Saintly Institutions? Notes on a Modern Prejudice

Article excerpt

Sometimes I think all the trouble in the world is caused by intellectuals who have an "idea."

--David Hare, Stuff Happens

Saints should always be judged guilty until proven innocent, though the tests that have to be applied to them are not, of course, the same in all cases.

--George Orwell, "Reflections on Gandhi"

Yet sit and see, Minding true things by what their mock'ries be.

--Shakespeare, Henry V, iv: (1)

When I was in London recently, I happened to walk down Haymarket on my way to Trafalgar Square. As I neared Pall Mall, I caught the glint--white embossed lettering on cerulean field--of a blue plaque, one that I'd not noticed before.

As any visitor to London knows, the blue plaques are one of the quiet glories of the city. The attractively glazed discs, about the size of a luncheon plate, punctuate the cityscape, commemorating an impressive procession of historical worthies. Did you know that Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), "natural philosopher" lived on Jermyn Street? Or that Mozart (1756-1791) "composed his first symphony" at 180 Ebury Street, SW1? I have several times taken a short "blue plaque tour" in some corner of London with a friend whose knowledge of London is as encyclopedic as it is infectious. There are some striking conjunctions. Hyde Park Gate, for example, was within a couple of decades home to Robert Baden-Powell, "British general and founder of the scout movement" Leslie Stephen, the great Victorian scholar (and father of Virginia Woolf), Winston Churchill, and Jacob Epstein, the sculptor. The next street over displays plaques for Robert Browning and Henry James. Try to imagine that neighborhood colloquy.

What stupendous cultural and political achievements those blue plaques bespeak: more than 800 statesmen, scientists, artists, writers, and other notables. What extraordinary talent, what extraordinary energy, London has sheltered! In recent years, of course, the quality of blue-plaque commemoration, like just about everything else in England, has bowed somewhat to the pressure of multiculturalism and political correctness. Feminists have scoured the past for available females; "persons of color" have touted candidates who share their skin color or national origin; other partisans of virtue have urged the inclusion of various figures whose chief distinction is the rectitude and vociferousness of their political orientation. I knew this, and should therefore not have been surprised, as I ambled down Haymarket, to find that the plaque I noticed commemorated Ho Chi Minh.

Yet I was surprised. How striking, I though, that Ho, a totalitarian enemy of gentle civilization, should be thus decorously honored! (In 1913, it turned out, he had worked in a hotel that once stood on the spot.) What struck me as even odder was the thing he was honored for. Newton was a "natural philosopher"; Mozart composed symphonies; Ho Chi Minh, 1890-1969, was the "founder of modern Vietnam." Well, yes. But supposing Stalin had had a stint in London. Would we then have "Josef Stalin, 1879-1953, Soviet agricultural reformer"?

Now, there is a sense in which Ho Chi Minh was the "founder of modern Vietnam" just as Stalin did a great deal to change the habits of farmers in the Soviet Union. But these truths are tendentious: they are one-sided, deceptive truths because in stating a fact they omit the context that explains the fact. Ho Chi Minh was a mass murderer--not in Stalin's league, it is true, but he did the best he could with the tools he was given. Yet to the Left, Ho is a hero, a sainted figure (as--let us not forget--was Stalin until fairly recently). Who can forget the raptures of American intellectuals in the 1960S and 1970S about Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong? Remember Susan Sontag's "Trip to Hanoi" (1968), where she explained the real problem for the North Vietnamese trying to fight the Americans is that they "aren't good enough haters. …