Don’t drag down heroes for their flaws

Published by The i paper (15th October, 2018)

Should we ban George Orwell’s books, ditch prizes named in his honour and pull down his statue that stands beside the BBC’s main base? This might seem a shocking suggestion when his razor-sharp dissections of totalitarianism, tribalism and truth feel so pertinent in these disturbing times. Yet for all his fine words on anti-semitism during the Second World War, other writings displayed casual prejudice against Jewish people that leaves even this great figure open to attack in today’s culture wars.

Orwell shows how easily we can find grounds for condemnation of sanctified figures from history when judged by modern standards. He wrote crudely about Jews in his first published book, complained in his diaries about Jewish media dominance and ‘was at heart strongly anti-Semitic’ according to Malcolm Muggeridge, his friend and fellow journalist. Yet he was also honest about his personal struggles on the issue, which reflected the views of many upper-class Englishmen of his generation, and to my mind this does not negate the searing brilliance of his later writings.

Others may disagree. Just as there is fierce fighting over Sir Winston Churchill’s legacy. This was seen again last week when former astronaut Scott Kelly sparked a social media storm by posting a three-word quote from the wartime prime minister and calling him ‘one of the greatest leaders of modern time’. Ironically, Kelly was lamenting deep divisions in American politics but ended up exposing the savagery of modern debate, especially after offering an apology and promising to ‘educate myself further on his atrocities, racist views which I do not support’.

Kelly should not have caved in to the social media mob. Yes, Churchill was a flawed human being who relentlessly polished his own historic sheen. And there are valid questions over some of his attitudes, again reflective of his age. But as historians have explained, the idea he deliberately inflamed a famine in Bengal because of racism is absurd. I do not subscribe to ‘Great Man’ theories in politics but there is no doubt Churchill played a brave and singular role in the fight against fascism. As Tory MEP Daniel Hannan wittily wrote on Twitter: ‘You think Churchill was a racist? Just wait till you hear about the guy he defeated.’

Yet such is the trend for seeing the past through modern prisms, some critics and cyber-warriors have even compared the man who stood strong in defence of liberty with the Nazi leader who unleashed the Holocaust. ‘He is really one of the more evil rulers of the 20th century, only fit to stand in the company of the likes of Hitler, Mao and Stalin,’ claimed Dr Shashi Tharoor, an Indian politician and author of Inglorious Empire. He pointed to Churchill’s nasty quotes about Indians as ‘a beastly people with a beastly religion’ and blaming the famine on ‘breeding like rabbits’.

Such statements are indefensible. Yet as with Orwell, they should not be used to diminish admiration for his extraordinary achievements simply because they sound so bigoted in today’s light. John Maynard Keynes showed contempt for the working class and promoted eugenics, like other intellectuals of his day, yet was still a great economist. William Beveridge thought ‘freedom and fatherhood’ should be denied for those deemed inferior, yet still founded our welfare state. Just as with art, past mores can be detached from modern respect.

Yet for all the self-aggrandising hyperbole, we should not totally dismiss the furore. Churchill was also driven to his place in history by a desire to protect imperialism. And in defending his reputation, we should not ignore past misdeeds by our nation as many do all too readily. For the British Empire was an abomination: founded on slavery and racism, pillaging resources and guilty at times of hideous brutality. It remains a factor in thwarting progress in Africa with its destruction of communities, arbitrary colonial borders sparking conflict and a legacy of social mistrust still affecting trade flows today according to economists such as William Easterly.

The Empire still casts a long shadow at home too. British writers often perpetuate the myth of exceptionalism, emphasising any benefits while downplaying damage as if our imperialism was better than the rest when almost one quarter of the planet’s people were ruled from London. So for once I agreed last week with Jeremy Corbyn when he said school children should be taught the full history of colonialism, empire and the struggle for racial equality. This is vital in a multicultural society; as the Labour leader says: ‘black history is British history’.

As Brexit looms, it is also crucial to better understanding of both our own nation and the wider world. This brings me back to Orwell. His 1934 novel Burmese Days, based on five years in the Imperial Police, showed contempt for empire at a time when it was common in England to portray it as a force for good. This is highlighted in Churchill & Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, a superb dual biography by Thomas E Ricks that I was reading when last week’s social-media spat flared up. It explores how two very different characters, political outcasts for much of their lives, forged the strength to stand apart from the crowd in defence of freedom, democracy and their principles at a critical point in history.

We should remember that warning in Nineteen Eighty-Four, Orwell’s stunning fable of dictatorship and doublespeak that feels chillingly relevant in this disruptive age: ‘Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.’ As fascism and nationalism flares up again in Europe, cling to heroic inspiration of people such as Churchill and Orwell rather than drag them down with crass modern revisionism.

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