Roy Strong caused some sensation when he was quoted as saying: ‘”I couldn’t believe it when some woman on the radio said Nelson’s Column ought to be demolished because he believed in slavery. Well, listen, dear, that was about 1800. Once you start rewriting history on that scale, there won’t be a statue or a historic house standing. It’s ridiculous. The past is the past. You can’t rewrite history.”(Strong & Freeman, 2017)
I am reminded of the quotation from William Faulkner: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’ .(Faulkner, 1919)
Laura Freeman wrote that ‘The sharp-tongued former V&A chief Roy Strong tells Laura Freeman a divisive metropolitan elite threatens the history and culture he holds dear but at least he still has Strictly.’ For non-UK readers ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ is a low brow but very popular TV dance competition.
What is at stake here is the reframing of a debate. There could be a strong argument that Roy Strong’s position is so worthless that it is not worthy of dignifying it with a response. However his views are widely shared and it is worth revealing to true depth of its triviality and error.
Roy Strong argues that those who wish to bring down Nelson’s column are seeking to ‘rewrite History’. However this phrase is entirely dishonest. The issue for me here is not for or against Nelson’s column but to expose the worthlessness of Roy Strong’s argument. First of all, the anti-Nelson group are not seeking to report anything that is untrue or in the least historically disputed. ‘Rewriting history’ is a phrase usually attached to Trumpian like revision of historical facts. Nothing of the sort is involved here.
History is, among many things, a matter of selection. We choose especially what we wish to celebrate. To tear down one statute is not to erase British history but to invite us to replace it with other statues of those whose memories were lost but who stand for what we believe in today. In this regard it is the ’conservatives’ who are the die hard ‘pro racists’ who wish to peddle the view that all Brits of any standing in history were racists. This is a calumny on both British history and the British people. There were many many British people who opposed racism and slavery. We simply have not chosen to remember them before. And even of those we do remember we do not remember them for their anti-slavery activities. How many British school children are asked to read Wordsworth’s fabulous poem about Toussaint L’Ouverture?(Wordsworth, 1803).
This inflection of attitude also extends to many areas of academia. Even in the world of philosophy some argue that one cannot criticise any European philosopher for being a vile racists because all ‘Western philosophers’ were vile racists. Listen to Joseph McCarney who wrote that if we look closely ‘The entire canon of Western philosophy from Aristotle to Wittgenstein is likely to stand convicted’ of vile racism. (Bernasconi & McCarney, 2003)
But Wittgenstein was an arch anti-racist : In Szabados words Wittgenstein thought:. Philosophers need to engage in an ongoing struggle against the self-deceptive grammatical illusions embedded in ‘dangerous phrases’ – which are also symptoms of a malaise in our ways of life.’ (Szabados, 1999, p. 25). Here Wittgenstein is referring to ‘race’ and ‘national character’.
What we have here is a rearguard reaction to defend racism as if it was an essential part of British history and British identity. They are saying we cannot have British history without vile racism. What the protesters who brought down Colston’s statute are saying is: ‘Yes, we can have a British history without celebrating racists and slave traders.’
Bernasconi, R., & McCarney, J. (2003). Joseph McCarney and Robert Bernasconi: Exchange on Hegel’s racism. Radical Philosophy, 119. https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/extras/exchange-on-hegels-racism
Faulkner, R. (1919). Requiem for a Nun. Chatto & Windus. https://www.scribd.com/doc/154578618/Faulkner-Requiem
Strong, R., & Freeman, L. (2017, September 3). EVERYWHERE HE LOOKS, THE THUMBSCREWS ARE TIGHTENING; The Sunday Times. https://go-gale-com.ezproxy2.londonlibrary.co.uk/ps/retrieve.do?tabID=T004&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&searchResultsType=SingleTab&hitCount=4&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm¤tPosition=4&docId=GALE%7CA502876001&docType=Article&sort=Relevance&contentSegment=&prodId=GPS&pageNum=1&contentSet=GALE%7CA502876001&searchId=R6&userGroupName=lonlib&inPS=true
Szabados, B. (1999). Was Wittgenstein an Anti-Semite? The Significance of Anti-Semitism for Wittgenstein’s Philosophy. Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 29(1), 1–27.
Wordsworth, W. (1803). To Toussaint L’Ouverture. https://allpoetry.com/To-Toussaint-LOuverture