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The statue of Cecil Rhodes overlooking the High Street, Oxford: Oriel College eventually refused to bow to pressure to remove it (©Carl Court/Getty Images)


I.

So Rhodes, after all, will not fall. Shortly before last Christmas, Oriel College announced its intention to remove a plaque commemorating its controversial benefactor, and to stage a “listening exercise” about dismantling his statue, which overlooks Oxford’s High Street. Lobbied by the local manifestation of South Africa’s Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement, the college publicly repudiated Rhodes’s “colonialist” and “racist” views, claiming that they stand in “absolute contrast” to “the values of a modern university”, not least diversity and inclusion.

Seven weeks later, however, Oriel made a U-turn. In the last week of January and in the wake of an overwhelmingly hostile reaction in the press and from alumni, together with donors’ desertion, the college reversed its position. Instead of removing the plaque and the statue, it resolved merely to add an explanation of historical context. “The College believes”, it announced, “the recent debate has underlined that the continuing presence of these historical artefacts is an important reminder of the complexity of history and of the legacies of colonialism still felt today. By adding context, we can help draw attention to this history, do justice to the complexity of the debate, and be true to our educational mission.”

That is the right and reasonable stance to take, and the very good news is that Oriel College got there in the end. The bad news is that it nearly didn’t. And that fact bears some sober reflection. Why was it that the governing body of an Oxford college — replete with very highly educated and experienced adults — came so close to capitulating to the shouty zealotry of a small group of students?

Of course, if the proponents of RMF are correct about the past, if “imperialism” and “colonialism” were simply and grossly evil and Rhodes simply and grossly wicked, then the Fellows of Oriel should have capitulated. Whereas we ought to tolerate the public celebration of morally ambiguous heroes — those being the only kind available to us — we probably shouldn’t tolerate human manifestations of the Devil incarnate.

So are the student supporters of RMF correct? Have they got their history right? Was Cecil Rhodes diabolical?
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paul
March 20th, 2016
12:03 AM
So .....

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