So, the latest is that Winston Churchill is being brought to heel by the woke forces of the earth. Revisionist commentary now has him classified as a racist and his statue duly defaced. How much that actually means is an open question. In Bristol, the statue of an eminent slave-trader ended up at the bottom of the river, and good riddance to him. But then, so too was a statue of Gandhi – Gandhi! – vandalised because he too – and who knew? – was a racist. I guess that sums up the collective mentality of the mob in heat.
I’m not here to defend Churchill – he doesn’t need me – but rather to deplore the recent practice of dragging down significant figures. It’s mindless and simplistic and bloody arrogant, too. It’s symptomatic of an era when critical thought is barely a concept, and it’s all about the raw feels.
Churchill was racist, much in the same way as many of his generation were. That’s not to excuse it, but it places it in context. The younger Churchill had something in common with Boris Johnson, I reckon – a gift for self-promotion, high self-regard, and a tendency to put their foot in it. That’s where the comparison ends. Even on his worst day, Churchill had more class, wit and intelligence than Johnson on his best. And anyway, the young Churchill matured.
There’s no doubt that Winston said some awful things, and made some stupid mistakes. Some of them were pretty racist, certainly by today’s standards. But, you know, he did some pretty good things, too.
What man is without flaw or fault? Look hard enough, and there’s always something to find. I’ve no objection to a fair appraisal, but to be fair it needs to embrace the man as a whole. That doesn’t happen a lot these days. Individuals are picked apart and every flaw magnified under the social media spotlight. It becomes fashionable to join the throng laying into the victim of the day – as if no-one else has ever erred, and regardless of the legitimate achievements of the victim in question.
In this era of extremes, every misshapen part is taken as the whole. There’s no nuance or critical judgement. To transgress one more invalidates every achievement, or so it seems. Churchill is a racist, and therefore a bad man – never mind that he stood alone against the forces of fascism. Never mind that he uplifted a generation by his example and by his rhetoric. Never mind that he actually opposed the bad guys doing evil racist things. No, in the new accounting it comes a distant second to the evils of his person. Wait until they hear he was a misogynist as well!
Anyone with any sense knows that Churchill was a great man. The world would undoubtedly be a different place today without him, and possibly quite radically so.
I’m not excusing Churchill, and I’m certainly not downplaying racism. What I’m calling for is a bit of balance and common sense. We need to learn how to see people in their totality, as once we did.
None of us is faultless. If you want the truth of it I’m probably a little racist myself (though I tend to think much of what is called racist is actually rooted in cultural difference), not by intention, but by instinct. I’m sure I’ve made racist comments in the past or looked upon someone differently because they were different from me. Again, it’s not who I mean to be, but I haven’t always been as virtuous as I am now. I know in places far distant that I’ve gravitated to my countrymen on occasion because we came from the same place, which is perfectly understandable while clearly showing a cultural bias. I guess that makes me imperfect, but human – hands up who isn’t?
We’re complex beings formed by our experiences and torn in conflicting directions by the forces around us. We absorb and deflect. We submit, and we defy. We develop and grow. If we are to accept that as true then we must also accept that people make mistakes, they act without judgement sometimes and sometimes without knowledge, they change.
We love pulling down tall poppies. There’s joy in exposing their feet of clay. It makes us feel grand. It’s cheap and nasty, though. Who among those tearing at Churchill could hope to do half of what he achieved? Wiser to understand none of us is perfect – and to measure the man on his actions.
I’m adding this addendum a day later after thinking about it overnight. I don’t retract anything I wrote yesterday, but in and amongst this mess I think there’s a great opportunity to come to terms with our past. We can’t disavow history, but we can hope to better understand it as something more than written down in books. I commented yesterday that Churchill was a man of his times – and it’s his time, and other times, that bear consideration.
If we are to take Britain as an example, for all their rich and storied history, for every victory, there was a loser. Many of those losers were weaker civilisations and peoples – weaker militarily, that is. That is the story of the times, of colonisation and imperial might, and the subjugation of the many for the economic benefit of the few (some things never change). It’s time that Britain – and other nations – to acknowledge that past, which includes slave-trading. You can’t change history, but you can face it square on (without prejudice – we can’t go down that path). This is what happened, this is what we did. It’s an exercise often proves cathartic for individuals, and may do also for nations. Certainly, the victims of this would applaud it.
Australia has wrestled with similar questions for many years now with regard to the aboriginal people. There was a breakthrough in the early nineties when the Federal Labor government pushed through Mabo, which was a landmark case of recognition. More symbolically, the Rudd Labor government issued a long overdue apology to the aboriginal people for the ills done to them by successive generations of white Australia. Nothing has happened since then, largely because we have a Liberal government who believes in little of this, unwilling to admit to fault or responsibility. It’s time now for formal recognition of the indigenous people in the constitution by way of a treaty. In this time when the headlines scream Black Lives Matter and myriad stories of violence and mistreatment, addressing these matters to put in place legal protections to prevent and redress is overdue.
There are plenty of statues being pulled down which don’t deserve to stand, but the bigger picture is not the individual, but the society that made that individual and allowed for them to flourish. It’s not about denying that history – it’s done, it can’t be changed – but understanding it and the context in which it belongs. This would be a healthy outcome.