Journo: “Churchill: Hero or villain?”
John McDonnell: “Villain – Tonypandy.”
And we were off. As an attempt to find anything to do – anything at all – rather than sort out the whole Brexit mess, the issue of Churchill’s legacy surfaced yet again. A few days later, Jacob Rees-Mogg [who else?] attempted to defend the British policy of creating concentration camps during the Boer War.
Fellow Kidderminster boy James O’Brien has called the furore part of the ‘footballification of everything’: you pick a side and on one side your hero can do no wrong; on the other he can do no right. So we have Churchill: for one side a national hero whose actions in 1940-45 trump everything and who must be venerated or you can just leave the country and go home (as one person told Priyamvada Gopal on Twitter); for the other a mass-murdering white supremacist whose many bad deeds trump everything else he might have done. While there are very important issues at stake here, none of the competitive historical fact-wielding seems to me to have very much to do with the study of History or why it might be valuable. (The Boer War controversy is rather different; where the Churchill case has been about weighing up ‘facts’ that are generally not in dispute, Rees-Mogg’s defence of Boer-War concentration camps was based upon a profound ignorance of historical record.) It seems more akin to a sort of secular ‘theology’. Who is damned and who saved? Who should be commemorated and how? Who goes into the secular liber vitae or Pantheon, and who is cast out? What goes into Historical Hell and what is redeemed? It’s all very eschatological in a way. As I have said before, the realm of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ people is that of theology, not history, not because history should not be about judgement (quite the opposite) but because it seems to be a profoundly un-analytical, ahistorical way of thinking.
In the early-ish days of this blog I wrote about the problems of judging history (here and here, especially – which might or might not be worth a read for background).
As I have also said many times before, context explains but doesn’t excuse things. That nevertheless does not mean we get very far by ignoring context and simply imposing a trans-saecular, context-free set of moral judgements. There is, as Derrida later modified his famous dictum to say (I don’t know where), ‘no outside-context’, or, as Wittgenstein evidently used to say, when discussing such issues, ‘you can’t shit higher than your own arse’. Curiously, however, many of the people who are uninterested in acknowledging context when it comes to Churchill or the British actions in the Boer War (and – just so we’re clear – I basically agree with them) are (rightly, in my view) insistent on seeing the importance of context in the case of Shamima Begum, the British woman who was groomed by and then ran away to join, ISIS. Equally, on the other side, those who want to whitewash (pun intended) Churchill’s record or the British concentration camps in South Africa with a simple, airy appeal to ‘context’, are desperate to judge Ms Begum without enquiring any more closely into her circumstances. The ‘secular theology’ implicit in these positions simply creates a huge unhelpful, inconsistent mess. Indeed, it is difficult to find any instance, where theodicy has come into play, where that hasn’t ultimately been the outcome to some extent.
If history has any value in the present, context does not, and should not, excuse but saying that something was ‘A Bad Thing’ (in 1066 And All That-speak) is insufficient without an attempt to explain and understand it. That effort to explain and understand cannot be simply dismissed ad hominem, without further consideration, as an attempt to whitewash the past. Put briefly, ethical judgement on one side and explanation and understanding on the other are both – or ought to be – part of the historical project; neither side makes any moral sense without the other. But the ethical evaluation needs to be about events or deeds, not overarching judgements of people in terms of Manichean binaries. History is about making things messy and uncomfortable for everyone. I once likened this to the ‘Internal Affairs Guy’ on US cop dramas: there to potentially shed a bad light on heroes or a good light on villains.
Some of the ‘anti-context’ comments rely on the point that not everyone at a particular historical moment thought or behaved in a specific way. Some people criticised the British concentration camp policy during Boer War at the time. Many people Churchill’s day didn’t share his racist, white supremacist views – even within a British context that was generally racist by any reasonable definition. This is of course an important point. As you would expect me to say, it is a vital one for showing that things didn’t have to be that way (and don’t have to be this way, now, either): one of, in my view, the most important things I believe a historical education should inculcate. The issue is what exactly one does with that point. Unless these worthies and their opinions were in a majority or at least made up a substantial portion of those with sufficient clout to have their views heeded, I am not sure that it helps to use the existence of such people simply to damn those with less forward-thinking or humane ideals. It seems to me to be more useful celebrate the non-conformists, the critics, the people who put forward ideas that were out of line with the general racist/imperialist/repressive views of their day. These, if I understood him correctly, are those who Giorgio Agamben calls ‘true contemporaries’: those are not ‘Ceux qui coïncident trop pleinement avec l’époque, qui conviennent parfaitement avec elle sur tous les points’.(1) The ‘true contemporary’ does not go with the flow of the period with which s/he is contemporary; s/he looks it in the face. Celebrating these people seems to me to be a rather more useful approach than simply using them to try to redefine the ‘context’ of the period.
As I have said before, just wagging your finger at the past is a pointless exercise. Churchill, and the perpetrators, victims and critics of the British Boer War Concentration Camps are all just as dead at the end of the day as they were at the start. It is little more than grandstanding. If one wants to do anything at all effective with an ethical approach to history, there are two immediate things that I propose (and, again, not for the first time). The first is to concentrate upon the events, the doings and not on the personalities or, to some extent, the institutions, the beings. This is because, as I said earlier, judging people, overall, as Good or Bad, saviours or demons, heroes or villains, seems to me to be an unhistorical exercise. As with institutions, like The British Empire, the risk is to end up with what has been called ‘the Balance Sheet’ approach. One the one hand, this; on the other hand that. To borrow from Kate Boehme, how many miles of railway tracks makes up for a massacre? And, although it’s hardly an unimportant point to make in modern UK politics, once you have said the Empire was a Bad Thing, where do you go? What do you do with that point? This is part of a much bigger issue that I want to blog about soon, that of History’s over-concentration on argument (rhetoric), as opposed to interpretation and understanding (hermeneutics). Make an argument for or against X, as opposed to Y. The Balance Sheet lends itself more easily to essay questions.
The ethical evaluation of deeds/events rather than people has the important further advantage of studying things that can be and are repeated, rather than (like their perpetrators) being dead and gone: ‘every time, unique, the end of the world’. This allows us to circumvent the curious issue of the ‘historical statute of limitations’ which has bothered me before: the bizarre idea that if someone discussed a fourth- or eighth-century atrocity in the way that critics of the Boer War Concentration Camps do, they would be condemned for their overly emotional and judgemental approach; historians there are expected to take a more Rees-Mogg-like attitude (though they are also expected to get their facts right). This leads to the second of my proposals. If you want to discuss history in an ethical fashion you need too turn the telescope round. Not ‘what do we have to say to the people who made the Boer War camps?’, but ‘what would the people who built, suffered and died in, and criticised the camps say to us?’ Critique the camps, sure, but ask about the position from which we criticise? What have we learnt? Are we emulating the critiques of imperial policy, or the Imperial officials? What if anything do those who (rightly) damn the British in the Boer War have to say about Gaza? About Guantanamo? About current western policies in the Middle East, Africa, South America? You can’t condemn the atrocities of the past and stay silent about the present. The former is safe, empty posturing without the latter. If you are going to make excuses for Netenyahu, Bush, Blair, Trump… shut the fuck up about Kitchener and his defenders.
That then leaves the thorny issue of why these debates repeat and repeat and why they get so heated: commemoration and national history. That’s for next time.
1: Giorgio Agamben, Che cos’è il contemporaneo? (Rome, 2008) / (trans. M. Rovere) Qu’est-ce que le contemporain? (Paris, 2008).