Modernity is all about levelling – not only of people and groups thereof, but also of tastes, morals and opinions.
Anybody, no matter how ignorant, feels entitled to air any opinion, no matter how inane – and to demand a respectful audience. Freedom of speech is being abused so badly that one begins to yearn for freedom from speech.
Now, though I may disagree with some opinions, I still recognise that they belong in the panoply of self-expression. But ‘some’ doesn’t mean ‘all’.
For example, a person is entitled to opine that the rich should all be taxed more, even though I consider this view economically ruinous and morally defunct. But a person isn’t entitled to opine – except privately and in jest – that the rich should all be flailed alive.
The band of acceptable self-expression can be wide, but it can’t be endless. If it is, society’s intellectual backbone, already showing many slipped discs, will collapse altogether. Society will then die.
It’s in this context that one should look at The Guardian article advocating the toppling of Nelson’s statue in Trafalgar Square. The author is Afua Hirsch, whom I had the displeasure of meeting when we were both guests on a BBC chat show discussing the purpose of imprisonment.
Miss Hirsch, her eyes glistening with fanatical zeal, saw prison as strictly an educational facility, whose sole purpose was saving the poor souls so betrayed by society that they had to resort to crime.
I countered that, though rehabilitation was desirable, it was secondary. Prison’s primary purpose surely was to serve justice by punishing wrongdoers. Miss Hirsch’s reaction was that of hysterical incredulity that someone could entertain such a monstrous idea. She clearly thought that, unlike thieves and murderers, I was beyond redemption.
Now she has ratcheted up her mindset, shifting it from the gear of lefty faddishness into that of deranged fanaticism. Thereby she has crossed the line of possible, if wrong, opinion into the territory where lunacy resides.
Her gripe is that Nelson lacked the foresight to realise that two centuries after his death there would exist a broad swathe of opinion that society should be dedicated to racial equality first and foremost.
Nelson, according to her, had many West Indian slave owners among his friends and – are you ready for this? – defended them in the House of Lords. “Nelson,” she writes, “was what you would now call, without hesitation, a white supremacist.”
That may be, but, as the Russian saying goes, it’s not the only thing we appreciate him for. The laws of political correctness, like any other, can’t be made retroactive. Nelson lived in his time, not ours, and he can’t be judged ex post facto on the basis of Miss Hirsch’s monomania.
Figures of his calibre can only be judged within history, and against that backdrop Nelson towers like the giant he was. Thanks largely to him Britain was spared for over a century the advent of bloodthirsty modernity. Also important is that he helped defer a time when the likes of Hirsch feel entitled to express their febrile idiocy in the mainstream press.
That Nelson was a flawed man was beyond doubt – show me one who isn’t. I’m sure Hirsch counts Martin Luther King, Mandela and Gandhi among her heroes. Yet the first used his wife for a punching bag and was serially unfaithful to her, the second had political opponents tortured and killed, and the third provoked a carnage.
Standards of heroism are different from those of sainthood, real or bogus. And even some saints weren’t exactly saintly before they saw the light. St Augustine and St Francis, for example, were both philanderers in their youth, while St Paul prosecuted Christians even in his mature years – although Hirsch would probably see that as a point in his favour.
I doubt she realises that the treatment of history she proposes would cut our civilisation off its past completely. For few historical figures would pass muster if held to the standards of our multi-culti modernity.
Unlike Nelson, George Washington, along with most Founding Fathers, was a slave owner. Charles Martel, El Cid, and Jan Sobieski were Islamophobes. Richard the Lionheart ditto, though he partly redeemed himself by being homosexual. Cromwell was a genocidal nationalist, certainly in the way he treated the Irish. Louis XIV gave his wife a black dwarf as a present, thereby displaying double insensitivity. Shakespeare, Dickens and Dostoyevsky had their anti-Semitic moments. Brahms was a German nationalist. Cecil Rhodes was a racist who expanded the British Empire Nelson gave his life to protect.
That empire, like its defenders, wasn’t without its fair share of wickedness. Yet on balance it was unquestionably a force for good, specifically in the area so dear to Miss Hirsch’s frenzied heart. For slavery had been deemed abhorrent in England at least since Elizabethan times.
A report of a case as far back as 1569 states that: “… one Cartwright brought a slave from Russia and would scourge him; for which he was questioned; and it was resolved, that England was too pure an air for a slave to breathe, and so everyone who breathes it becomes free. Everyone who comes to this island is entitled to the protection of English law, whatever oppression he may have suffered and whatever may be the colour of his skin.”
In 1772, ruling on the ‘Somersett’s case’ of a slave suing for his freedom when brought to Britain, Lord Chief Justice Mansfield declared that “no court could compel a slave to obey an order depriving him of his liberty.”
Such statements weren’t heard in many other places at that time. And it wasn’t just words. Though Britain officially banned the slave trade only in 1807 (66 years before Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation), unofficially the Royal Navy, in which Nelson served, had been harassing slave traffic for decades.
Given the balance of their record, shall we then forgive both Nelson and his employer a few currently unfashionable glitches? Not as far as Hirsch is concerned.
All decent people share her abhorrence of slavery. But if they look at all of history through the prism of today’s faddish obsession with ‘diversity’, they’re no longer decent. They’re mad at best, consciously subversive at worst.
In the past, such ranting fanatics could be found only in lunatic asylums. These days they adorn the pages of broadsheets. Then again, the two institutions are converging so much it’s hard to tell the difference.