Everybody Matters

In the film Bridge of Spies, Tom Hanks plays the American lawyer James B Donovan, who defended a man accused of spying for the Soviet Union in the USA in the late 1950s. He is called unpatriotic and he receives hate mail and threats to his life. Someone fires a gun at his house. No one expects him to put much energy into the case, but he does and he fights for his client as hard as he can. When he is incredulously asked why, he just says ‘everybody matters’.

That simple phrase sums up what criminal lawyers believe in. Equality before the law is another way of putting it, but ‘everybody matters’ is better.

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Cecil Rhodes and the Proceeds of Crime

Part 7 of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 reformed the criminal law of money laundering. It is an offence to acquire, use have possession of, conceal, disguise, convert, or transfer the proceeds of crime, or remove them from the UK,  or to enter into or become concerned in an arrangement which you know or suspect facilitates (by whatever means) the acquisition, retention, use or control of it by or on behalf of another person. 

Many great philanthropists have done things that we would now regard as crimes, but used the proceeds for uncontestable public benefits, which long outlast their evil origins. Time will launder a reputation, but not all the stains can come out. Endowments to educational establishments tend to be the dry-cleaning solution of choice for those who desire a shiny posthumous legacy.

Thus, Cardinal Wolsey, loyal torturer of the King’s enemies in the Star Chamber, founded Christ Church, Oxford:

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Christopher Codrington’s profits from his slave plantations endowed the library at All Souls that bears his name and his statue in a heroic pose – the most beautiful place anywhere to read a book:

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The horrors of sugar cultivation by slaves in the West Indies paid for the Tate Galleries.

Remorse, guilt, the desire to redeem a sullied reputation by good works, or just personal vanity may each play a part in this type of philanthropy. Or maybe the donors and their contemporaries saw no contradictions.

Oriel College, handsomely endowed by its alumnus Cecil Rhodes, has come under fire for keeping a statue of Rhodes and a commemorative plaque on public display, and is debating what to do about them. He comes in for criticism as an aggressive empire-builder in late C19 Africa, who grew rich from diamond mining and went on to Rhodesia. His legacy includes the Rhodes scholarships – a wholly admirable system for funding exceptionally bright students from across the world to study in Oxford.

Oriel’s statement about the Rhodes issue is balanced and sensible. The College does not dismiss the complaints. It recognises that the statue and the plaque are capable of giving offence, and acknowledges that attitudes to Rhodes and his activities have changed over the years. It seeks views about what it should do.

Staying in Oxford: compare and contrast Wadham College. The sister of the last Shah of Iran gave her name and the dynasty’s dirty money to the Ashraf Pahlavi library in the 1970s. There was a monumental fuss at the time that the College was taking money from so tainted a source, while the Shah was still in power, torturing and murdering his enemies. Wadham quietly renamed it the Ferdowsi Library, after the classical Persian poet. A small uncomfortable truth was wiped away.

I think that the Oriel students are making a serious mistake by demanding the removal of Rhodes’s visible traces.  If being offended by a statue is the worst thing that has happened to them, they have no idea how lucky they are. Erasing visible signs of the past erases memory of the past. Go to Germany, and see the frequent reminders of that country’s darkest days. We all have a duty not to forget. An evil past must be remembered, not obliterated, but a legacy from an evil time may not itself be evil: whatever the motives of the donor, the gift itself can do good. The statues of Rhodes, or Codrington, should remind us that we cannot deny the truth of our historical legacies, however uncomfortable they make us feel. Better to confront them for what they are, explain their context, and point out that what drove a Rhodes or a Codrington does not drive modern institutions devoted to education and scholarship.

Nothing Like the Sun

Dear Readers of this Blog (both of you),

Nothing Like the Sun has fallen silent lately, but only because its Onlie Begetter has been intensely busy with actual work. However, in a moment of idleness the OB was thinking (to the amazement of Mrs OB), and wondered why Nothing Like the Sun was the name of the Blog.

Well: partly because it’s nothing like The Sun: no bikini-clad lovelies, no sports coverage (yet), less frothing of the mouth…but also because of Sonnet 130:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask’d, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare. 

This subtle poem is full of misgivings: how lovely is the mistress really? Would she prefer to be flattered, and how will she respond to the show of sincerity? Is the show of sincerity sincere (you are the most wonderful being, more than words can say?)? If words can’t say it, why use them? We are within sight of the relentless truth-teller Cordelia (‘Love, and be silent’): and non-flattery got her nowhere.

We use the word ‘unflattering’ to mean something less than merely veridical – it’s a put-down word. But this poem is all about being unflattering, from the point of view of the flatterer and the flatteree.

There’s comedy, too, in the reversal of expectation: but how will the beloved take to having the piss taken about her looks and even her breath? What kind of thanks would she give?

The couplet that follows 12 lines of virtuoso irony is flat, and ‘by heaven’ sounds like its trying just a bit too hard – another betrayal? I don’t believe the pious affirmation any more than what precedes it. The poem eats itself, but virtuosity is its own reward.

This gives the obvious background to a dry blog about legal affairs (matters of law, not of the heart): though the legal process can be binary in its final decisions – win/lose – the dialectical processes that get us to the decision are (should be) full of subtlety, irony, and nuance. Those are what interest me.

A world without subtlety, irony, nuance is the world of the Caliphate: you are with us, or you are dead.