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OP-ED: The past cannot be unmade

  • Published at 10:29 pm June 5th, 2021
wooden cross no protest

Is there such a thing as being too woke?

Last Sunday afternoon, my wife and I were lucky enough to attend a performance of GF Handel’s magnificent oratorio Messiah at London’s Royal Albert Hall.  

The setting, as always, was superb. The singing and staging magnificent.  Words like “genius” and “masterpiece” are banded about like confetti these days, but Handel truly was a genius, and his musical adaptation of the Christ story is one of the most sublime and inspiring masterpieces in the canon of 
Western music.  

I say that we were lucky to attend this concert, because I suspect that the great composer’s body of work will not be around much longer. For George Fredric Handel has been added to that ever-growing list of historical figures who apparently had links to the slave trade. Handel, the Messiah, and all of his other wonderful compositions are, I fear, very likely to be soon “cancelled” and dumped into the dustbin of history.  

Mind you, it can’t be long before we are all “cancelled.” I would image that anybody who was anybody (indeed, anybody who was nobody) from the past two millennia had some kind of association with slavery and had some measure of racist attitudes.  

I suspect that somewhere on a forgotten and obscure branch of the Fenwick family tree, there lurks an early ancestor whose cousin’s sister’s husband once kept a ledger of sugar imports from a plantation in the Caribbean.   

Certainly, it appears that none of the big players in the slave trade -- the plantation owners, the slave ship company bosses -- had any connection to the Fenwick clan since no money has ever been passed down the family line. If such people had ever existed in my family lineage, then they had most probably spent it long before any of made its way into my pockets.  

Which is a pity really, as it would have been nice to announce to the world, as every other leading family or long-standing institution seems to be doing lately, that I was going to “decolonize” and “cancel” myself.  

The latest to do this is the CEO of the National Trust, Tim Parker, who has informed his staff that he wants them to be “reversed mentored,” that is taught by children about the evils of colonialism and slavery. Quite how that works out in practice, Mr Parker failed to explain.   

This now fashionable trend of “decolonizing” and “cancelling” doesn’t just extend to institutions and to actual people, living or dead, it is now being applied to inanimate objects as well.   Recently, the Royal Academy of Music announced that it plans to “decolonize” its collections of ancient instruments. Why? Well, because of course they will have had the inevitable connection to slavery and to the trade of (what is now frowned upon) ivory and rare woods.  

These instruments are now deemed to be “bad” instruments, not because they are failing in their sole purpose of playing music on, but because of their association with what they are made of and who made them. 

Cultural warriors have moved onto some of the core subjects on the educational curriculum. Chemistry and physics, like so much else, need to be “decolonized” and maths, apparently, is racist.  

This is all going way, way too far. Soon we will have no history because everything we learned or made or thought or said in the past will have been designated by someone, somewhere to have a direct or indirect association with the slave trade and with the British Empire. Every historical event, every historical building or object, every historical idea will be seen to have been brought into existence only through the exploitation of one or other racial or religious group.    

This is utterly crazy, and we must challenge and resist this trend at every turn. The past, good, bad or mediocre, cannot be unmade on the ill-judged and ill-reasoned say so of a few “socially aware” individuals. That way madness lies.

Kit Fenwick is a freelance writer and historian.

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