Thursday, May 04, 2017

No True Bristolian



I feel like I need to apologize for my essay on Bristol's Colston Hall kerfuffle.

I have a habit of writing in a light, semi-ironic, affable style. And this is appropriate for writing about comic books and children's television. If "well, last weeks Doctor Who was an embarrassing piece of fifth rate horse shit, wasn't it" mutates in the editing stage into "In the future, committed Time Lord followers may not look back on last week's story with feelings of unalloyed pleasure" no harm is done. But I am afraid I sometimes allow my tones of whimsical bemusement to permeate subjects which really matter.

Ursula Le Guin berates C.S Lewis and his contemporaries for writing as if from a high-church club which treats the rest of the universe with slightly amused disdain. That's probably where I got it from.

For the avoidance of doubt: the Colston Hall Kerfuffle is not one of those subjects which really matters. Twenty years ago, my position would have been broadly "If the name changes, jolly good; if it doesn't change, never mind." Contrary to what you may read in the Guardian, the people of Bristol are not in thrall to a Colston cult, any more than the people of Charing Cross are in thrall to the worship of Eleanor of Castille. You can't move in Bath for bakeries which sell the only original Bath Bun, and the recipe for William Oliver's extremely dull biscuits is a jealously guarded secret. But I had literally never heard of Colston Buns before the Great Kerfuffle started.

But the scheme to rebrand the Hall has brought a lot of very nasty arguments out of the woodwork; and it has revealed that some people hold some very nasty beliefs -- about history, about the city of Bristol and about the world in general. And this matters very much indeed.

I feel like I need to re-write that piece with an Obama style "anger interpreter" at my side.

Here is the entire text of a letter which was printed in the Guardian last week. It is a piece of writing which literally made me shake with rage. It has so many of the typical characteristics of this kind of "green inker" that I am tempted to wonder if I accidentally wrote it myself and submitted it to the Guardian as a wind up. But I fear it is quite real. 

Unlike many of the (mainly) students who campaigned to get the name of Colston Hall changed,  I am a Bristolian born and bred, and I am so incensed that the management has kowtowed to these so-called activists. I have to reluctantly agree for the first time with the former Bristol Conservative leader Richard Eddy that we cannot change history, and that place names give us a link with the past. Edward Colston gave the land on which the eponymous hall stands for the building of a school for orphaned and destitute boys. This is still thriving today, in a different part of the city. He also left money for almshouses for the poor, and with the residue of his fortune a girls’ school was founded (which, incidentally, one of the spokespeople for the anti-Colston name brigade attended, and presumably benefited from its excellent education).

Many cities and towns in Britain have monuments and buildings dedicated to people who were not 100% PC to our modern overtender sensibilities – leaders of industry in the north, who allowed children down mines, or forced them to crawl under looms. They did not all give part of their wealth to alleviate the lot of the poor of their cities as Colston did. Where does this nonsense end?

This is all about money. The management of Colston Hall is trying to attract sponsorship for its renovation and future preservation by offering corporate naming. So look out for the Tesco Hall or the McDonald’s Hall sometime soon. Silly, unnecessary, embarrassing to the city. I sincerely hope that Bristolians stop this in its tracks, keep the Colston name (while fully acknowledging the horrors of slavery) and leave history to the historians

Exegesis is what we do here, so let us exegize. 

1: "I am a Bristolian born and bred"
In the first sentence, we discover what the Great Kerfuffle is really all about. It's not about one theater or one historical person of dubious reputation. It's about nativism.

No-one in real life ever uses the word "Bristolian". (If you needed an adjective, you would just say "Bristol": "Blackbeard is thought to have been a Bristol sailor" or "The Bristol dialect is dying out.") No-one ever claims to be a Portsmouthian or a South Gloucesterani either. You might possibly say that someone was a Londoner, but you would just mean that they lived in London.

I know what it means to be born in Bristol, but who ever used the word "bred" of a person? You've never heard anyone say "Tolkien was born in South Africa, but bred in Oxford" or "Although he was bred in the United States, Bob Hope was actually born in Kent." Born-and-bred is one of those portmanteau words. It means "I have lived in this city all my life". It is only ever used to contrast "us", who were born-and-bred in Bristol and therefore have some kind of special status, with "you", who do not.

The writer thinks that only people who have lived in Bristol all their lives should have a say about what happens in the city; at any rate that born-and-bred-Bristolians have some special insight into what concert halls should be called that is denied to people who were bred here but not born here, or born here but not bred here, or people like me who were neither born nor bred here.

How long do you have to have lived in a municipality before you get a say in what happens here, do you suppose? I've lived in Bristol for twenty years. Do I have to travel back to London come local election time, like Mary and Joseph, or is there some process of naturalization?

Nativism is as foul when applied to a city as it is when it is applied to a country. It is about creating an "us", who are true Bristolians, real Americans, pure Germans and a "them" who just happen to live here. Sometimes, it may even happen, quite coincidentally, that "we", the natives, are mostly of one particular race (white, for the sake of argument) and "you", the incomers, are of a different race, perhaps (in some hypothetical case) black or Asian.

2: Kowtowed
You might think that a music trust would be quite capable of deciding for itself whether it wants to rebrand a building which it happens to own. You might think "We don't want to call it the Colston Hall any more because we feel the name is associated with the slave trade" was a perfectly good explanation for the rebranding, whether you agree with it or not. 

But in fact there is always some conspiracy at play. It always turns out that some nebulous Other has forced its will on Us Natives. In this case it turns out that the change of name is Us Bristolians making an act of ritual submission to a group of Non Bristolian Students.  

Former Conservative Councilor Richard Eddy makes this crystal clear. He describes the proposed change of name as:  

"a complete surrender to the forces of historically illiterate political correctness" 

and 

"pandering to the views of a tiny minority of non-Bristolians".

3: So-called activists. 
If the Non-Bristolian Students were trying to persuade the Bristol Music Trust to change the name of their hall, then they are, by definition, activists. If the letter writer is trying to persuade the Music Trust to reverse the decision, then they are, by definition, also an activist. That is what the word means. "So-called" is doing nothing in the sentence at all. It is a zombie word. The letter would be improved if we substituted "these pooey activists".

4: We cannot change history
The green inkers say this over and over again. You can't change history. You can't change history.

What does it mean?

No-one is traveling back in time and making it so that the sign outside Colston Hall already said Wilberforce Hall in the 19th century, although that would be an interesting premise for a Doctor Who story. No-one is denying, or trying to suppress the fact that some Victorian slavery apologists named a building after a slave trader, any more than anyone is denying that at one time Saddam Hussein was the ruler of Iraq, or that Jimmy Savile once worked for the BBC. We're just taking down some statues and some nameplates.

In 1867 the name plate was put up; in 2020 it was taken down. That's as much a part of history as anything else.

5: Edward Colston gave the land on which the eponymous hall stands for the building of a school for orphaned and destitute boys. 
Robinson Crusoe is the eponymous character in Daniel Defoe's novel (the book his named after him); although she is the eponymous character, Abigail does not actually appear in the play Abigail's Party. It is just possible that if you said that Colston Hall was the eponymous building in a novel called "Murder at the Hall", we would know what you meant. But in no possible sense can you call Colston Hall "the eponymous hall". Dropping four syllable jurisdiction words into the middle of phenomenon sentences doesn't improve an incorporeal argument.  

It is true that in 1708 Colston's school was intended to educate 100 poor boys, provided they were not Methodists. The school which now bears his name educates anyone of any gender or religion provided their parents have £13,000 a year to spend on school fees. 

6: Brigade
Green inkers always see everyone else as forming brigades. One wonders why it is never the "political correctness squadron" or the "health and safety corps"

7:  ...Presumably benefited from its excellent education.
People sometimes complain when a person who has been to grammar school argues that grammar schools are a bad idea; or when a person who went to private school says that private schools are unfair. "You have benefited from a grammar school education, now you want to deny it to others" they say. (The correct answer to this is "No, you mugwump, I want to ban second class carriages".) 

The writer seems to be creating a new argument based on the same template and ending up with word salad: "You have attended a school which was named after a slave trader and now you want to deny the right of a music venue to be named after a slave trader." What? 

8: ....not 100% PC to our modern overtender sensibilities 
And now it comes.

"PC" -- political correctness -- is a pejorative term for "politeness".

More specifically, it is what green inkers call the belief that you should avoid words like "wog", "cripple", "spastic" and "nigger" because they upset people. 

Even more specifically, it represents the belief that a group of so-called activists, very probably from out of town, and very probably organized into brigades, are actively preventing everyone else from using these words, as part of a plot to destroy western civilization. (So you should jolly well go out of your way to use bad words, otherwise you'll be kowtowing to the PC brigade!) 

I suppose that if I called someone "black" when the preferred term was "person of colour", or if I said "blind" to someone who thought of themselves as "visually impaired" you might say that I wasn't being 100% politically correct -- in other words, that I had inadvertently and unintentionally used a word which might possibly have given a small amount of offence. 

Buying and selling black people as if they were livestock is, in the mind of the person who wrote this letter, roughly comparable to inadvertently using a bad word. 

"Not 100% PC."

In fact, it is not even quite that bad. Buying and selling black people as if they were livestock is not, in itself, less than 100% PC; it is less than 100% PC only from the point of view of our "modern, over-tender sensibilities."

"Over-tender." 

We disprove of slavery because we are a little bit too gentle, too kind, too affectionate.

"Over-tender." 

How politically incorrect would buying and selling black people be if we were exactly the right amount tender? 

Oh, and it's only from the modern point of view that buying and selling black people like livestock is a bit like accidentally using a slightly bad word. From the olden days point of view it was even less bad than that.

I keep hearing this kind of thing. You can't judge the past by the standards of the present. People back then didn't realize that slavery was wrong.

Yes you can and yes they did.

Well, Mrs Miggins from the pie-shop who had never traveled outside her own village might, I suppose, just possibly, have honestly believed that negroes were a special kind of monkey and cruelty to them wasn't the same as cruelty to people, in the same way that she might have honestly thought that the world was flat and there were unicorns in India. But Bristol was a port town. Edward Colston lived in London. He had met black people, he had talked to black people. He had traded with black people. He knew that they were human beings, just like him. And he bought and sold them anyway.

Yes, free agricultural labourers worked longer hours than we would put up with today. 

Yes, it wasn't only slaves who were flogged, it was soldiers and sailors and kids and horse thieves too. 

Yes, there was a Star Trek story about a planet where the slave caste was treated quite well all things considered. 

Yes, if you honestly believed in witches then you might honestly believe in killing witches.

Be as culturally relativistic as you like.

Slavery. Was. Never. Okay.

9: – leaders of industry in the north, who allowed children down mines, or forced them to crawl under looms --
This form of not actually saying anything at all is known as "what-about-ery". If I say "here is a bad thing" you reply "here is another bad thing". If I say "let's do a sensible thing" then you reply "then you must do a stupid thing as well."

The logic of the position is "you cannot fix anything unless you can fix everything; you cannot fix big injustices unless you also fix small ones, you cannot fix small injustices unless you also fix big ones." If you think that it is in rather bad taste to open a pub in Whitechapel called "The Jack the Ripper" then you must logically want every pub and every building named for Henry VIII, who after all also killed two of his wives, to be taken down. If you allow women to vote, you'll have to allow farm animals to vote as well. If you allow gay people to get married, soon you'll have to allow hamsters and deckchairs to get married. 

Yes, it would be a good thing if there were no memorial to anyone who had ever made his fortune from human trafficking. Yes, it would be a good thing if there were no memorial to anyone who had ever profited from child labour. (*) This is where we happen to be starting.

A different green inker in the Guardian said that if we removed Colston's name from the theater, we would also have to tear the words of Amazing Grace out of every hymn book in the world, because John Newton was also a slave trader. This is a moronic comment at two levels. Firstly, and I don't know how many different ways it is possible to say this WE. ARE. NOT. PULLING. THE. BUILDING. DOWN. WE. ARE. JUST. CHANGING. THE. NAME. OVER. THE. DOOR. And secondly because John Newton, famously, was ashamed of being a slave trader. (*) John Newton thought that being a slave trader was wicked. John Newton thought that it was amazing that God still loved him even though he was a former slave trader. The clue's in the title.

10: They did not all give part of their wealth to alleviate the lot of the poor of their cities as Colston did. 
We've covered this. Using money to set up schools for poor white children (provided they are not Methodists) in England does NOT make it okay to have made the money by kidnapping black children in Africa. If anything, it makes it worse.

11: Where does this nonsense end?
It ends when there is no-one left in the world who thinks that being a slave trader was, all things considered, not really too bad.  

12: This is all about money. 
You have changed your entire argument mid-letter, you complete and utter dunderhead.

Your whole argument was that the management of Colston Hall were ritually abasing themselves before the non-Bristolian forces of Political Correctness. Suddenly it has nothing to do with incomers or activists or PC gone mad -- it's just a business decision.

Quite a sensible business decision, if you ask me. If the government is cutting spending on the arts, then the arts are going to have to seek private sponsorship. I wouldn't worry about Tescos Hall or McDonalds hall. Halls don't get named after supermarkets or burger bars: McDonalds wouldn't sponsor a hall that's already selling posh burgers and coffee, and their name is too famous already for it to be a good investment. But concert halls do get named after individual donors. By all means, take down the name of the nasty person who had nothing whatsoever to do with the founding of the hall in the 19th century, and replace it with the name of someone who has contributed some money to keep it going in the 21st.

13: I sincerely hope that Bristolians...
Real Bristolians? True Bristolians? People who were born in the city? Or people like me who just happen to live here? 

14: while fully acknowledging the horrors of slavery...
Now there's an idea.

I have been fortunate enough to have attended the Wagner festival in Bayreuth on two occasions. Bayreuth is another place which has to come to terms with its past. Richard Wagner's opinions about Jewish people were not 100% politically correct, and the place was frequently attended by Adolf Hitler, whose policy of gassing Jews would be unacceptable to our perhaps over tender modern sensibilities. 

The second time I went to the festspielhaus, there was an exhibition outside the building, memorializing every Jewish person known to have performed at the theater, from the time of Wagner down to the Nazi era.  (Wagner himself was quite prepared to hire Jewish musicians, it seems: only after he died was it discovered that only people born and bred in Germany could understand the master's music.) As you walked through the exhibition, you found that more and more of the performers had ended up in the concentration camps. This seems to be a positive way of dealing with the place's Nazi associations. You admit to the bad thing, you deplore the bad thing, you actively tell people about the badness of the bad thing. But under no circumstances do you say that the bad thing wasn't too bad, or was only bad by today's standards and that we shouldn't judge the past by the standards of the present.  

It helps that the good thing which Wagner did (compose the Ring Cycle) and the bad thing which Wagner did (hate Jewish people) are different and unrelated. (*)  It is possible to say "We condemn Richard Wagner for promoting anti-semitism; but we continue to celebrate him for composing Siegfried's funeral music." It would be harder to say "We condemn Jimmy Savile for molesting thousands of children, but we will continue to celebrate him for giving money to children's hospitals in order to gain access to children to molest."

Some Jewish people would say that you can't ever denazify Bayreuth: Wagner's music is irrevocably tainted by its connection with Hitler. I respect that point of view.

Instead of tearing down the kitsch Victorian statue of Colston in the center of Bristol, maybe we could have an exhibition along the lines of the one in Bayreuth? Perhaps we could commission a second statue, say of a slave, or of an anti-slavery campaigner, and put it right next to him... Maybe the slave statue could be positioned so that it was staring at Colston, accusing him in some way? Maybe there could be a permanent display about the Royal African Company? Maybe there could be some kind of memorial to the something like 100,000 people trafficked in Colston's lifetime, like the 127,000 shrouds that were put outside Bristol Cathedral to mark the Battle of the Somme. I bet that we even know the names of the some of the individual slaves. Their names could go on the memorial as well. 

Would the green inkers agree to that?

Or would they say that it was another example politically correct out-of-towners interfering with life in "our" city?

NOTE: 

1721 -- Death of Edward Colston
1807 -- Abolition of the Slave Trade
1833 -- Abolition of Slavery in British colonies
1863 -- American Emancipation proclamation
1865 -- End of American Civil War
1867 -- First theater named Colston Hall opened
1890 -- Colston Window installed in Bristol Cathedral
1891 -- Colston Girls school opened
1895 -- Statue of Colston erected
1898 -- Second theater named Colston Hall opened
1951 -- Present theater named Colston Hall opened
1973 -- Colston Tower opened

The Bristol Colston cult largely comes from the years after the end of slavery; very conspicuously, Colston Hall opened two years after the end of the American Civil War. The Victorians putting up the statues, the windows and the schools absolutely knew that slavery was not okay; but chose, for some reason, to retrospectively create a myth of the saintly slave trader. Why? 


(*)It's more complicated than that.






3 comments:

SK said...

But in no possible sense can you call Colston Hall "the eponymous hall".

Yes, this is a very annoying and common mistake. 'Eponymous' refers to the source of the name, not the recipient.

It would be correct to say in the context of the hall, 'the eponymous Colston' (in order to differentiate him from all those other Colstons after whom the hall is not, indirectly, named).

What the writer means is 'Colston's namesake hall'.

Andrew Stevens said...

Slavery. Was. Never. Okay.

I completely agree. However, civilization never started anywhere without it (and, if you think about it, really couldn't have). Literally none of the classical philosophers questioned slavery. Even Seneca, who argued not only that slaves should be treated humanely but also that they should be treated as equals, didn't argue for freeing them.

Aristophanes has a joke in Ecclesiazusae where Praxagora says, "I want all to have a share of everything and all property to be in common; there will no longer be either rich or poor. I shall begin by making land, money, everything that is private property, common to all." Blepyrus responds, "But who will till the soil?" Praxagora has an answer, though. "The slaves." It isn't until the internal combustion engine and electrification that we can respond, "The machines."

One of the reasons why the U.S. still has huge negative effects redounding in our culture from our legacy of slavery is because, at a time when slavery was still commonly practiced and accepted almost everywhere (with certain honorable exceptions, such as the UK), nowhere was slavery under more constant attack than in the U.S. As a consequence, nowhere else was a literature of justification of slavery (in its then current racial incarnation) built up than in the American South. We live with the legacy of that justification even now.

I do believe, by the way, that race-based slavery is more evil and more pernicious than other types of slavery, such as slavery of the conquered or religion-based slavery and your major attack lines seem to focus specifically on race-based slavery. I also assume that when you say, "Be as culturally relativistic as you like. Slavery. Was. Never. Okay." that this is a semi-jocular way of saying, "Cultural relativism is completely false from top to bottom." If it isn't allowed to justify slavery, which has been practiced by virtually all historical civilizations all over the world, then it can't justify anything at all, which is all right by me since I absolutely do think cultural relativism is completely false from top to bottom.

NickPheas said...

My beloved points out that the nativism is further undermined also because the leader of the campaign went to the same school as the green inker, and so is presumably as Bristolic as she is.