“What have the Romans ever done for us?”, is a sketch from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The paleo-Trotskyites justify their opposition to Roman rule, apart from all of the benefits. One of them is sanitation.
In Rome, urine was sold on from public urinals. The ammonia content was used by tanners and launderers as a mouthwash, and an ingredient in toothpaste. Tax was levied on this transaction. The son of Emperor Vespasian was disgusted at this source of imperial revenue. Vespasian held aloft a gold coin and declared “non olet!”
Pecunia non olet. Money does not stink. This was before money laundering.
I bring this up because of an assertion by the controversial caudillo of the National Union of Students. Malia Bouattia states in a recent Guardian interview that.
“When we look at the incredibly Eurocentric curriculum, where people don’t see themselves in what they’re studying, and can’t relate to it, and feel that their European counterparts hit the ground running, they can’t see themselves advancing in the subjects.”
She previously questioned whether students with diverse identities are,
“[…]forced to engage with content that doesn’t relate to them, and perhaps is psychologically destructive?”
It’s the ‘Dead White European Males’ argument, again. This has been bouncing around now for nearly thirty years.
It is not all of these deceased men. This is actually an argument about the humanities. It is likely that the NUS do not stray into the sciences or technology. It would be impossible to teach a non-Eurocentric STEM course.
Technology does not care about the ethnicity or politics of the inventors. For example, rocket science owes a huge debt to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose theories and designs were created during the time of Tsarist and Soviet dictatorship.
The Apollo rockets used designs by Wernher von Braun, who was previously embedded into the hierarchy in Nazi Germany. In his defence, that was the only way to literally get his projects off the ground – it was a political marriage of convenience – and he was arrested by the Gestapo when they discovered he was uninterested in winning the war and would rather develop a spaceship. The American Atlas rocket currently uses a Russian-made engine that was first developed under Communism. It is not ‘psychologically destructive’ for American NASA engineers that their technology has roots elsewhere.
If valid technological ideas care not for their origins, should that apply, in a spirit of comradely socialist equality, to all ideas? According to Malia Bouattia, the answer is no. This is a curious response. In the 1970s there were numerous Marxist revolutionary groups operating in Africa. Some gained power to put communist economics into practice. Based on Bouattia’s reasoning they should not have been applying the ideas of two ‘dead white European males’. No one seems to have told Angola’s Marxist-Leninist MPLA this.
Social, economic and political ideas are universal. So are the arts. These lines come from Hamlet: ‘
‘What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!’
It seems ignorant and spiteful to denigrate them simply because of the identity of the author.
Ideas compete all the time. They do not need to be associated with an identity. The identity of their origins should not ascribe superiority. Real Conservatives believe Hayek is better than Keynes because of the concepts, not because Hayek was Austrian. People love Shakespeare in these islands, not just because he was English.
Bouattia’s sentiments resemble the hostility of a soccer fan in seeing their team’s former star player in the strip of one of their rivals. The fact is that in the pursuit of knowledge and enlightenment, there are no rivals to despise, as Bouattia would have us believe.
The Balkanisation of thought is regressive. Britain has always been open to diverse ideas, concepts and cultures. Censorship for reasons of identity is alien and destructive. It is the philosophy of dictatorship.
Bouattia’s term as president of the NUS has been controversial. It has resulted in a campaign for numerous student unions to disaffiliate. Her Guardian interviewer found her exasperating.
Faced with Bouattia, us latter day Vespasians should say ‘ideae sunt hyalina’.
(Image: Boston Public Library)