Every now and then there comes along something so politically incorrect, so stubbornly in defense of the light of the intellect, and of the necessity of preserving history, no matter how "blemished" it may be according to some, that you just have to sit up and take notice. I take notice because, of course, I am an alumnus of the University of Oxford, having done my doctorate there under the then-eminent University Lecturer in Eastern Christian Studies, Bishop Kallistos(Timothy) Ware. This tempest in the teapot concerns an apparent move, or rather, maneuver, by some of the university's black students, to have the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oriel College taken down and removed because of his views. This letter was shared by Ms. A.V., and it can be found reproduced in full in the following article by Mr. Paul Craig Roberts:
As Roberts points out, the letter is in all probability not genuinely from Oriel College, but rather, a letter someone wrote who wishes it had been written. But as Roberts also points out, the controversy over Mr. Rhodes' statue did issue in threats from alumni donors that if it were removed, the donations would cease.
The nub of the letter, however, is about something hugely important: we cannot erase or remake history: blemishes are a part and parcel of every human being's experience, and moral perfection is seldom, if ever, to be encountered in figures from the past, but the attempt to erase them from history is to tamper with history itself, and in that tampering,, to create a fiiction that never existed. In creating such fictions, we run the risk of repeating the errors and mistakes of the past, to paraphrase De Santillana. To quote the fictitious letter:
Oxford, let us remind you, is the world’s second oldest extant university. Scholars have been studying here since at least the 11th century. We’ve played a major part in the invention of Western civilisation, from the 12th century
intellectual renaissance through the Enlightenment and beyond. Our alumni include William of Ockham, Roger Bacon, William Tyndale, John Donne, Sir Walter Raleigh, Erasmus, Sir Christopher Wren, William Penn, Samuel Johnson,
Robert Hooke, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Emily Davison, and Cardinal Newman. We’re a big deal. And most of the people privileged to come and study here are conscious of what a big deal we are. Oxford is
their alma mater – their dear mother – and they respect and revere her accordingly.
“And what were your ancestors doing in that period? Living in mud huts, mainly. Sure we’ll concede you the short-lived Southern African civilisation of Great Zimbabwe. But let’s be brutally honest here. The contribution of the Bantu tribes to modern civilisation has been as near as damn it to zilch.
“You’ll probably say that’s ‘racist.’ But it’s what we here at Oxford prefer to call ‘true.’ Perhaps the rules are different at other universities. In fact, we know things are different at other universities. We’ve watched
with horror at what has been happening across the pond from the University of Missouri to the University of Virginia and even to revered institutions like Harvard and Yale: the ‘safe spaces;’ the blacklivesmatter; the creeping
cultural relativism; the stifling political correctness; what Allan Bloom rightly called ‘the closing of the American mind.’ At Oxford however, we will always prefer facts and free, open debate to petty grievance-mongering,
identity politics and empty sloganeering. The day we cease to do so is the day we lose the right to call ourselves the world’s greatest university.
Political correctness, with all of its fast-and-loose attitudes to human history and memory, has, sadly, come to the Uniiversity of Oxford.. But there's an implicit logic hidden in the fictitious letter's remarks. That very western civilization, for all its faults, is the same civilization that, in the form of a Wliberforce, would challenge the institutionalized slavery and racism, and that would insist that the values of that civilizatiion, if it were to be true to itself, had to be applicable to all, without exception, under the common virtues and laws of that civilization. I doubt that anyone who attended that university can honestly say that they were never offended by somethiing or at how they were treated. The whole tradition there is to prove and argue one's position not to complain of ill treatment or offended feelings. I know of no one there who was not offended by something, at some time, including myself. The University boasts of several famous atheists, Richard Dawkins among them, and the last I checked, Mr. Dawkins was not urging that the University raze all the chapels and churches that adorn its colleges simply because it offended his personal views and space, which the University affords him the right to proclaim and advocate as long as he can argue them, which, as anyone familiar with him knows, he does ably. Many of my friends there were atheists, and, after the "offense" wore off, their views forced me to think, to examine my own thoughts, and even to modify them, to think deeper. This is what universities are for. They are not for political correctness, the approved narrative, the standard orthodoxies. They are for that, to be sure, but they are for much more.
If anything, the controversy over Mr. Rhodes' statue in Oriel College is a symbol of a wider cultural malaise, and it's high time we learn the lesson: in a free and open society, someone will always have views that offend someone else, that upset the view one holds, that violates the "personal space"; but they have the right to hold them, and to defend them. When we close down free speech, or demand that our own history be rewritten or that monuments be razed to conform to some abstract notion of moral perfection, we are in danger of losing it all. When we seek to impose our "offended feelings" on others, we all suffer. The end reductio of this logic is that we must raise all monuments having a blemish: we must raze Roman Catholic churches for the Inquisition; prohibit all atheism because of the excesses of the organized atheism of the Soviet Union, write German history without mention of Nazism, and so on. And in so doing, we will have learned none of the lessons of the past. And when we do that, we will not understand how we got here, and why. And when we lose our past, we have lost our future.
It's time everyone grew up. And to the University of Oxford: thank you for offending me. I would not trade the experience for anything. It was a crucible very much like the old American television series, The Paper Chase, with its inimitable Professor Kingsfield: "You teach yourselves (such and such a discipline), and I train your minds. You come in here with a skull full of mush, and you leave thinking like lawyers, doctors, biologists, philosophers, musicians, artists (fill in the blank here)." So a big thank you to the University of Oxford, blemishes and all. You taught me to standards of thought to which I still unsuccessfully aspire, and taught me the inutility of whining, and being offended. I can only hope that tradition will continue, and, to those institutions that have succumbed to it, that it will be restored.
Otherwise, we will all be impoverished.
See you on the flip side...