Losing their heads

John Kane-Berman writes on the surrender of Western elites to Woke iconoclasm

Given that a biography published in 2003 described him as an “imperial icon”, it would not be surprising if Rudyard Kipling’s statue in the English village where he lived was on some or other list for toppling or removal. But politicians, journalists, municipal officials, bureaucrats, academics, police officials, curators of galleries and museums, priests, and others joining in the current excitement should instead be heeding the advice he gave in his celebrated poem If - to “keep your head when all about you are losing theirs”.

No matter how anyone tries to spin it, the frenzied attack on statues of slave traders and others is intolerance and dogmatism manifested as vandalism by activists with as much contempt for public and private property as for the opinions of others.

Nor is that the worst of it. More serious than the destructive behaviour of the activists, and accompanying mobs that the British Guardian describes as “joyous”, is the acquiescence in, even enthusiasm for, their actions among opinion-leaders in academia, business, the media and elsewhere.

Some, of course, have rejoiced as outrage against the killing of George Floyd has been transformed into a new front in a long-term multi-pronged culture war. Part of this is that white people are collectively guilty of victimising blacks, “whiteness” being akin to original sin. Another part is that those who disagree with this characterisation are right-wingers, racists, and fascists, whose rights to free speech may be legitimately curtailed by violence or blackmail or threats thereof. This group, hard-line Leftists, are in the minority.

The majority of those who have hailed the vandalising of statues include people who have opted for appeasement and those who have jumped on the bandwagon because that’s a comfortable place to be. Some are simply cowards, among them Oriel College, Oxford, which has finally capitulated to demands to remove its statue of Cecil Rhodes.

Others appear to be simply naïve. When Louise Richardson, vice-chancellor of Oxford, says the university authorities “wholly identify with the vision of Black Lives Matter” one wonders whether she has bothered to ponder what that vision might actually be.  

Yet others have decided that this an opportune time to signal their virtue and political correctness. Prominent among these last is the Rhodes Trust at Oxford, which issued a seven-page encyclical denouncing “the institutional legacies of slavery, imperialism, colonialism, white supremacy, and bias”. The 2015 Rhodes Must Fall movement had prompted “soul-searching” which among other things had led to a requirement that all members of scholarship selection committees now had to undergo “unconscious bias training”.

Oxford’s director of alumni relations sent out a letter proclaiming that university’s commitment to “shine a bright light for a more just and tolerant society”. How you do that while lauding “protests” that display exactly the opposite, the letter did not explain.

Euphemism, and censorship, have been hallmarks of much of the writing about the toppling of statues. Apart from the fact that these are acts of vandalism, the looting and smashing of other property (including black property) has been downplayed, as has the death of a retired (black) policeman, David Dorn, gunned down by a looter attempting to rob a shop in St Louis, Missouri. The New York Times divested itself of an editor who ran an article by a senator advocating military back-up to control rioting. The Philadelphia Inquirer forced out an editor who published an article about damage to people’s property headlined “Buildings Matter Too”.

Where does this all end? Sohrab Ahmari, an editor on the New York Post, wrote that he thought he’d left looting mobs behind in the Middle East. On Lexington Avenue he’d watched police officers “stand around like schmucks as rioters openly looted”. His Chinese-born wife said it all reminded her of the “cultural revolution” launched by Mao’s Red Guards. Others have drawn analogies with the Taliban.

For years sections of the media have been sounding warnings about the rise of the populist Right, which they have always strongly denounced. But the rise of left-wing intolerance and violence, of which the current “protests” are but the latest manifestation, has all along carried the endorsement of much of the intelligentsia. This gives it legitimacy, however bogus, while also making it more pervasive and more of a threat to the rights of others.

Among earlier examples are the support for the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Cape Town, the rescinding of Jordan Peterson’s visiting fellowship at Cambridge, and the barring of various “right-wing” speakers from numerous British and American campuses. Almost invariably the threat of violence causes campus authorities to capitulate, although many of them condone, or even applaud, such threats. The anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is another example of how left-wing intolerance and threats of violence have gained ground on American campuses.

Now we see the mood of intolerance, or fear of offending the Left, spreading from statues to Gone With The Wind and other works of art and literature. A few brave souls stand up against this: JK Rowling, Emmanuel Macron, Laurence Fox the actor, Boris Johnson’s home secretary Priti Patel, Candice Owens the American commentator, Thomas Sowell the economist, and journalists on The Spectator and the Spiked website among them.

But mostly the intelligentsia are in the grip of the madness of groupthink, in which all types of diversity are actively promoted while diversity of opinion is disallowed. Toby Young put it well in The Spectator discussing Cambridge’s “inclusive environment” policy: everyone must look different but think exactly the same.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.