Temporal Imperialism

What do the following statements have in common?

‘Isaac Newton is well known as one of the greatest scientists who ever lived. Less well known is his deep belief in God and his conviction that scientific investigation leads to a greater knowledge of God the Creator of the universe.’ ‘

‘I don’t think people realise how the establishment became established. They simply stole land and property from the poor, surrounded themselves with weak minded sycophants for protection, gave themselves titles and have been wielding power ever since.’

‘Rhodes was racist. He used power and money to oppress others. So on balance he was a villain.’

Answer: they are all examples of temporal imperialism. They impose on the past the value systems of today – or at least one of them – and proceed to judge. This is so obviously a bizarre and illogical thing to do, that it is remarkable that it is so prevalent in the discourse of otherwise apparently intelligent people.

There is no doubt that Isaac Newton believed in God, but this is often used (as in the above quotation) by the religious as a trump-all in arguments against those who try to base their lives on rationalism and science. ‘Newton was the greatest scientist of all, wasn’t he?’ they’ll say (a bit of a temporal imperialism itself, actually, but more of that later). ‘So if he’ll believe in God, so should you.’ And then they’ll sit back and fix you with a schoolmarm glare, as if following in Newton in every respect – his Unitarianism, his (probable) homosexuality, his wearing of wigs, his vendettas against rivals – were the starting point of all scientists.

The trouble with the argument is simply that – well, everyone believed in God back then. Though Newton himself was instrumental in fixing some of them, the gaps in what science had established were so large that what we now call the ‘God of the Gaps’ was just God. How was the earth made? God made it. Where did people come from? God made them. What were earthquakes? God’s wrath on homosexuals (oh no, wait, people still believe that). Heavens, Galileo was still under house arrest for claiming that the Earth moved. Even if someone did form the impression, based on reflection and observation, that the concept of God might be a useful chimera which had helped regulate behaviour and build cultures, but didn’t actually point to anything that really existed (and doubtless people did) merely breathing these out loud, far less writing them down, was probably about as sensible as laughing at Kim Jong Un’s haircut in Pyongyang.

The second statement has been widely attributed to Tony Benn, but it’s difficult to be sure. Tony’s disdain for the Establishment is well known, but this assessment is probably too historically obtuse to be his. It demands that we believe that the shires of England were just like the Shire in The Hobbit, little havens of peace and tranquillity and pipe smoke. Then along came evil robber barons, Saruman-like, and imposed their will on everyone, stealing their land and demanding taxes. Yet, as Steven Pinker observes in his excellent The Angels of Our Better Nature, life in the early middle ages was pretty grim and lawless, with arbitrary violence being meted out to all and sundry by whoever had the biggest clubs, or the meatiest arms to wield them. Feudalism developed as a kind of protection racket, whereby peace was brought to defenceless villagers in exchange for admiration and helping out when there was a war or a bigger conflict to be fought. If Tony took a moment to put himself in the shoes (or sack-cloth) of a 9th century peasant, he’d probably realise that he’d have been very glad that some nearby Knight had assumed the role of keeping him safe.

The last statement are the words of Dr Max Price, the vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, agreeing with demands of students there to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the campus.

Though he has been defended by biographers and historians, there isn’t much doubt that by some measures at least, Cecil Rhodes, colonist, slave owner and founder of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe and Zambia, was a racist. He will very likely have believed that the black African races were inferior to the white in some respects – though perhaps not all – and he is very unlikely to have conformed to modern standards of political correctness in any meaningful sense. That will be because he died before they were ever thought of. Like Newton not knowing about tectonic plates or DNA, Rhodes couldn’t conform to a system of manners or behaviour which was nearly a century in the future. He was not alone in this. The term ‘racist’ wasn’t even used until 1932, for ironically it was not a word which would have discriminated. Put bluntly, everyone was a racist, so you didn’t need a word for it. A member of another race, should you somehow encounter one, was immediately suspect, by definition. Most of the races of the world had, by and large, stayed where they were, the main exception being the Europeans, and even most of them stayed home.

The British colonialists, Rhodes chief among them, believed that it was their duty to impose British values and management upon the ignorant savages of Africa, and the only people in the world who disagreed, apart from those being imposed upon, were the other powers who wished to do exactly the same with their own values. The temporal imperialists are doing nothing less with theirs. Judge Rhodes a racist if you wish, but you must judge everyone else in the world at that time the same, if only for consistency.

Which of the Oxford students demanding the removal of Rhodes statues would not also have been a racist, had they had the upbringing of the time? A meaningless question, you think? Too many imponderable variables? They would all have been male, they would all have been upper class, simply even to be Oxford students? The two times are so different that they cannot be compared?




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