June 18th Scientists the world over are using their analytic skills to discover more about Covid-19 every day, but they appear not, as yet, to have come to any conclusions as to why the virus, or perhaps the resulting lockdown measures, appear to be having a seriously detrimental effect on the intelligence of prominent ‘leaders’ in our society, even when they don’t show other symptoms. The last couple of days have evidenced so highly-charged a competition to see who can make the most offensively tone-deaf statements about the ongoing manifestations of the Black Lives Matter protests that one could be forgiven for thinking that one had inadvertently dropped in on the preliminary rounds of a national Britain’s Got Talent At Being Racially Offensive competition. Boris Johnson’s scintillating record in the field would obviously have guaranteed him a pass directly into the final.
On the off chance that anyone can begin to compete with Boris when the competition gets to that final, my bets are currently on Dominic Raab to come third, and the light horse in the field, Louise Richardson, the current – for how long one wonders – Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, to come second.
Dominic Raab, our Foreign Secretary until such time as the Tory party changes the designation because ‘Foreign’ is such a dirty word, has just been gifted the Department for International Development by Boris because ‘International’ and ‘Development’ are also dirty words, and our English Nationalist Cabinet apparently thinks charity should begin at home. Other people might think it is ‘Dominic’ that is the dirty word. Anyone but Boris might even think that a degree of racial sensitivity could be a good idea in a Foreign Secretary, even when his role must be assumed now to include doing away with foreign aid. But Raab’s latest entry in the competition involves suggesting that the Black Lives Matter symbolism of ‘taking the knee’ derives from ‘Game of Thrones’ and asserting that he would only do it for the Queen (having once done it for his wife). That level of crassness does, of course, equip him very well to lead a Little Englander drive to limit International Development. A drive that is so unutterably stupid in its long term implications as to rival the Tories’ parallel obsession with Brexit. The only way to stem the tide of people flowing towards Europe from Asia and Africa, whether fleeing wars and oppression or driven by climate change, is somehow to make staying in their own countries a better option than trying to get to Europe. Cutting the funding for foreign aid and international development is a very peculiar thing to do for people in Europe who dislike foreigners and are paranoid about immigration.
Professor Louise Richardson’s entry for the competition this week was by way of invoking the name of Nelson Mandela as an ally in her argument that the Rhodes statue high above the entrance to Oriel College should not ‘Fall’. This was in spite of the fact that, after four years of resistance, the governing body of the College has finally voted to remove it. The Independent carried a report today to the effect that Professor Richards was arguing that Rhodes was a man of ‘great nuance’ and that Mandela had recognised “that we have to acknowledge our past but focus on the future,” and said that hiding history was not the “route to enlightenment”. Museums, as Professor Richardson obviously knows full well, are buildings which exist for the purpose of ‘storing and exhibiting objects of scientific, cultural and historical interest’, as the OED puts it. Far from ‘hiding history’, putting that statue, like the infamous Cape Town one, in a museum, would make it possible to contextualise it and confront and understand that history, in all its ugliness. You can’t do that when the statue is stuck in a niche high above the street, usually noticed only by those who find it profoundly offensive.
Professor Richardson’s enlisting of Mandela in her defence of the Rhodes statue is deeply offensive not just to black people but to all those of us, particularly those of us who were lucky enough to know him, who regarded Mandela with boundless admiration and affection. He was for many of us, pace the boarded-up statue of Churchill, without question the greatest moral and political leader of the twentieth century. In response to the ‘hiding history’ brigade, I’ve heard it argued that Germany does not need to have statues of Hitler all over the place in order to confront its 20th century history. That is obviously true, but the analogy is worth dwelling on. Rhodes was not responsible for anything equivalent to the holocaust, but it is a fact that he was greatly admired by Hitler who is on record, according to Rhodes’ biographer Antony Thomas, as saying that Rhodes was the only person who understood the historical conditions for maintaining British supremacy, but had been ignored by his own people. According to the same source, Hitler’s admiration for Rhodes is further evidenced in the former’s statement of his belief that ‘the German people are called by the divine destiny to be the leaders of the world for the glory of the German being as well as for the human race.’ This was, word for word, but for two key words, a direct quotation from the ‘nuanced’ Rhodes: Hitler had replaced Rhodes’ ‘English ‘ with ‘German.’ Professor Richardson should have known better.