In July, I spoke at a debate hosted by the Black Ed movement, a group that seeks racial justice at the University of Edinburgh, where I study. The debate concerned a petition created by fellow student Elizabeth Lund to rename a university building called David Hume Tower. David Hume was found to be insufficiently pure because of racist comments he made in the eighteenth century. I spoke against the removal of Hume’s name—without success. The university has since quietly announced that the tower will now be known simply as 40 George Square. This, I assume, is a banal placeholder until the name of someone suitably saintly is found. Though that may take a very long time.
The tower was obviously named not for Hume’s failures, but for his successes; for the ways he transcended his time, not the ways in which he was unable to do so; and removing his name will do nothing to further racial equality. But we live in the age of the woke and must look at everything through the lenses of oppression and power. The tower could not just be a celebration of our university’s most famous alumnus, but had to be a statement of white supremacy and a tool of racial oppression.
This episode is not unique. The disgusting murder of George Floyd has unleashed a new wave of wokery and plenty of other figures have faced the ire of the righteous. Some of this is to the good. It is correct to question our monuments and our heroes. But much of it has been inane. What does the removal of David Hume’s name do exactly? If it is a signal, it must be a pretty weak one, given how quietly the university announced it.
Is there a useful criterion for deciding which monuments should stand and which should not? As Jerry Coyne proposes, we should judge monuments by the reason they were erected. So if a statue of Thomas Jefferson is a monument to his racism, it should be removed, contextualised, or put into a museum. But monuments that honour positive achievements should stand.
There are names and monuments we should remove from the public square. Statues of Confederate generals, for example, venerate men for fighting to retain slavery. They can go. But the David Hume Tower was named for Hume’s philosophical achievements and to honour a man whose brilliance went unrewarded by the university that educated him because pious idiots vetoed his appointment to a chair.
Hume’s racist comments and his slight involvement with the slave trade—which was discovered by historian Felix Waldmann, who supports the renaming—should be condemned. The sincere and well intentioned people at Black Ed are furthering an important conversation. But, in this case, they are misguided. The problem with this wave of monument shaming is that it is both zealous and indiscriminate. No historical figure is pure by modern standards—a century from now, the names we give to monuments may well appear problematic too.
Why does Hume merit celebration? He was a liberator who suffered oppression in his own day. The Scottish Kirk had only recently stopped burning infidels when Hume tried to get a professorship at his old university. Thanks to his moderate Kirk friends, Hume avoided incineration. But because he was a notorious infidel, the dogmatic religionists prevented him from securing a job at Edinburgh and, later, Glasgow Universities. (This didn’t stop him from gaining other employment and continuing his intellectual work.)
On his deathbed, Hume was visited by James Boswell, who was surprised at Hume’s stoicism in the face of annihilation. Rather than being a coward and recanting his atheistical views, Hume mocked the very idea of an afterlife, hence providing an example of integrity to future atheists.
Hume’s attacks on theological orthodoxy mark him as a key figure in humanity’s emancipation from dogma. His championing of Enlightenment ideals like tolerance and free expression helped pave the way for modernity—and without the idea of equal human dignity, which he upheld, many of the world’s most oppressed would still be under the boot. And in addition, of course, he had many brilliant philosophical insights.
It is a shame, then, that Critical Race Theory-inspired wokeness has led to the effacement of his name from our university campus. The university has given in to nonsense, Black Ed have been granted a token concession, and the tower which once bore the name of one of the greatest minds humanity has ever produced is now merely designated by a boring street number. Who benefits from this?
There is one small consolation, though. Since the tower is such an ugly beast of a building, perhaps we should remove Hume’s name from it—and attach it to a grander edifice more appropriate to the celebration of such a great man. Perhaps somebody should start a new petition?
This whole episode might seem paltry—it’s only a name on a tower for goodness’ sake. But this small, sad affair is part of a bigger battle. Wokeness, which is reactionary pouting dressed up as radicalism, is gaining ground all the time. If you see it coming, resist it.
Let us discuss the flaws of celebrated historical figures—but let us do so reasonably. Meanwhile, David Hume’s ideas will still be taught and discussed with or without the approval of the modern inquisitors—and his name, I believe, will long outlive the epoch of the woke.
I’m a resident of Edinburgh, and suffered this year both the loss of Edinburgh’s Festival, and its substitution with a woke Alternative Festival of cretinous virtue signalling. I watched dolts with phones made by actual slaves photographing other dolts wearing hoodies made by actual slaves cackling like hyenas as they vandalised statues of people who lived 200 years ago. I watched credulous youths marching in bovine support of feminist, Marxist “Black Lives Matter”, unaware of having been recruited as useful idiots with George Soros’ $220 million donation, unaware that four in five black children are raised in a family without a father and that it is this factor that most strongly predicts their economic disadvantage, involvement in crime, and probability of violent death, unaware that they were supporting the dismantling of that patriarchal instrument of oppression we call “the family”. Given academia’s central role in the concoction and dissemination of… Read more »
George Floyd was not murdered. The medical examiner’s report says he died of a heart attack. He was loaded with a deadly amount of fentanyl. He proceeded to swallow packets of drugs to conceal the evidence at the time of arrest. He then overdosed on the drugs, as the video evidence shows.
Ironically, when critical theory talks about “deconstruction,” it actually ends up in deconstruction. Also ironic, “constructivism” never results in any useful form of construction. Colleges are teaching students how to rip things down, not to build. This is such a great example. Thanks for having the courage to write about it.
What a glorious and noble thing they have done in getting David Hume Tower renamed as 40 George Square. Of course they do know, don’t they, that George Square is named in honour of George 3rd, a king who spent much of his reign opposing abolitionists ? Oops, back to the petition board !
But enough with their naive, little activist fantasies. It’s high time they got their teeth into a worthy fight rather than wasting their time causing inadvertent harm and division where previously none existed. If they are serious about taking on the world’s ills then how about battling modern slavery, with its disgusting trafficking of children for sex and organ harvesting ?
Thoughtful article. However, I can’t accept that wokeness and its attendant cancel culture is just “reactionary pouting” as in a very demonstrable way it’s a new strain of fascism.
“The disgusting murder of George Floyd” Why would you say this? Firstly the circumstances which led to Floyd’s encounter with the police are hardly a footing for a censure of racism and slavery. Secondly, the causes which gave rise to his death are far and away more likely to have been his consumption of an overdose of Fentanyl on top of other drugs and an already damaged heart and his choice to exert himself in resisting arrest. The notion that his death was caused by an obstruction of his airway or an obstruction of blood flow to his brain is without any evidence whatsoever. On the publicly available evidence the worst that can be said of the police is that the manner of his detention was humiliating and that perhaps, if they had appreciated the degree of distress he was in, they might have been able to keep him alive… Read more »
This article discusses an important concept about purity. There are no “good guys” in history, and we will not find them. If a statue can be taken down or a building renamed, then activists will start demanding that these historical figures should not appear on university syllabi because they are not “pure” enough. This purity test will be failed by everyone.
I had not read of this ludicrous behaviour towards Hume in the mainstream media, so was glad and pleased to read your words here. Well said and well done!
No person who treated women badly or was adulterous should have anything in their reverence. Perhaps we start with MLK
“Statues of Confederate generals, for example, venerate men who fought to retain slavery.”
Even that is arguable. Robert E. Lee, after the war, was venerated by his country — perhaps more so in the North than in the South. He did not fight ‘for slavery’ but for State’s rights. One and all respected him as a man of honor who, as a son of Virginia felt he had no choice but to fight for his home, but fought with gallantry.
As to the tower I’d suggest ‘George Floyd, BLM Tower’.
If we’re going to judge past figures by today’s standards, quickly we will discover that everyone was some kind of a racist, bigot or simply a ‘bad person’. The standards which we use today might be insufficient in the future, does that make all of us bad people? No, not at all. We shouldn’t try to remove or deny history, rather we should look at how far we’ve come since then. I don’t think that many people celebrate Hitler when visiting The Kehlsteinhaus in Berchtesgaden it’s a important piece of history of the world and it would be insane to remove, yet what Hitler did was pure evil without a doubt. The current ‘woke’ movement are simply ideologically obsessed people that clearly are trying to present everything to the lens of oppression and going against everything that is the norm.
Purity trips and purity trippers lead nowhere, or worse.
The proposal of this article is, of course, eminently sensible. Yet, the phrasing used: “pious idiots” … “sick fantasies of the leering, faithful vultures” … “Wokeness, which is reactionary pouting dressed up as radicalism” … It betrays a lack of moral and personal charity that comes across,in the context of a plea for the extension of charity to a flawed human being as unfortunate at best, and inconsistent at worst. Surely wokeness too is a vice of our time, as were fanatical religion and racism once, and deserves the same shielding from wholesale condemnation (though not critique).
Should we stop using telephones because Alexander Graham Bell was an advocate of eugenics? Should we stop driving or riding in cars because Henry Ford was an anti-Semite whose “Dearborn Independent” newspaper serialized an English translation of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”? Should we give up mathematical logic because Gottlob Frege was an anti-Semite and anti-Catholic? I recently heard or read somewhere that some people wish to rename the city of St. Louis, Missouri because the fervently religious mediaeval French king Louis IX was an anti-Semite who persecuted French Jews. As a proud alumnus myself of the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1825, I myself am nervously waiting now for the “woke” activists to start demanding that the University disavow any and all connection with a slave-owner and believer in Black racial inferiority who as we now all know fathered a mixed-race illegitimate child with… Read more »