News from Nowhere: Attack of the Iconoclasts
Western societies are split into, on the one hand, the ‘woke’ progressives of a ‘youthquake’ radicalism, and, on the other, those ‘gammon’ reactionaries of the ‘boomer’ generation.
One day last month, two conservative British newspapers simultaneously tried to raise their readers’ hackles by advancing the ludicrous notion that the thought police supposed to populate the realms of UK theatre and literary academia were in the process of ditching William Shakespeare for being too ideologically outdated and (according to the Sunday Times) replacing his work with ‘classes on Lady Gaga and Game of Thrones’ – while the Sunday Telegraph columnist lamented that ‘in the culture wars not even Shakespeare is safe’.
Controversy also flared last month over the continued presence in the English market town of Stroud of a 247-year-old statue of a small child bearing a spear, dressed in stereotypically ‘native’ attire and displaying crudely caricatured features suggestive of African ethnicity. The object in question appeared to be as overtly racist as a copy of Tintin in the Congo, a Rider Haggard novel, or a jar of Robertson’s marmalade before they persuaded Paddington Bear to promote it. Even some right-wing commentators have pointed out that the statue’s neither historically nor aesthetically interesting, and that its departure wouldn’t therefore represent any significant loss, although the local Conservative Member of Parliament says she wants it to stay.
This case has become the latest flashpoint or cause célèbre in Britain’s parochial iterations of what the papers like to call western civilization’s ongoing ‘culture wars’ – half-imagined conflicts that have perhaps raged more frequently in the partisan press than on the streets, and which have sought to split western societies into, on the one hand, the ‘woke’ progressives of a ‘youthquake’ radicalism, and, on the other, those ‘gammon’ reactionaries of the ‘boomer’ generation.
One of the more prominent skirmishes in this supposed conflict came in June last year when, during a protest against the killing of George Floyd by police officers some four thousand miles away in Minneapolis, the good people of the south-western city of Bristol toppled a statue of a man called Edward Colston from off its plinth and into the waters of the harbour.
Colston had, three hundred years earlier, been a famous local merchant and Tory parliamentarian who had spread his wealth liberally across the city, riches he had gained from his involvement in the Atlantic slave trade. Though Bristol is these days a vibrantly multicultural community, the legacy of its dark colonial past resonates in its place-names: Colston Hall, Whiteladies Road and Blackboy Hill. That was why that summer a local public house called the Colston Arms chose temporarily to rename itself ‘Ye Olde Pubby McDrunkface’.
The town’s Colston Hall concert venue is now called the Bristol Beacon, and the statue of the city’s discredited benefactor (having been retrieved from the harbour) this year went on display in a local museum, alongside placards from the very same Black Lives Matter demonstration that had ripped it from its pedestal.
Further disputes have also recently raged over the fate of a statue that adorns Oxford’s Oriel College, an effigy of one of its most notorious alumni, Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes was the British imperialist who founded the territory of Rhodesia (where Zambia and Zimbabwe now stand); he was a vicious profiteer who stole land from the Africans and accumulated unimaginable wealth through his ruthless diamond-mining monopoly. When, this summer, the college resolved to ignore calls to remove the statue, a group of academics at the university announced a boycott of Oriel. The Conservative Leader of the House of Commons, the Wodehousian figure of Jacob Rees-Mogg, declared in response that ‘we must not allow this wokeness to happen’. The removal of a similar statue of Rhodes from the campus of the University of Cape Town in 2015 had inspired a protest movement that had already stretched across South Africa and reached as far as Harvard and Cambridge; but Rees-Mogg – a sort of a cross between a Victorian stick insect and a parliamentary version of Mr. Peanut – has never been one to submit to the tide of events nor to accept without demur the existence of the newfangled world.
If we are to believe the hysteria of the media, the choice is stark: either we continue to celebrate in their bronze and stone likenesses the lives of figures from our past whose actions would today be considered morally unconscionable, or we seek to obliterate all traces of their history, and thereby move to inhabit the self-deluding utopia of a so-called ‘cancel culture’ which would deface monuments and burn books. The latter option tends to draw parallels with Nazi Germany or the Buddhas of Bamiyan; or the incineration of 12,000 copies of the Talmud by the French in 1242; or the destruction of Islamic texts by the Spanish after the fall of Granada. Yet, to do nothing is to tacitly accept the lionization of those responsible for some of history’s greatest atrocities.
The Bristol example of course offers a third way: neither to condone nor to cancel but to contextualize. In order to learn the lessons of history, we must maintain its records and its artefacts, and make them serve as constant reminders of past abuses and former glories alike. In these terms, we can put our statues in museums, or we can keep them on public display in their original locations and interrogate and explore what they might mean to contemporary audiences.
One of Oxford’s professors of modern history proposed a similar solution to Oriel’s problem: ‘If the college put up a notice explaining who Cecil Rhodes was, that would be fine; if the college put a placard round his neck saying sorry, that would also be fine.’ The sculptor Antony Gormley offered a rather more visually arresting answer – to turn the statue to ‘face the wall in shame’.
The British government has responded to the media furore about cancel culture by promising to pass ‘free speech’ legislation to prevent universities from refusing platforms to speakers nurturing unpopular political opinions. The responsible minister added in May that seats of higher education would maintain the right to draw the line at those whose views were explicitly ‘straying into racism or straying into hate crimes’. However, when she went so far as to imply that “Holocaust” denial might be defended by this law, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister quickly rebuffed the suggestion.
We may however wish to contend that the right to decline the opportunity to provide a platform for the dissemination of beliefs which are generally considered highly offensive by large sections of the population is very different from attempting to censor the public expression of those beliefs. Refusing to hand someone a megaphone isn’t the same thing as gagging them. If a newspaper decides not to publish an article, it’s not stifling the author’s right to publish per se. (It might also of course be argued that extremes of prejudice are irrational and unevidenced, and that it’s not the role of universities to teach or advocate ideas that are demonstrably untrue.)
This issue isn’t simply limited to Portland stone statues and guest speakers at academic debating societies. Over the last couple of years, certain elements in the British tabloid press have become terribly overwrought at the thought that woke young Netflix viewers might express inordinate offence at the politically incorrect attitudes on display in such classic British and American situation comedies as Fawlty Towers and Friends, and might as a consequence either desert the streaming service or melt like snowflakes in the summer sun. Indeed, such entertainment providers as Netflix have increasingly felt obliged to add warnings to this kind of content. Yet these contemporary audiences haven’t for the most part shown such hypersensitivities as middle-aged media types might assign to them. On the contrary, they have been able to appreciate the ironies and satires of these series (whose articulations tend to ridicule and challenge – rather than merely to echo – the chauvinisms of their times) and to recognise these once-treasured texts as the products of their historical circumstances.
Understanding does not require that we condemn or commend. Western streaming services aren’t compelled by legislation to screen certain old TV shows; nor are they banned from doing so. Nothing is ideologically neutral, and most modern viewers seem capable of comprehending that.
To see a racist statue doesn’t turn me into a racist, but to accept the presence of a patently racist public artefact in my hometown without question or dispute would be to normalize and naturalize the dogma it projects. The value that such objects may hold today lies in the dialogues that they may provoke, not cultural conflicts but conversations. They shouldn’t validate or platform outdated hatreds, but they might yet prompt unheard voices to talk.
Three months ago, a new television channel was launched in the UK in an ostensible bid to counter the purported prevalence of this unequivocally progressive culture. Called GB News, it is Britain’s first TV station to boast an undisguised political orientation. Its chairman Andrew Neil is also chairman of the right-wing periodical The Spectator; its presenters include the erstwhile stalwart of Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids Dan Wootton, and the ex-leader of the UK Independence Party (and enemy of all things politically correct) Nigel Farage. It also hired the veteran news anchor Alastair Stewart after he had left his long-standing position at Independent Television News last year following an extraordinarily misjudged tweet which appeared to involve a racial slur.
However, any notion that GB News might offer an antidote to cancel culture was short-lived. In July, one of its best-known presenters Guto Harri quit the station after having been suspended as a result of his decision to take the knee live on air during a discussion about racism in football. The presenter had initially argued that his actions were consistent with the ethos of an organisation which claimed to be ‘about free speech’ and about ‘having the debates others won’t’. He swiftly discovered he was mistaken when the company insisted (following a backlash from members of its core audience) that he had breached their editorial standards. Harri responded that he was surprised that his former employers appeared happy in this context with his colleague Mr. Farage’s declaration that he wouldn’t ‘be taking the knee for anyone’ and lamented that the channel was already becoming ‘an absurd parody of what it proclaimed to be’. It may nevertheless reassure its woke detractors to note that, since its launch in June, the station’s viewing figures have dropped off a precipice, and advertisers have deserted it in droves.
The response of the Right to what it portrays as the cancel culture of the Left has been to match its perceived censoriousness ban by ban. Universities may face fines for denying platforms to those whose views they fundamentally disagree with; reactionary media corporations may exclude those who articulate perspectives associated with that woke agenda. Frantic representations of the perils of these culture wars might have been manufactured by the self-serving anxieties of those who seek to preserve the status quo, their antagonisms and scope massively exaggerated to arouse outrage and moral panic; but their divisive impacts are very real in their efforts to evacuate that ideological middle-ground, that centrist consensus, once shared by the majority of the UK electorate. If the artificial escalation of these hostilities is to be reversed, it remains vital therefore that these tensions are instead harnessed for their creative and dynamic potential, and that the suspicions that each side nurses in its interactions with the other do not force those exchanges into silence.