratic society.

How then is empire to be presented in a way that does more than make sense of it largely in terms of modern values? That clearly will not be provided in the “decolonisation” approach, which is explicitly antithetical to academic methods in that it proclaims its engagement as its rationale. In a classic instance of Butterfield’s definition of anachronism — making the study of the past a ratification or attack on the present, the past is to be used, in the form of a supposedly exemplary decolonisation, as part to an attempt to recast ideas to match an account of British society designed to provide an exemplary future; or at least to defend the role of universities and the careers of academics.

Their view of being an historian appears to be of spending their time wishing that people in the past did not think as they in fact did, and converting this into a platform for socio-political activism in the present. This has no analytical substance, and, indeed, both threatens to dissolve the discipline and leaves the student not so much short-changed as totally cheated, which is an aspect of a current day civilisational malaise.

Imposing anachronistic value-judgments is antithetical to the historical mindset of the scholar and is inherently transient as the fullness of time will, in turn, bring in fresh critiques of present-day values, which, possibly, will also be wrenched out of their historical context, not least by ignoring inconvenient evidence. There is a somewhat fantasist approach at present in the academe in the assertion of present-day values as if transcendent universals, but maybe that is part of a religious imperative in a secular milieu.

Leave aside, please, the temptation to observe that those who talk about teaching are frequently those who cannot do it. While that is true, the issue of decolonisation is too serious for such points. Instead, we have a clear instance of the standard idea of capturing the institutions, and then propagating an ideology. That, indeed, is at full tilt, and notably so in the Humanities and Social Sciences, and particularly in the United States and Britain. Decolonisation might sound good to some and silly to others, but it is certainly a programme that is authoritarian in its methods and totalitarian in its objectives.

Readers will have their own views of the scholarship underlying the critique on Rhodes, but it is worthwhile to note that Dorling, who is one of those cited, and an instructive instance of a modern Oxbridge professor, gave an interview with Spiegel Online in 2019 in which he made a number of simply erroneous remarks, as in “He [Rhodes] happily watched thousands of young black children die in his mines.… we depopulated almost the entire continent of Africa.” Praised earlier in a Guardian editorial, Dorling had written in support of Corbyn’s “moral clarity”. For Spiegel Online, he mused that a German invasion of Britain would have “helped us get rid of the empire idea of greatness”. I discussed this interview in The Article on 6 June 2019.

It surprises me not one whit that Dorling is one of the signatories, but some of his fellows might like to bear in mind that they or their parents would have been gassed if Dorling’s musings had come to fruition.

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