Human Rights and the Self Pwn of Jefferson and Churchill

This is another blog post that started life as a Twitter thread. I should have posted this yesterday when it was Human Rights Day.

A few days ago David Lammy MP posted an op-ed about Winston Churchill’s role in promoting human rights, and formalising their protections in international law.

The replies to this tweet and the linked op-ed are full of people reminding David Lammy about the shocking abuse of the Bengalis by Churchill, and reminding us of some of his greatest, racist quotes.

This prompts a quick thought: Perhaps we tolerate obvious rights-abusers like Winston Churchill in our national story because, regardless of the bad things they did, they set us on a trajectory that we nevertheless approve of (at least in the context that Lammy is talking about in the article). We celebrate Churchill’s promotion of human rights and overlook his violations because (done right) they lead inexorably towards a situation where Churchill’s own abuse of colonised people would be prevented or punished.

I think people like Thomas Jefferson might fall into the same category. How come a slave-owning rapist still gets venerated? I think possibly because a repudiation of those evils follows from Jefferson’s own philosophy.  By promoting a system of government based on the ‘self-evident’ truth that ‘all men are created equal,’ Jefferson sowed the seeds of the abandonment of precisely the practices he indulged in.

I think this is a preferable way to discuss these men: They did awful things, but they somehow made us better.

The alternative is either to write off all their political work as tainted by their personal abuses; or to somehow write off those abuses with the “they were just a product of their time” cliche. Many of the ‘culture war’ debates that raged during the summer of 2020 devolved to this binary.

I should add for the avoidance of doubt that of course none of this seeks to excuse the outrages committed by Churchill or Jefferson. Rather, I’m trying to describe the discourse and defend continuing engagement with their ideas.

Because that’s the thing: their ideas are worth discussing, and promoting, and saving. Precisely because (I repeat) they’re the ideas that would stop slavery and the abuses inherent in colonialism.

To borrow a phrase from gaming, their ideas are a self pwn.


When I posted the above on Twitter, Ed Johnson-Williams mentioned other people who might fit the bill, such as John Stuart Mill (a liberal who supported the death penalty and colonialism) or David Maxwell Fyffe (who drafted the ECHR but also persecuted homosexuals).

I had planned to mention MK Ghandi (who was apparently a shit to his wife) and Martin Luther King, who was allegedly a philanderer and rape-enabler. But it’s worth making the distinction between campaigners, and those who pursued policies that harmed a minority group.  Churchill, Jefferson and Maxwell-Fyffe held positions of executive power, while Ghandi, King and Mill did not.

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