On the third day after his cancellation, Ted Hughes rose again. Having published a spreadsheet listing his possible association with 'wealth obtained from enslaved people or through colonial violence', the British Library backed down, making a public apology to his widow and withdrawing 'unreservedly' the reference 'to a distant ancestor'.
A natural first response to this decision would be to welcome it as a sensible step, particularly given that the ‘ancestor’ in question had died almost 300 years before his birth, probably lost money on his involvement with the Virginia company, wrote a pamphlet decrying slavery, and, perhaps most importantly, died childless and celibate – raising certain intriguing questions about how the Library’s researchers believe reproduction works.
And once that initial reaction has faded, a second response might be to ask what, exactly, is going on over there. A sane institution does not begin the task of 'becoming an anti-racist organisation' by crawling through the family trees of dead poets to find previously unknown reasons for offence.
A similar reaction might be felt reading the coverage of Roald Dahl’s anti-Semitism. Dahl was a peculiar man who wrote brilliant, macabre stories for children. The suggestion that his descendants should issue an apology for his views seems, on a moment’s thought, counterproductive. In what way does it benefit the children reading his books to know that the dead author held repugnant views, rather than letting them fade out of relevance?
The desire to expose every flaw and evil in the dead has a curiously infohazard-like nature. The facts are unpleasant and unalterable; if the dead can change their views, then it will take more than a Times article to persuade them. What, precisely, are the living meant to gain from this postmodern inquisition, other than a reduced respect for the author as artist and diminished enjoyment of their works?
The treatment of Dahl and Hughes speaks to a wider trend. There is a distinction to be made between appreciating the full complexity of a human being – contrasting Churchill’s merits as wartime leader against his less than modern views on race – and an attempt to reduce a person to those flaws. Far too often, the latter is what ends up happening. We maintain a Manichean division and simply move people from one side to the other.
The end result is not a country where people are contemplated as complete human beings, but one where statues are torn down and replaced. Once the charge of being problematic is made, the figure becomes immediately ‘controversial’. Never mind that one side of the controversy consists of a few online activists with very little real world support; the simple existence of dispute is enough to set the narrative in place.
Every figure in the pantheon of every country can have this charge laid against them. Unless they lived by modern standards in every part of their life – and incidentally, isn’t it odd how every other society through history got basic ethics wrong? – then they can be problematised.
As a result, men who did significant things are remembered for their vices and faults, and then they are forgotten. The odd thing is that this model fundamentally misunderstands what happens when we celebrate someone for their actions. Very few people celebrate Churchill on the basis of his views on race, and I suspect the majority of his countrymen are at best vaguely aware of them. Over time, the human behind the statue or the book falls away until all that is left is a celebrated quality to be admired and emulated.
Reducing the figures in the national pantheon to their evil acts strips them of the other things they did, and the country of its role-models. What it does achieve is the creation of space to tell a different story, and room to construct a set of national values quite different to those that went before.