“You must promise me — that you will not spend the next eight weeks ranting at me about colonialism.”

Huma Bhabha, Untitled. 2010, Ink on black and white photo. Image courtesy of Peter Blum Gallery New York.

I had decided, with the confidence of a teenager who’d read a little French philosophy, that there was only one really serious philosophical question: complicity. For a brief while, intense and priggish as only a weedy teenager can be, I thought I could get through life with clean hands. No meat, no logos, and fossil fuels only for the greater good. But the first time I had a real chance not to be complicit with evil, I found I had a staggering gift for casuistry. I walked into the vast modernist convention center in New Delhi, my oversize jacket and tie already a concession to the Man, armed with answers to a question I was sure the Rhodes Scholarship committee would ask: And what, young man, are your feelings about taking blood money?

Other people had been there before me. Mordecai Richler’s Barney’s Version (1997) has a character who, having just won a Rhodes Scholarship, announces that its benefactor, Cecil Rhodes, “was a vicious imperialist and his scholarship fund would be more honourably used making restitution to the blacks he exploited.” Such a thin line between showing integrity and just showing off.

I’d been through my options. Maybe I could claim the scholarship with a clean conscience as restitution for colonialism: when the hand that feeds you is the one that starved you in the first place, it’s only ration­al to sup well, then bite hard. But a casual skim of the family annals yielded only several generations of high-caste collaborators who went out of their way to welcome their new British overlords. Then there was the honest answer, from the dustman Mr. Doolittle in Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion: “Have you no morals, man?” “Can’t afford them, Governor.” Hardly the thing for someone aspiring, as Rhodes himself grandly put it, to “fight the world’s fight.” That left the Marxist answer: that the obsession with integrity is a fallacy of bourgeois morality; no reason a hypocrite can’t be the agent of history; the revolutionary vanguard can’t live off righteousness alone. So unsatisfying to the teenage moralist.

When the steely-eyed biochemist and former athlete, evidently the bad cop of the committee, turned to me with an “and finally” look, I thought the question was imminent. “What sports do you play?” No help from Marx on this one. “None competitively, sir.” “All sport, young man, is competitive. You thrash me, or I thrash you. Thank you; we will be in touch.”

Afterward, when they’d made their decisions, the biochemist sat me down with the air of someone overruled by a majority, someone used to monologuing without interruption. “I know your kind. Poetry, philosophy, pacifism. Lose their heads at Oxford and get sent down, or worse, return with a second-class degree, and not even a rowing blue to make up for it. Do me a favor. Keep off the opium. Get a First. Anything less will be a waste of the Founder’s money. Do you promise?”

I did a longish circuit of the city the afternoon I arrived — this was fall 2007 — starting at University College, one of Oxford’s oldest, ending in the college chapel, where I gazed awhile at the memorials on its west wall to the dead of three wars. Three wars, three enemies: the Führer, the Kaiser, and before them, the Boers. All those brave boys, the Latin inscription announced, “preferred faith and justice to life.”

Larger than all these was the memorial at the center of the wall for the 18th-century judge and polymath Sir William Jones. The frieze had Jones, as the college website glosses it, “eagerly taking notes from three Indian scholars.” Engraved beneath the image were the words, “He formed a digest of Hindu and Mohammedan laws.” I didn’t see the eagerness myself (maybe it doesn’t show in marble), and the composition — the Briton at a desk, looming over the Indian scholars, themselves a privileged upper-caste lot sitting cross-legged on the floor — made Jones seem more like a lawgiver than a humble learner.

“Eagerly” is wishful, a quixotic attempt to airlift a cultural encounter from the world of money and power: just scholar learning from scholar. But wishful thinking can be a kind of coping strategy. To survive at Oxford is to be able to look at its skyline of memorialized villains — burners of heretics, dissolvers of monasteries, traders in slaves — and to say, “Such beauty.” There was no escaping it once you started to look, so you stopped looking and retreated into your library or your lab or your rowing, and accepted the seductive illusion on offer. The thought of decolonizing such a place — or, for that matter, defeudalizing it — seemed absurd, like deboning a skeleton.

When he was the age I was when I applied to his scholarship, Cecil Rhodes had already been two years in Africa. His clergyman father seems to have thought the young Cecil too delicate for the military, too sensitive for the bar, and too unscholarly for university. He was sent, instead, to join his elder brother growing cotton in a remote valley in Natal, South Africa. The climate did his lungs good, though his letters to his adoring mother are full of peeves (the smell of the women, the lethal snakes, the marauding baboons). When his brother went away to try his hand at diamond mining, he was left in charge of the cotton, with, as he told his mother, “about thirty Kaffirs to manage, and feel quite a big man, with so many black attendants.”

At 18, he, like his brother, left cotton for diamonds, hanging about the new Kimberley mines trying to get a foot in the door. At 20, he put together enough money to get himself to Oxford, never spending longer than a couple of intense eight-week-long terms there at a time. He earned distinction neither as scholar nor as an athlete, but became a popular, clubbable figure nevertheless. He qualified for a degree eight years later, age 28, now able to throw a bit of Aristotle, a bit of Plutarch, and a bit of Marcus Aurelius into conversation. A will written when still an undergraduate captures something of his boyish zeal for the idea of empire: “Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence.” Just fancy.

In 1881, he had, at long last, an Oxford degree to go with his new position as a member of the Cape parliament. He would spend the next few years, a textbook Machiavel, taking absolute control over the Kimberley diamond mines. A couple of years later, he became a prime minister of the British Cape Colony. Rhodes’s time as prime minister of a province with at least a notionally race-blind franchise saw the passage of laws that limited how much land Africans could hold; another law increased the amount of property one had to own to be eligible for the vote. Apartheid avant la lettre.

Soon he had become the face of British imperialism in southern Africa — the cartoonists styled him “Colossus” — working with manic zeal toward bringing the vast stretch of Africa from Egypt to the Cape under British control. None of this came of being the sort of person who said please or sorry or thank you. When he died, aged only 48, some of the most enthusiastic commemorations were in Oxford, to which he had retained a lifelong sentimental attachment.

And it to him. When his old college, Oriel, commissioned a statue of its much-loved old boy, it was classical, ahistorical grandeur they were going for. It’s surprisingly easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there. The sculptor wasn’t trying for a warts-and-all realism — why would he? Rhodes was tall, but with short legs that gave him the hurried step of a smaller man. The statue’s monochrome doesn’t capture the prematurely gray curls and ignores the rapid weight gain in middle age, the face going the blotchy red of a parody Englishman abroad.

E:LARGA:MVNIFICENTIA CAECILII: RHODES, it says underneath. That nice English boy Cecil has become, in the usual way, Caecilius, taken out of his real history of guns and money and grubby land deals and made a classical hero, a figure of myth. “More Roman than any Englishman had ever been,” went one panegyric from the 1920s, “an imperialist to the point of madness.” A man condemned by his own panegyrist, it seems. Still, it didn’t occur to me to call for the statue to fall; nor, until last year, had it occurred to anyone else.

From the moment I stepped into it, my politics tutor’s study felt like grist for the eventual memoir. Oak paneling, leather volumes, pet phoenix, and everything infused with decades of cigarette smoke. What papers — courses — did I want to take? my tutor asked from behind his cloud of smoke.

“Marxism,” I said.

“How quaint,” he said.

“British politics and government: William Gladstone to Tony Blair,” I continued.

“Certainly,” he said. “Why, I’ll teach it to you myself. But” — he drew in a breath — “you must promise me something before we start.”

“Certainly,” I said.

“You must promise me — that you will not spend the next eight weeks ranting at me about colonialism. Well, if you must, one week of ranting is fine. Maybe two. But after that I’m afraid you really will have to do some real work.”

My tutor kept the old ways alive. You were given a question (“What explains the strange death of liberal England?” “What, if anything, was Thatcherism?” “ ‘Britain lost her empire, as she had gained it, in a fit of absence of mind.’ Discuss.”) and sent off to the library for a week with a list of books. A week later, you returned with an essay. You read it out. A long silence later, you were treated to an elegant, smoke-ragged monologue. It wasn’t indoctrination, but it wasn’t not indoctrination. There were reasoned arguments, heaps of evidence, and some splendid anecdotes. I got very good at producing fifteen hundred words on anything in three days, peppered with apropos quotations (“gobbets,” in the local patois) and knowing asides. I read unconscionable amounts about Winston Churchill as a wartime orator, somewhat less about his virulent racism. Every other day seemed to bring a seminar called “Social Democracy: Whither?” I never did study any Marxism.

I suppose this was what they call repressive tolerance. You could read what you liked — no one would stop you — but you would be met with incomprehension if you said anything that smacked of the New Left Review rather than the reliably liberal Philosophy & Public Affairs: “reify” or “heteronormative” or, indeed, “decolonize.” It was tiring to have to swaddle every utterance in layers of irony, to carry on as if the trouble with racists and sexists was their vulgarity, to go along with the idea that earnestness and stridency (“ranting”) were best left to the uncouth.

In the end, my assimilation into this attitude — three generations of collabo blood will tell — was easy. There was no need for an announcement; you just went quiet and got with the program, which was to make the world safe for social democracy with British characteristics. If you had a different program, you retreated to dark basements to read your Said or Ambedkar or Fanon and were never heard of again. For a while, it was fun to be in the mainstream and speak its language of liberty and equality. Everyone was quick, everyone was clever, most everyone was nice. I kept all my promises: I got my First; I kept off the opium; I did not rant. I would apply for a doctoral program and stay at Oxford for six more years.

Among the most impressive monuments to Cecil Rhodes is Rhodes House itself. Its architect, Herbert Baker, a friend of Rhodes’s, was responsible for the Government houses of Pretoria and Nairobi, and, with Edwin Lutyens, for the more imposing monuments of New Delhi. The useful Buildings of England volume on Oxfordshire pronounced it “a curious wedding of high-roofed Cotswold and classical copper-domed rotunda.” Atop its copper dome sits the enormous soapstone bird, based on the eight carved birds discovered in the late 19th century among the ruins of Great Zimbabwe.

The carved birds seem to have meant many things to Rhodes, who thought them likely to be of Phoenician origin, thus symbolizing the link between northern and southern Africa he had made his project. He was the only private individual ever to own one of the birds, and used it as a personal totem. Faced with investors skeptical that there was much money to be made in the northern territory, he would put the bird on the table and say, “Where this stone bird came from there must be something else.”

Inside the rotunda, a line from Aristotle is inscribed in big Greek capitals: “The human good proves to be activity of the soul in accord with virtue, and indeed with the best and most complete virtue, if there are more virtues than one.” Rhodes, like others in the 19th century, was taken with the Aristotelian idea of the great-souled man, “the one who thinks himself worthy of great things and is really worthy of them.”

My new tux gave scant comfort the first time I stepped into Rhodes House for our “coming-up dinner.” Out on the street among joggers in hoodies, one could entertain the fantasy of being a higher class of creature worthy of great things, off to an appointment with fellow members of the ruling class. Inside the rotunda, it must have been obvious my bow tie was a clip-on, my cuff links the cheapest in the shop, my soul not nearly great enough. A swearing photographer herded the new class of scholars into photogenic rows, urging us to smile for the camera with a cheery “Say ‘Northern Rock!’ ” — the name of that now-defunct British bank ringing out, in memory if not at the time, like a quaint period detail in a nostalgic film from some postrevolutionary future.

At dinner, I was seated across from a WASP-y Princetonian who dealt ably with the phalanx of cutlery arrayed before us. Someone proposed the usual toast: “The Queen, the Founder.” I had planned to mutter the words, as atheists do when dragged to church, then realized that was a textbook example of bad faith. I ended up saying them extra loudly. Once you’ve chosen complicity, you go all the way.

I turned to Sir Anthony Kenny, the wizened, affable man at our table, a former Warden of Rhodes House and master of Balliol College, where I would later spend several years writing my doctorate. After his years of running a foundation that bore the name of John de Balliol, that prince of medieval robber barons, Kenny thought Cecil Rhodes small fry, frankly. He told me of a helpful unit he had devised when in office, the “Rhodocycle,” to measure the number of times some innovation would make the Founder turn in his grave. Jewish scholars: a few Rhodocycles, if that; black scholars: more Rhodocycles; unsporty ones: even more Rhodocycles; brown ones: hard to tell; women: off the charts (in the ’70s, the trustees had to go to Parliament for permission to ignore the explicitly gendered terms of the bequest).

I went to Rhodes House often in my first year for an antidote to the unremittingly cheeky, bantering tone of English undergraduate college life that saw everything — Aristotle, Osama, Churchill — as the stuff of an all-consuming irony. Rhodes House was heaving with Americans, and militantly earnest. There were a few token Republicans at its incessant saturnalia of networking and finger food; I think I even met a Marxist once. But the tone of politics, as far as I could tell, was of the Democrats Abroad, I’m-with-Hillary variety, with room for prudent maneuver in either direction. Rhodes Scholars believe in government, I heard a catty trustee say, because they believe in themselves in government.

My email inbox was always full to bursting with messages from the Rhodes listserv: invitations from Google to boozy parties in London, invitations from McKinsey to weekends in the Austrian Alps, invitations from the Israeli government to propaganda holidays, memory-foam mattresses and SAD lamps for sale. This was the life — for an aspirant consigliere. Every now and then, someone would write in with disquiet: surely it wasn’t so wrong to give McKinsey a few years of your life to smooth the way for your first Senate run? The world is what it is, and you can’t fight the world’s fight if you don’t know how it works, you know what I mean?

The continent-bestriding Rhodents in those years enjoyed complaining about the Oxford “bubble.” Some people longed, as exiles from big cities sometimes do when transplanted into sleepy college towns, for crowds and noise and ethnic-food markets. Others resented being at such a remove from the world of power, taking any break in the academic schedule as a chance to squeeze in an internship at a City of London bank, fieldwork in Delhi, a weekend in Marrakech.

I didn’t, and don’t, understand what people were complaining about. Oxford’s relationship with power was, and is, bolder and cozier than that of any other university I can name. No other university has quite the same intimate relation with the ruling class of its country (training it, courting it, fêting it, slating it). Oxford had long gotten with Britain’s postwar program of playing wise, decadent, postimperial Greece to the US’s Rome ; now it was suckling the members of a future cosmopolitan establishment with the same alacrity.

Every other day saw a four-star US general address the Oxford Union or a visiting head of state visit his old college on the invitation of his old economics tutor to find an audience of undergraduates clad in young-fogeyish cuff links and tweed, 17 going on 80, and always a front row reserved for plummy-voiced old men who didn’t care who knew they must be retired spooks. (“I distinctly recall warning the emir in 1974 — charming fellow, by the way, went to Christ Church and very fond of newts . . .” )

It helped with the reactionaries I met at college dinner, a strange combination of taboo-busting eccentricity and the smug assurance of those accustomed to watching generations of insurgents safely co-opted, that I wore a wool tie and chattered away about Aristotle. It helped with the student left that I was small, brown, and not too boorishly masculine. Far away from anyone who could figure my subcaste from my vowels, it was easier not to be unmasked as a class enemy. Anecdotes of microaggressions (or whatever we used to call them back in the day) played well at the pub: the little boy who called me Ali Baba, the drunk on the train who asked after my mate Jihadi John, the grad student in the rowing blazer who liked to say “Western civilization — that is, civilization.” The phrase “structural racism” was always on the mind, but never on the lips. I ticked the box that let them deduct part of your scholarship stipend as donations to South African charities. It was the comforting political rapprochement of a man twice my age. I still didn’t rant.

My heart skipped a beat or two last spring when I stepped into my Descartes class and heard a student say “Cecil Rhodes.” It was a bit like when the villain in a Victorian melodrama finds himself in a room with someone who remembers him as a young rogue in the colonies. I think the prompt was the notorious “Colonial Comeback” cocktail served at a debate on reparations for colonialism at the Union Debating Society (the poster had a pair of black hands in manacles). I can’t remember a term in my eight years without a scandal like that one: there was the “tell your most inappropriate joke” initiation rite at the student Conservative Association (the winner, if I remember correctly, was: “What do you say when you see your TV set moving in the dark?” “Put the TV down, n —  — , my gun’s loaded”), there was that party where undergraduates guzzled port through a pith helmet, there was the email that advertised a “Charity Slave auction at Lava Ignite. email  —  —  if you fancy being a slave! Its [sic] for charity!” We got very good at rolling our eyes. But there was something new in the air, a sense of racism as a political question, not a lapse of taste.

Why was the Founder back? In South Africa, student campaigners were demanding that Rhodes Must Fall. The statue at stake was at the University of Cape Town, larger than the one in Oxford and harder to ignore. The students were members of the first generation born after apartheid. Yet the things their protests brought up — a curriculum only dimly aware that Cape Town was in Africa; a university governing council that was mostly white; inadequate support for black students; beyond the campus, a city with sharp racial divisions that belied claims of what Desmond Tutu, in a memorable but optimistic phrase, called a “rainbow nation” — were among other things a strident j’accuse addressed to their parents’ generation. Theirs had been a generation that went along with Nelson Mandela’s gracious, canny, but perhaps vain gesture when he grabbed the hand of F. W. de Klerk, the last white man to be president of South Africa, and told him, “Wat verby is, is verby!” (What’s past is past!), and in Afrikaans no less.

I’m chary of speaking too confidently about South Africa: my impression of things is pieced together from fragments of reportage and testimony. The students were now a generation younger than I was, with an anger and earnestness Oxford had, with my cooperation, bleached out of me. Organize, decolonize, end tuition fees: in the face of demands so direct, it was tempting to be knowing, to think this too would pass. Improbably, Rhodes did fall. At any rate, his statue did, on the campus of the University of Cape Town, built on land he had donated. Moreover, it happened with the unanimous consent of the university’s council, to the clicking of hundreds of cell phone cameras.

Rhodes Must Fall was picked up in Oxford by student activists during my last term there, in response to a landscape just as marked as Cape Town by Rhodes and his money. They set their sights on similar goals: “the plague of colonial iconography,” the “Euro-centric curriculum . . . which frames the West as sole producers of universal knowledge,” the “underrepresentation and lack of welfare provision for Black and minority ethnic (BME) amongst Oxford’s academic staff and students.”

It was about more than a statue, of course, but the statue wasn’t incidental. Its continued presence, they write, “is incompatible with a community that posits itself as progressive, enlightened and intellectually honest.” That last bit is mischievous, raising the excellent question of what you’d expect the physical environment of Oxford to look like given everything it says in the prospectus. (The short answer: fewer statues of colonialists, and those that remain framed to reveal just what they thought and did.)

For the first time, I had a student in my John Stuart Mill class wanting to talk about the East India Company rather than the harm principle. It can be hard to know what to do when you get what you want. There were awkward conversations with other scholars of my vintage and older: Why had we been so quiet, so complacent? What were we scared of? And why did we, most of us, settle for the centrist-parties-and-think-tanks vision of engagement, for being seminar-room-only insurgents, for assuaging our political consciences with monthly donations to approved charities? It took effort not to get defensive, not to retreat into irony, to be happy that someone was saying out loud what I’d felt and had found unsayable.

The usual apologists appeared in the broadsheets with the usual arguments (it’s complicated; we gave them the railways; we shouldn’t erase history; who’s next once Rhodes falls?), and it’s impossible to go through the rote replies (not as complicated as all that; the railways weren’t a gift; whose history?; Winston Churchill, probably) without an acute feeling of déjà vu. More generally, the movement had the effect on the mainstream press of all student protests: consternation at the fact that the students were holding up placards and no attempt to read what was written on them (This Is Not “Rhodes” House, Make Rhodes History, Take It Down). Everyone was talking about universities as a way of not talking about colonialism.

In late January 2016, the conservative Daily Telegraph said, with evident satisfaction after several months of manic Jacobins-at-the-gates reporting on the movement, that “Oxford University’s statue of Cecil Rhodes is to stay in place after furious donors threatened to withdraw gifts and bequests worth more than £100 million if it was taken down.” Naturally, Oriel College said the money had nothing, nothing to do with it. If we grant them that, then it must be the principle. In a way, it’s good the statue’s going to stick around. It helps to know just how things stand.

I was back the other day in my old college, Balliol, a place with a not undeserved ’80s-era reputation for left-wing radicalism. I walked into its Hogwartsian dining hall and knew at once that something was off. The portraits on the walls had been rearranged. There they were: medieval scholars, ex–prime ministers, old masters, new donors. A couple of women, a Jew, even a Marxist. Before I worked out who was gone, I knew who it was going to be. It was Philip de László’s oil painting of George Nathaniel Curzon, the notorious viceroy of India who oversaw one of its greatest famines, in 1899. Jan Morris admired how the painter had captured the “formidable curl to the upper lip, half sneer, half dry smile.”

No one had publicly protested the painting that I know of. There had been no open declaration. Just a quiet, sheepish, anticipatory swap: proof that the cunning of history can do its work in funny ways. But that’s just me guessing, hoping — with the indulgence of an old boy. I suppose this is how colonialism works: taking without saying please or thank you, giving back — less than is owed — without saying sorry.

That famous scene in The Golden Bowl comes to mind, where Maggie lets the Prince know that she’s found out about his affair with her stepmother. The Prince, Henry James tells us, “replied to nothing, denied nothing, explained nothing, apologized for nothing.” Still, Maggie sees him “proposing to her a temporary accommodation . . . the tacitly offered sketch of a working arrangement.” She hears the Prince saying to her (though he says nothing at all):

Leave me my reserve; don’t question it — it’s all I have just now, don’t you see? So that, if you’ll make me the concession of letting me alone with it for as long a time as I require I promise you something or other, grown under the cover of it, even though I don’t yet quite make out what, as a return for your patience.

There’s some industrial-strength wishful thinking going on here, but it’s too early in the marriage for scorn. Maggie has her reasons for staying with the Prince, and she’ll believe what she needs to believe. In the end, what will vindicate her belief that the Prince made this promise is his keeping it.

If Oxford is worth reforming, as activists must believe it is since they’re not demanding that we tear it down and start from scratch, then it must be because it can be reformed, that this can be effected by argument and persuasion. But we should keep our expectations low. Oxford — and the mainstream British political culture it feeds — is formidably well armored with defense mechanisms and comforting fables. The easygoing liberalism of Oxford life, for all that it implies of right-on attitudes and Guardian readership, is somewhat stretched when dealing with anger, censure, and the call for reparation. Its institutions of student welfare can’t help translating what are at base political demands to the kind of things a well-meaning bureaucracy can deal with: more therapists, a couple more black writers on the syllabus.

In such circumstances, moral arguments by themselves have about as much effect as telling a brat to go stand in the corner and think about what he’s done. There won’t be a redemptive gesture, just a series of accommodations with history, some of them honorable, some squalid, most of them mercenary. No one should be holding their breath for an apology.

But if Oxford must keep its statues of dead imperialists — and it will, for a while yet — it had better be up to something in all the silence: bringing the rest of its physical environment into line with its professed principles, making the question of its own complicity in the history of empire itself the focus of sustained academic attention. What Oxford will not do — and quite literally cannot do without gutting itself — is divest itself of its relations with power. And while it retains those links and the world is the way it is, the would-be decolonizers show nothing but good sense when they call for Rhodes to fall even while helping themselves to his money and the prestige of the institutions founded on it. It’s the kind of casuistical argument that sounds like it would rank pretty high on the scale of Rhodocycles, but I’m not so sure. When General Gordon told Cecil Rhodes that he’d refused some lavish present from the emperor of China for his help crushing the Taiping Rebellion, Rhodes declared him an idiot. “I should have taken it. . . . It is no good having big ideas if you have not the means to carry them out.”

“Decolonize” is a big idea, but it does not yield, by itself, a systematic political program. Nor need it. Nothing wrong with starting on one statue and seeing what comes of it. The thing for the less engagé among us is to listen and learn what we can. Universities are resilient creatures and have several advantages over the students who challenge their ways: the students have exams and relationships and hangovers to deal with; their degrees end, their student visas expire, their loan repayments start. Sometimes the next cohort carries on; often it forgets, or moves on to different things. These are perennial facts about student movements, but they do not make them pointless. They only invite us to look for tests of their success in something other than outright victory: in the traces they leave on those who take part in them, what secrets they expose, what indignations they provoke, what solidarities they help to form, what energies they unleash.

The one thing these protests can achieve in the short run is a shift in the public standards of the acceptable. Where before the statues were part of the furniture that came with the apartment, now they come with names and awkward histories attached. Where before there was indifference, there will be defensiveness and embarrassment. And embarrassment is to the British what shame was to the ancient Greeks — a sign that one cares about what one looks like in another’s gaze. Beyond that, the wider ramifications of decolonizing Oxford — or anything else — are unclear.

We’ll be hearing more from Rhodes Must Fall, under more than one name. And there’ll be a good deal of bravado and mendacity and awkwardness in response. But the tolerance for imperial bluster, especially in its covert form, is slowly shrinking. That’s a kind of progress, of the incremental sort the British claim to love. When I hear talk of the proverbial long arc of history bending toward justice, I see an overgrown tree branch, bending under its own weight, wobbling with the breeze. It’s a graceless image, but it seems to me just right.

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