“So I tied an onion on my belt, which was the style at the time”
The Simpsons: ‘Last exit to Springfield’
Racist attitudes in figures from the past are like the onion that grandpa Simpson used to wear in his belt: they were just the style at the time. Their origins are considered irrelevant and probably unknowable, and anyway it would be unfair to think critically about them because people in the past didn’t know better. Like the diatribe of a bigoted older relative, it is better to just ignore the unpleasant bits and not think too much about it.
Churchill is the archetypal beneficiary of this magnanimous policy. The wrap sheet on Winston Churchill is long, and well-rehearsed. But it still bears repeating. Churchill described Indians as “a beastly people with a beastly religion”, he referred to Gandhi as a “half-naked Fakhir”; Churchill gassed Kurdish tribesmen in 1920; he deliberately allowed 3 million people to starve to death in Bengal in 1943, commenting that starving families had only themselves to blame for “breeding like rabbits”; during the Afghan campaign he declared that the Pashtuns needed to “recognise the superiority of the white race”.
Yet Churchill has been praised as The Greatest Briton. People who query this hagiography tend to get shot down. “Sure Churchill was racist” we’re told “but it was the past, everyone was racist then. And anyway, would you have preferred Hitler to win?”
Well no, but I can also be relieved that Soviet Russia defeated the Nazi’s without being expected to forget about the crimes of Stalin.
There are politics about who gets to enjoy this historical magnanimity. In 2016, critics of the #RhodesMustFall campaign, dismissed criticism his of brutally racist views with the airy disclaimer that Cecil Rhodes was “a product of his time”. Stalin is rightly condemned, despite the vital role he played in defeating Hitler. But in the UK Churchill gets a pass, firstly because of his role in World War Two, our national creation myth. He is intrinsic to the vision of the British as unquestionably the goodies just before the collapse of empire rendered our position in the world very much up for debate.
Secondly, because he committed many of his atrocities in the service of that empire. Culturally, there has not been the reckoning with costs and crimes of British Colonialism in a way that matches the scope of its impact in either the periphery or the metropole.
But that magnanimity does a great disservice. And not only to Churchill’s victims (though it absolutely does to them). It demeans the many people in the past who did not share Churchill’s bigotry. Whose views were also a product of their time, and yet still precluded murderous white supremacy.
Historical racism is not an onion in the belt. It was (and is) an ideology that appealed to specific people and was rejected by others. Its form developed over a specific period of time, and it is possible to trace the indications of this development, to see the absence of later forms in earlier treatments of race. Christopher Hill noted at the beginning of the 17th century:
Othello and Pocahontas are treated as human beings, by the end Thomas Rymer is rebuking Shakespeare for showing so little colour prejudice.
Christopher Hill ‘Some intellectual consequences of the English Revolution’
It was perfectly possible to be alive in the 19th century and to reject white superiority of Cecil Rhodes and later Winston Churchill. By the time Churchill was alive it was even easier. In the 19th century scientific racism became the intellectual zeitgeist; ethnographers, and scientists like Topinard, Flowers, the Comte de Gobineau and Pearson all expounded on the natural superiority of the White race. But, there were a tranche of ethnographers who continually rejected a fundamental division between the races. In the 1840s, James Cowles Prichard set out to prove the single origin of all races against prevailing views of polygenesis expounded by the race scientists. A devout Christian, Prichard believed that scientific racism was fundamentally unbiblical. Sylvia Pankhurst was born in 1882, she died in 1960 and was buried in Addis Ababa after an state funeral attended by Haile Selassie, in 1935 she was a high profile voice calling for the defence of Ethiopia from Italian extraction. Far from embracing white supremacy, as some early feminists did, she was a powerful voice against colonialism.
Churchill’s racism was not a condition to which people born in the 19th century were inextricably susceptible. It had political causes, and political consequences. Some people resisted and rejected it then and we are absolutely entitled to do so now.