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Thursday, 7 January 2016

Colonising the past

The past is a foreign country they say, and rather like tourists historians have always tended to interpret the past through filtered lenses. Thus the great Whig historians saw history as one of progress reaching its zenith in British supremacy; Marxist historians the great struggle and inevitable triumph of the working class. There may well be Jihadi historians; who knows?
Then we have totalitarian historians who reshape and expunge the past so it fits more perfectly a fabricated image. It may have been Stalin who began it with his infamous expunging of Trotsky in soviet records and photography.
                                             Now you see him (right of the podium)

                                                                 Now you don't.

Stalin did the same with Nicolai Yezhov, former head of the Secret Police

                                                             Now you see him.

                                   Now you don't. (He's tucked him in his breast pocket.)

Not to be outdone, Hitler illustrated his disapproval of Goebbels over something or other so like all dictators indulged in altering history to control the present or at least its narrative. Luckily for Goebbels it was a just a minor hissy fit and his image was restored

Even Canadian Prime Ministers are tempted. Mackenzie King had George VI removed from this photo because he thought the royal presence detracted from his own presence

In recent years we've had the destruction of ancient Buddhist statues obliterated by the Taliban because, presumably, they offended said Taliban. 
Now another set of people with equally strong feelings are upset over a hundred year old statue of Cecil Rhodes. 

It's another example of colonising the  past. You might see such a process as relatively benign. No one gets exploited or killed unless you anthropomorphise scholarship and truth. Just a few pesky statues obliterated in the same manner as medieval stained glass to a new breed of puritans.

The great British imperialist Cecil Rhodes is the latest in line for this treatment. He was no nicer or worse than any of the ‘great’ men who mark our history. Those who feel ‘oppressed and marginalised’ as they walk past his statue are opening the floodgates to a whole host of precious souls. 

What about the Welsh and the Scots who have to walk past effigies of Edward I? Perhaps we should destroy every statue of Cromwell for fear of offending the Irish, Disraeli for making Victoria ‘Empress of India.’ Then again what do we do about Abraham Lincoln?

Cecil Rhodes was a cultural imperialist but no racist. He believed that black Africans were culturally inferior but not biologically so. And unless we want to rewrite history, this was essentially true in terms of science and technology, perhaps morally too if we assume our present distaste for forced marriages, honour killing and despotic cruelty has any validity. But here we tread in the quicksands of cultural relativity.

 Rhodes was ambitious and rapacious but he also believed in Britain’s civilising mission. Many will see this as paternal condescension. True enough, but on the other side of the same coin, he argued furiously that every black African within the British sphere of interest was entitled to the vote. For Rhodes, cultural inferiority was not set in stone.

But getting back to Abraham Lincoln who once said: ‘There is a profound difference between the black and white races that will forever forbid the two races from living together on terms of social and political equality.’ It shows again how spot-lighting the past is highly selective. In short, it's essential that history is scrutinised and reinterpreted but done so with a degree of humility. I don't know how you can topple a statue with humility, nor reinterpret statues by smashing them. Why not burn offensive books?

 As for the future, who knows?  The Lincoln Monument may be quivering already


mstaton51 said...

I don't remember the source, but I recall reading -- many years ago -- that Lincoln's views on race relations were evolving. Earlier, he'd been a big proponent of the Liberia experiment. Of course, we won't know how his views might have evolved during his second term and after, since James Wilkes Booth put an end to Lincoln's life on an April night at Ford's Theater. This is a great column, Mike. Here in America, so many people seem to think if you remove statues and monuments -- out of sight, out of mind -- the Confederacy's sins are lessened. I'm outlining my Civil War novel at this moment. It's going to be from the POV of a Confederate private in the 18th NC Regiment, the group who accidentally shot General Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville in early May 1863. I wonder if some will criticize me for not doing the POV from a Union soldier.

Maria Zannini said...

From what I remember of grammar school history, (before the politically correct historians entered the picture), Lincoln would modify his speeches according to his audiences. That's harder to do today now that everything is instantly recorded.

The US lionizes Lincoln, like they do Kennedy, partly I think because they were assassinated.

They become martyrs for the cause, regardless whether they were passionate about the causes or not.

Mike Keyton said...

Thanks for the comment, Mike, and I'm looking forward to reading the book. You're right about people's views evolving, but essentially Lincoln was a politician caught up in events. And it was events that largely dictated the image. The winners write the history. The Tudors knew that

Mike Keyton said...

Maria, you're right. Every 'Great man' would have a much harder time of it now—unless he was flavour of the month.