History is being rewritten, removing unfavorable people

Daniel Flynn, Columnist

In George Orwell’s “1984,” a novel that takes place in a dystopian future, people who are deemed dangerously subversive by the government are declared “unpeople.” An “unperson” is someone who has been “vaporized” from the history books. When the unpersoning process is complete, no empirical evidence will remain to prove that they ever existed.

This is character assassination taken to a whole other level.

Orwell was a prophetic writer.

I have recently observed several attempts to unperson historic figures because they are pronounced too subversive for our modern and politically correct culture. They are figures whose legacies are so offensive that they must be erased from our collective memory. Their names must be scratched from the walls of universities. Their statues must be toppled and replaced with effigies that are incapable of offending even the most sensitive of people.

The first case that caught my attention concerns a statue located at Oriel College at Oxford University. An extremely passionate contingency of the student body is demanding the removal of the statue because it depicts a controversial figure from British history. A figure whom they regard as a racist, a proud proponent of empire, and a dreaded colonial. This reviled figure is none other than Cecil Rhodes.

Ever hear of a Rhodes Scholar? Former President Bill Clinton is one.

A Rhodes Scholarship affords two years of study at Oxford University to worthy applicants; a lucrative opportunity to be sure. Cecil Rhodes is its namesake, but that’s selling his legacy rather short.

I must confess that despite Rhodes’ many achievements, there is little doubt that he was a racist. It is also true that he was a colonial who profited from a diamond mine in Africa. Yet his other qualities are overlooked by the students at Oxford, whose primary aim appears to be creating a safe and inclusive environment on their campus. They do not feel comfortable studying at a college whose most celebrated student is a man whom they most heartily detest.

This matter is complicated by the fact that many of the protestors have ancestors who were oppressed under British colonial rule. I can sympathize with their feelings, as my ancestors were also oppressed by the British.

Officially, the administration at Oxford has denied the request to remove the statue. The students have reasoned that the administration is refusing to do so because wealthy donors have threatened to withhold millions of pounds toward the university, thereby revealing that the administration answers only to big donors; and there is little evidence to suggest otherwise.

On the home front, a similar battle is being waged at Princeton University, whose most famous student is former President Woodrow Wilson.

The college at Princeton that bears his name is under intense scrutiny. Student protestors want the name erased. Once again, students are taking issue with their administration’s reverence for a person they loathe. Once again, students are claiming to desire a safer and more inclusive environment on their campus. Once again their request was denied by the administration.

I believe these cases have to do with political correctness. It is not correct to name a college after a person who was a racist. Nor is correct to regard a racist as a great man.

Wilson and Rhodes must become unpeople because their legacies are hurtful and demoralizing to present day students. The message seems to be the following: this is for your own good. Orwell would be alarmed.

Renaming a college is hardly a way to unperson someone, but it is a start. Considering that Woodrow Wilson was formerly President of Princeton – in addition to being President of this nation – it will be awfully difficult to erase his legacy. After all, Wilson did more to put Princeton on the map as a major university than any other person. Even though he did believe that Black students have no place at Princeton, his contributions to the institution helped make it a great university, whose other notable graduate is, rather paradoxically, First Lady Michelle Obama.

How does one explain this paradox? Is it not possible that figures like Wilson and Rhodes are simultaneously capable of being great men and bigots? Can we not regard these men as such? Can we not accept such contradictions? Is it not possible to recall that Woodrow Wilson and Cecil Rhodes made significant contributions to humanity, but were also prejudiced? Can we not admire their achievements but despise their beliefs? Why can we no longer hold two opposing opinions?

This makes me despair of humanity.

Let the statues remain. Let us recall the full extent of their legacies, stained as they may be. Let us honor their achievements and recall these men as flawed heroes. After all, centuries from now, humanity may regard our generation as the uncivilized bigots that we truly are.

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