Down with evil men – Part 2

Down with evil men – Part 2

As British commander during the siege of Mafeking (now spelled Mafikeng, Setswana for “place of stones”) Baden-Powell was responsible for the brutal neglect of the black population who stood as allies with the British against the Afrikaner. A vivid insider account of this history is the book Mafikeng Diary by Baden-Powell’s personal secretary during the siege, Sol Plaatje.
Worse, Baden-Powell invented both the concept and the term

“concentration camp”, herding thousands of Afrikaner women and children into these hell-holes in the assumption that this would force their menfolk to surrender. Large numbers of the inmates died, of malnutrition and of typhoid, dysentery and other diseases.

The atrocities were revealed in the London press by the courageous investigative journalist Emily Hobhouse. On a personal note, the only time I have placed flowers on a monument was when I visited Hobhouse, the town named after the great woman in South Africa’s Free State.

Of course the right-wing have orchestrated a backlash against the removal of Baden-Powell’s (and others’) statues, just as Trump maintains that those who protest the murder of George Floyd are more thuggish than the policeman who killed him. Here is where my interest in rhetoric studies comes to the fore.

One defender of Baden-Powell’s statue remaining where it is—who was speaking as a lifelong member of the Boy Scouts—lamented: “There have been vicious rumours about Baden-Powell but they are not true at all.” This prompts the question, how much documentation is needed for rumour to distil into unquestionable fact? Perhaps that individual should visit the concentration camp museum in Aliwal North, near Hobhouse, to see for himself; though in all likelihood he would claim the exhibits are all make-believe.

In the local press (shared by Poole and Bournemouth, where I eke out my days) a Baden-Powell supporter stated “he was a man of his times, not subject to 21st century bigoted views.” The “man of his times” line is, of course, a familiar rhetorical ploy (as if an individual cannot rise above their times!), but it’s news to me that objections to mass murder can be classified as bigotry.

Arguing along the same lines comes this dumb contribution from Boris Johnson, who as time goes by behaves more and more like one of the wackier characters from Alice in Wonderland; he comments that earlier generations “had different perspectives, different understandings of right and wrong.” Precisely what understanding of right and wrong Johnson himself might have would take a genius like Wittgenstein to establish.

What Johnson says is in itself perfectly true, but it is why we should now reject an earlier perspective and revile people like Colston and Baden-Powell, it is why we no longer throw Christians to the lions, or execute people for stealing a loaf of bread, or burn at the stake women suspected of witchcraft (though watch out, ‘Maesaiah!).

On a slightly different, and lighter, note, one other Baden-Powell statue supporter has reminded us that part of the Scout Law states that “A scout is a brother to every other scout, no matter to what colour, class or creed the other may belong.” This is indeed an inspiring principle, though to what extent it’s observed in practice might be questionable.

A delicious misprint in the local paper in which that comment appeared had it not that a scout is a brother but that “a scout is a bother.” Reminds one of the old joke about a scout helping an old lady across the road only to find out she wanted to be on the side she’d just been led from.

To get back to serious business, as to what has been done by way of setting history to rights, I shall quote the following American examples from Rebecca Solnit’s great new book, Whose History Is This?: Old Conflicts, New Chapters. Although some of the individuals named may not be familiar, bear with me, as what I find appealing—and liberating—here is the sense of all the different marginalised or oppressed groups to whom the process of re-commemoration can apply.

Solnit writes: “in the Spring of 2018, New York City removed a statue of racist gynecologist J. Marion Sims from Central Park, and in the [autumn], the city announced that a statue to Shirley Chisholm, the 1972 presidential candidate who was also the first Black woman to serve in Congress, will be erected. San Francisco removed a much loathed statue of a Native American man being dominated by a Spanish priest [and colonialist].

In October, the city renamed the international terminal at the airport after the gay rights leader Harvey Milk [who was murdered by a bigot]. What was once Phelan Avenue (a name connected to the virulent anti-Chinese campaigns of the nineteenth century) is now Frida Kahlo Way [named after the great Mexican female painter].”

Solnit concludes: “Statues and names are not in themselves human rights or equal access or a substitute for them. But they are crucial parts of the built environment, ones that tell us who matters and who will be remembered.”
See what can be done, with good will, an inclusive politics, and a desire to redress the crimes of the past. 

Chris Dunton

Previous Blissful ignorance
Next Vladimir Putin’s plea

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