Since leaving the Democratic Alliance, Gareth van Onselen has become one of the more consistently interesting columnists we have in South African media. “Interesting” might seem to be a weasel-word to some of you, but having now spent a few minutes trying to find the right word, I find it’s the best I can do.
His columns are seldom bad, and are sometimes very good. They are often challenging, especially to folks like myself who think of themselves as liberals, and challenging our views – and making us think – is the primary task of a columnist.
It’s true that some use the “liberal” label, as well as his past party affiliation, as convenient means of dismissing van Onselen’s contributions. These critics miss the point, I feel – mostly because those are fairly straightforward ad hominem comments rather than engagements with substance, but also because they see his dogged adherence to principle as evidence of ideological blindness.
Van Onselen isn’t subtle in his criticisms, but they are typically very thoughtful, and thought-provoking for those who choose to engage with them. He is also deeply committed to certain values, which can loosely be described as those of classical liberalism.
He makes no attempt to hide that ideological conviction, and applies it consistently – which means that we can either try to undermine the foundation itself, or his interpretation of it.
As with the Michael Cardo piece on UCT’s “pathetic capitulation” on the question of the Rhodes statue, I think van Onselen’s recent column on the same topic gives UCT too little credit, and also exaggerates the likely consequences of the Rhodes statue removal.
Furthermore, I find its liberalism unduly prescriptive, in that it asserts that the status quo (at least in terms of the historical record, and the statue in particular) must be preserved, because removing it is to succumb to an unthinking populism, or even worse, a re-programming of society, of language, and of value (as was portrayed in Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451), rather than seeing how changing the status quo could better serve a liberal outcome.
He also uses the analogy of Brett Murray’s The Spear, and this analogy is to my mind equally poor – not for being hyperbolic (as is the case with Farenheit 451), but because the two things are crucially dissimilar.
You need to read his column (in fact, the transcript of a speech), because I’m not going to do it justice here. There is plenty in it to think about, and to be challenged by, especially if you regard yourself as a liberal. It’s long, and I want to be brief – so apologies for only picking up on a few things below.
First, the column takes a value-laden starting point – the presence of the statue at UCT – as a legitimate normative and neutral starting point. This is why the Farenheit 451 analogy is hyperbolic. If we are liberal, and committed to individual freedom, it is of course a concern if we start privileging certain views (by extension, cultures, artistic expressions and statues) above others.
But the point about the removal of Rhodes (for those who supported that decision, like me) is that its presence did that privileging already, and that its removal is therefore more compatible with this liberal goal, in that it was its presence in such pride of place that resulted in some students being unable to feel as much part of the institution as others.
A focus on the underlying goals and values of liberalism should not be obscured by historical contingencies, and should certainly not be defined by a privileged set of norms that are thought to be beyond question. We can agree that all things being equal, statues should not be torn down, sure – but all things were not equal in this case.
By contrast to burning books, students were forced to see this statue, and to see it as emblematic of their university. They could choose to not read a book, but they could not choose to have the statue standing in pride of place at UCT. There is no reason to burn a book, because you have the option of not reading it – here there was no analogous option.
Likewise with The Spear – the analogy fails because the cases are too dissimilar. An artwork like The Spear is created for a community who typically self-select to engage with it. This is not the case with the Rhodes statue. The Spear was a case in which people were perfectly entitled to their offence, but were not entitled to the remedy of destroying it or removing it.
Neither the Goodman Gallery, nor Brett Murray, are established as institutions for the national good, that are intended to serve an educational purpose while trying to avoid privileging people by virtue of their race, class and so forth. You can object to The Spear, lament its existence, and then move on – it’s wrong to destroy it. UCT, by contrast, is being negligent if it picks at some scab of yours every day you are there.
Our understanding of liberalism should not be allowed to ossify, as I think it can do when we take the current situation for granted, instead of being more Utilitarian about maximising liberty – even when that means changing something about the present (like moving a statue).
As I noted in the third part of this piece on modern challenges to free speech, other aspects of liberalism might need updating also, in that if the environment changes, different sorts of remedies or interventions might work better than those we used in the 19th Century.
Or, as John Maynard Keynes put it, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions. What do you do, sir?”