Defending history from scrutiny and change is a contradiction of its purpose.
Boris Johnson’s twitter feed has generally aligned with what we’d expect from all but the orangest of political leaders. Meekly drudging out guidelines and statistics with characteristic rebuttals for any form of criticism. Last week however, he went on an eight-tweet rant attempting to gaslight the nation into accepting that Churchill was a man of his time, immune to criticism, and todays Britain is a far cry from the horrors of racism in America. This is a standard conservative line across the globe when questions arise over the immoral actions in a nation’s past.
The establishment that became rich and powerful off the back of the same inequalities leaps to the same argument; that history cannot be viewed through modern morals and that our history cannot be changed. Not only can we examine it through our own eyes, it is impossible to do it any other way. Now more than ever it is vital that we do so with a critical and contemporary eye.
Morality depends on a number of things which adapt as generations pass. The morality of murder depends on intention and necessity; to kill by accident or in self-defence can both be cases of exception today. The principles of right and wrong vary too, aligning with the intention and necessity of acts of violence. If early human civilisations believed that human sacrifice would bring them the harvest they needed to survive, this is murder with the intention of saving lives and out of necessity to prevent starvation.
The Prime Minister this week said that a leader of the mid 20th century had “different understandings of right and wrong” in defence of a man with whom he shares an extensive record of racist comments and actions. This is a woefully shameless fantasy.
Since the time of the Roman Emperor Constantine, Europe has largely resided under the moral universe of Christianity. The crusades marched under the banner to reclaim the holy land. The colonialists of the Atlantic Slave Trade warped their mission’s own morality to fit with Christianity by categorising their prey as a sub-human species for whom the established moral code did not apply. The UK Parliament derives its power from the Queen who in turn derives it from god. This country exists under that same moral universe, ever changing based on the intention and necessity of actions.
Within living memory, Churchill purposefully deployed scorched earth tactics in an already food insecure region of Bengal to defend against an invasion that was not happening. He diverted ships of food whilst millions were starving to death, entirely aware of the effect this would have. He said “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.”
This is immoral behaviour today just as it was then and would have been two millennia before. The Roman Empire succeeded at such capacity and for so long due to the promises of mutual defence, civil representation and equal citizenship for those they ruled over. Churchill held in contempt those under British rule based on their race. His intentions were vicious, born out of greed and arrogant chauvinism. Churchill lead in a time of crisis and was instrumental to the war effort. However, to publicly glorify a man with such a record of hateful prejudice without due recognition and scrutiny of these actions is unacceptable for any generation.
History is an argument and we have the right as the audience to decide how different events have shaped the present and crucially what we choose to glorify. If we take the current trend of targeting statues of racist figures, it is vital we consider the purposes of these monuments and the events they represent in the figure’s past and in their immortalised form. 174 years after the death of Edward Colston, a statue of the slave trader was erected in Bristol city centre. This occurred in the wake of the abolition of slavery in the British Empire and the subsequent rise of ‘scientific racism.’ This was legitimised by the state of European exceptionalism engineered during the Age of Enlightenment. We see this in action from the President of the London Anthropological Society, in his 1863 paper; “the Negro is inferior intellectually to the European…and can only be humanised and civilised by Europeans.’’
These men were shaping history through their own distorted Christian morals. Yet when a statue was erected by sympathisers of this school of thought as a tactic of preserving its system of fear and oppression, this becomes history. Do me a favour.
This period of Eurocentric thought continues to influence teaching today and the ways in which we view the world around us. This period characterised history as a science for the first time. We still live in an intellectual hangover from many of their misconceptions. Defending history from scrutiny implies it is an impartial guidebook on how we came to be. This is only true when its story is your story. It should be no surprise that it was the torment of his hero that drove Johnson to impassioned fervour.
He is a consequence of our traditional historical monolith of British exceptionalism and as such is defensive over his history which is relatable and empowering to him.
Modern racism was invented during the ‘Enlightenment’ period. Never before had such sweeping civil and social consequences been linked intrinsically to skin colour. This was not an accident and today we continue to live through the disparities these moral distortions created. If we do not assert our own morality over the history we examine, we excuse intentional evils with the benefit of the doubt. Racism as we know it was born out of the greed of the wealthy, but it will be torn down by the masses they so underestimate.