Hannah McGill: Cecil Rhodes statue deserves scholarly debate

The controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College. Picture: Mark Hemsworth/LNP

The controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College. Picture: Mark Hemsworth/LNP

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THE disagreement over whether Oriel College in Oxford should remove a statue commemorating its controversial donor Cecil Rhodes is perfect fodder for opposing bands of hysterics – those endlessly preoccupied with having things shut down and banned, and those to whom only tradition and the status quo merit protection.

Both sides deserve a hearing: it’s not mere PC over-sensitivity to question the veneration of an architect of apartheid who called black South Africans “despicable specimens”, particularly in an environment in which black and minority students are under-represented; nor is it knee-jerk conservatism to question whether contemporary values can be retrospectively applied, or history cleaned up, without some integrity or truth being lost.

“The symbols that we choose to surround ourselves with matter deeply,” Dalia Gebrial, a campaigner to have the statue removed, wrote last week. “They reveal a lot about a nation’s values.” Undoubtedly true: look at the statement sent from Glasgow to apartheid South Africa in 1986 when its council renamed St George’s Place after the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, or the powerful symbolism of statues of Saddam Hussein or Josef Stalin falling along with their regimes. .

Perhaps the overarching question, however, concerns the practicality of setting such a precedent, when we are crowded on all sides by structures and institutions funded by individuals of dubious moral stripe. The construction of nations, economies and cities has never exactly been an innocent process; the world over, significant things are named after imperialist plunderers, ratbags and killers. Anyone troubled by the grimmer legacies of Empire should shudder at the street names of Edinburgh’s New Town, which pay tribute to figures including the mass-murderous “Butcher” Cumberland. The traders celebrated by the naming of Glasgow’s Merchants’ City – like the tobacco merchant John Glassford – garnered their wealth via slave-worked plantations.

We are mired all the time in the sins and ambiguities of a colonial past. It would be interesting to get the opinions of a cross-disciplinary, international group of thinkers… like, for example, the Rhodes scholars who have benefited from one of Cecil Rhodes’ legacies, a long-standing scholarship programme that sends promising overseas students to Oxford.

One beneficiary, the recently deposed ex-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, spoke out last week against the statue’s removal, but there are more intriguing Rhodes scholars yet to be heard. What does Terrence Malick think, or Bill Clinton? The Jamaican poet Mervyn Morris, the feminist critic Naomi Wolf, the liberal US TV anchor Rachel Maddow or the activist Ronan Farrow? What does Kris Kristofferson think? That such a diverse roster of influencers could all have been aided by the legacy of a man of such impure reputation serves only to illustrate the complexity of attempting to uncouple progress from stigma and national pride from collective shame.

Bad biopics stranger than fiction

THE FIFA-themed film United Passions was released just as corruption allegations clouded over its subjects, scored America’s lowest-ever box office opening, and has been labelled “a disaster” by its own director.

So star Tim Roth declaring last week that the film was “awful” and that he played Blatter “for the money” probably didn’t upset anyone too much. But will Blatter’s characterisation as a spotless hero (“The slightest breach of ethics will be severely punished!” he unironically declares) be remembered as cinema’s most misleading representation of a real person? It must joust for that title with famous examples such as Night And Day, which turned Cole Porter, a gay man with a limited service record, into a straight military hero; and Amadeus, which presented wholly fictionalised versions of its subjects Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Antonio Salieri; and Grace Of Monaco, perhaps the film most decisively scorned by all who saw it until United Passions came along.

Some of the most famed and celebrated biopics hinge on made-up detail: Braveheart invents William Wallace’s love affair with a French princess who would have been a child at the time. Big money; minor call for rigorous truth-telling – maybe Mr Blatter should look into biopic production as a new career path…

Ads leave a bad smell

IT’S doubtless a singular challenge to advertise something invisible and intangible, but perfume ads still occupy their own special level of ludicrousness. Choose between Gisele Bündchen having some sort of surfing-related domestic crisis to music from Grease; Johnny Depp having a little tantrum in the desert; or Scarlett Johansson and Matthew McConaughey apparently executing a home invasion on some confused Italian peasants…

The greater the gap grows between ordinary people and the super-wealthy the more indulgent and preposterous these ads appear. This year, take a firm stand against all that they represent by smelling only of booze and sprouts.

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