The Rhodes Must Fall campaign rumbles on despite Chancellor Chris Patten of Oxford telling students to go somewhere else if they don’t accept ‘our values.’ In campaigning for a statue to be removed the agitators are stamping on the rights of free speech and are also abusing the spirit of Nelson Mandela, says the Chancellor, although Mandela stopped being relevant for most black people about the time that Patten was handing over Hong Kong, an island Britain won in a drug war with with those of a different hue: just said I’d mention that.
Many British (by British I mean those who think the British Empire was a new Israel) are confused by this turn of events which followed on from protests in South Africa. “How could they come here and tell us what to do with our statue!?” Judging by the sheer level of abuse the campaigners have received on social media, the movement hasn’t gone down well in some quarters and that is an understatement. But we will leave it at that.
Not that the Rhodes defenders are totally wrong. Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh and others belong to a victim culture, a culture which doesn’t engage with historically complex figures like Rhodes but which seeks to annihilate them from the stage. It is a Marxist position essentially, attempting to right the wrongs of yesteryear via a complete ‘operation transformation.’
What those defending the honour of Rhodes don’t grasp though is that Britain, along with the US, has championed the politics of victimhood across the globe, albeit in countries of strategic interest. That strategic interest is why the victimhood of the Kurds was highlighted in Iraq (after Saddam had tried to save victims of the Iranian revolution with Anglo-American aid) but not in Turkey, that is why a woman beaten on the street in Afghanistan justifies 14 years of bombing but a woman killed in the US protesting against police brutality doesn’t call forward even an inquest, that is why attacks on Israel warrant massive military aid but attacks on Arabs by Israel for writing poetry in Lebanese exile are just desserts for the historical persecution of Jews by Europeans (no, I don’t get the logic of that one, either).
Ok, backup a bit and let’s not get into these tit-for-tat dialectics because it is boring. It is sufficient to say that the politics of victimhood are a nonsense; they were a nonsense when the French revolutionaries killed Louis XVI for being a king, they were a nonsense when Marx sought to do violence to the bourgeoisie in return for their sins to the proletariat, they were a nonsense when Wilson said that all small countries had to shake off the ‘shackles’ of autocracy post-WWI (small countries not including Ireland which had suffered for centuries at the hands of the British).
There are historical precedents prior to 1945 for the politics of victimhood but it was the British and Americans who took the politics of victimhood and police-style interventions to new heights after the world war and particularly during the last 25 years. Instead of Rhodes Must Fall, there is a policy of All Nations We Don’t Like Must Fall. Both are versions of the politics of victimhood, both seek to uproot history, and both promise that a new world will rise from the ashes. Neither of the versions of the politics of victimhood particularly appeals to me, given that they are based on an inconsistent politics of victimhood, but if I had my choice I know which one I’d prefer.
The real moral of the story though is that the propaganda politics of victimhood show the limitations of propaganda, namely that the cheap propaganda you send out – that gives you immense power and moral certitude for a time – is only a boomerang