The left’s campaign to erase human imperfection entirely misses the point
BY MAX YOUNG
“People who do really good stuff have flaws.”
It’s a simple enough sentiment. When Barack Obama said it in 2019, he was stressing that the world is messy – full of ambiguities. It also goes a little way to describing the human condition. We have always been a warring species, first with others, then amongst ourselves. We eradicated the Neanderthals from the face of the Earth. But in the fires of war and among all the death and pillaging, progress was slowly forged. Cultures developed. Laws were created, expanded, disregarded, and enforced. Human rights and technology blossomed. And now we’re here.
There is no perfect human and there never will be. It seems, however, that the left-wing radicals of today are making inroads in promoting an opposite philosophy – that history and its figures of the “wrong” kind are actively harmful to the people of now, and that even a reminder of a person or event who did wrong can constitute a form of oppression. As such, they argue that statues, street names, buildings and plaques exist as a glorification of the wrongdoings in our past.
It seems that no flaw, no wrong opinion is small enough for these radicals to ignore. This kind of moral absolutism, applied to past figures, has been going on for some time now. It’s mostly a tit-for-tat argument: “You admire this past figure? Have a look at what they said about X. If you still admire them, you are also a Y.” It’s seen most clearly now in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death and the crazed introspection that western nations are experiencing. “Your view on the Edward Colston statue is your view on slavery,” and so on.
In this introspection and eradication of our history, there will inevitably arise a problem. What flaw is small enough? Is anything forgivable? The University of Liverpool has already agreed to rename its Gladstone Hall, and so try to strike one of the titans of 19th century Britain from the memory of the Britain of today. Why? Because his father owned slaves. Was it not established hundreds of years ago that the son shall not bear the sins of the father? Are we not doomed to repeat history by erasing it? No piece of established wisdom can get past the ideological fervour of the radicals.
There is a new example of this type of historical witch-hunt falling in on itself. Over 1500 people have signed a petition to rename Edinburgh University’s David Hume Tower on the grounds that the eminent enlightenment philosopher was a racist. It was proposed that the tower be renamed after Julius Nyerere, alumnus of the university and former socialist dictator of Tanzania. The petition reads: “Nobody is demanding we erase David Hume from history. However, we should not be promoting a man who championed white supremacy. That is mutually exclusive with the goal of reducing the harm caused by racism at Edinburgh University to students of colour.”
The white supremacy that Hume is accused of promoting is found in one footnote in his Essays, Moral, Political and Literary, where he wrote that non-whites were inferior to whites. Hume is better known, however, for his system of philosophical empiricism, scepticism and naturalism. Julius Nyerere, meanwhile, ruled over Tanzania from 1960 to 1985. He created a one-party state that enacted a policy known as Ujamaa – a form of African socialism that villagized the nation into collective farms. Industry and banking were crippled through nationalisation, transport networks deteriorated to almost non-existence, and living standards fell dramatically as a result. The country was dependent on international aid to stay afloat.
The demand to name the tower after Nyeyere was eventually removed from the petition, but for a different reason altogether. Its author stated:
“I have edited this petition to take out Julius Nyerere’s name. It has been brought to my attention by several students that Nyerere was homophobic”. And so, the radicals must keep looking for a morally perfect idol.
Our history as humans is one of blood, death, war, rape, torture, slaves, blood, and death. But along the way, some made efforts to improve things – either for themselves, their families, or their country. Most, if not all, held views that we would regard as abhorrent today. Statues, plaques and the names of buildings make no claim otherwise. Once we understand that, we can put an end to this madness.
Max Young is Deputy Editor of Free Market Conservatives. Follow him on Twitter: @maxneoliberal