David Mitchell Misses The Point

It’s alright, I never really liked Peepshow anyway, the humour is so predictably cynical and masculinist that it just gets boring. The best thing about it was Olivia Colman, I’m very glad her career has gone stellar, whilst her co-stars just sit on comedy panels with other white, self-congratulatory men. Talking of whom, David Mitchell just missed the point in a recent piece on the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford University (my previous post explains what the campaign is all about). Like many privileged white men before him he thinks it’s alright to make trivialising jokes about racism without actually adding anything of substance to the debate. Nevertheless, here’s another post to reiterate why racism is bad.

There are an awful lot of arguments to keep the statue up. Some are openly racist – there are still people who venerate Cecil Rhodes and don’t like black people (for example, the many alumni of Oriel College who threatened to take the college out of their will if the statue was removed). Some are ignorantly racist – some don’t really know who he was but think it’s all a bit too much and impolite to ask for a statue to be removed, especially to ask in a forthright matter (the sort of people who’ve never been part of a racial minority). Then there are the likes of David Mitchell, again, just racist, somewhat apologetic about it but certainly not ignorant.

His argument rests on the familiar case that removing the statue is tantamount to “erasing history”. It’s a sensationalist argument that purposefully misses the point and makes it all sound far simpler than it actually is. But he’s wrong. Removing a statue isn’t erasing history, it’s one small act of recognition of the UK’s oppressive and violent legacies. We are not removing books on Cecil Rhodes, nor his Wikipedia page, nor all sites about him that would come up on a google search. If David Mitchell really wants to learn about Rhodes he can use the internet. He even admits to never having seen the statue which implies he’s not that interested, he just wanted an excuse to write a ranty, cynical article. I very much doubt he’ll make the effort to walk down the Oxford high street, look at the statue and think: “gosh, this is a potent reminder of how terrible imperialism is and was, and how we shouldn’t venerate racists”. The reason I think this is because his article, like so many others, is void of any history. He glibly refers to Cecil Rhodes being a “shit” and follows the line, “other than all the racism in history which, it goes without saying, doesn’t go without saying”, with no account of racism in history. So, actually, it does go without saying then? He ignores the history and present realities of racism because it suits him to and he’s too lazy to try to identify with oppressed groups he is not part of.

Mitchell also compares the “unwavering moral self-confidence” of the colonial Victorians who thought Rhodes was “right and good” with the students protesting as part of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. Yup, he’s comparing nationalistic racists with anti-racism activists. It’s a lazy comparison but maybe he’s just stating that these groups of people have points of view, unlike Mitchell who seems happy to repeat what others have already said. Of course, if he can find an activist who is actively calling for every trace of Rhodes to be removed (this would include the burning of books, the deleting of websites etc) then that would be a problem but he hasn’t and I doubt he will because the RMF campaign is far more nuanced and progressive.

“Do they [the RMF campaigners] think that we can have the debate about colonialism, about racism, once and for all now, and then just move on, having wiped away all offensive traces of our former ills? Do they really believe that they are simply correct about everything now – that, after millions of years, humanity has cracked it, that the truth about how to be has been discovered and must be propagated and enforced? History warns us that terrible things are done by people who think like that.” The answer to both his questions is No and I’m not sure he’s given any examples of people ‘who think like that’ (has he even talked to one of the campaigners?). Why? Because he’s lazy and couldn’t be bothered to do much research for his article and because he’s white and privileged and lacks empathy. There are lots of people like Mitchell – scared individuals who hide their insecurities and vulnerabilities behind acerbic repartee and cynical jokes, who lack the compassion and empathy to identify with others. But rather than dig his heels in and continue to speak from a place of fear and ignorance why doesn’t he step up as a privileged, white guy and do what he can to redistribute that privilege? He’ll probably make lots of new friends in the process as well. So here’s an amazing TED talk by Vernā Myers to kickstart that process.

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