Plausibly, nothing much matters. Among human beings, opinions differ about how much things matter. A surprisingly common defence of the status quo is to say of some institution arraigned for affronting reason or decency that it doesn’t matter – because it’s purely ‘symbolic’, say – but it’s very important not to change it. So having a royal head of state doesn’t matter, because she’s a figurehead, but it matters that the post is not filled by sortition, say, because then any fool might do the job. Again, with free speech, words are mere hot air, unlike sticks and stones; but it matters intensely that people get to vociferate them.
And so it is with statues. They are mere lumps of hewn stone, or brazen likenesses, but carry a symbolic charge that may be talked up or down according to the needs of the moment. In China recently a giant gilded Mao got put up and pulled down in quick order. Meanwhile Oriel College has belatedly discovered conscientious grounds for worrying about its statue of Cecil Rhodes, a by-blow of the #RhodesMustFall activism in South Africa. Oxford’s Rhodes Scholarship fund remains a lucrative pot of pelf, having kindled such beacons of statesmanship as Bill Clinton and Tony Abbott. That lolly is clearly too good to pass up, but Oriel is now considering what to do about Rhodes’s effigy, which between its wobbly Ionic columns resembles something that might pop out of a cuckoo clock.
Rhodes saw the imperial project as a serendipitous by-blow of personal aggrandisement. An early practitioner of Lebensraum, he regarded Britain’s colonies in southern Africa as a repository for overspill in the metropolis. His strategy in negotiating mining concessions was to mobilise his British South Africa Company to bamboozle local chieftains, who’d discover too late that all the gems in their ground were legally his. When three African kings from the Bechuanaland Protectorate (now Botswana) went to London and managed to get the concession for the area cancelled, Rhodes proved magnanimous in defeat: ‘It is humiliating to be utterly beaten by these niggers.’
One objection has it that pulling down statues denies the past – another status-quo biased gambit, as few people suggest that a statue of Hitler, say, be put up on the spare plinth in Trafalgar Square as a salutary check on amnesia. But it could be said that the best case for not knocking Rhodes off his perch is that Oxford has been up to its oxters in British imperialism for centuries, and to deny it would be tantamount to cutting out its yellow stone heart. The Codrington Library was put up with some of the dough amassed by Christopher Codrington while captain-general of the slave plantations in the Leeward Islands. Rhodes’s dreams of colonial glory were whetted in the Sheldonian Theatre by the inaugural lecture, as Slade Professor of Fine Art, of that fruity old humbug John Ruskin. In his rodomontade, Ruskin peregrinated from Poussin to exhorting fat-naped colonialists to ‘advance the power of England’ to ‘every star that heaven doth show’ and ‘every herb that sips the dew’ etc. in the name, naturally, of lifting the natives out of ’savagery’. Rhodes took it to heart. In later life he wailed: ‘I would annexe the planets if I could. I often think of that. It makes me sad.’
Even given the status quo bias, the argument tends to work selectively. As soon as the US and its allies seized Baghdad in 2003 they helped pull down statues of Saddam, as with once-sponsored regimes who’ve outlived their utility. At least it beats another cavil, yielded by the ‘slippery slope’ argument. Felling Rhodes could end in the auto-da-fé of the Codrington Library, a less than good look for a seat of learning – not that the university’s any stranger to book burning. Here as elsewhere, the main worry of those who deploy the slippery slope argument seems to be that when confronted in future with colonial relics, they may have to think – an activity, as Bertrand Russell said, that people will do almost anything to avoid. This week a poll suggested a third of Oxford students want the statue taken down. But Oriel is likely to take much longer over Rhodes than the Chinese Communist Party did over Mao.