Why the British empire cannot explain the politics of the present

Interesting reflections on the empire and the complex identities many of us have:

This review is the product of empire, and not just because the two books in question take empire as their topic. I am here today because my grandmother, the South African descendant of white British colonists – who erected a complex system of racial apartheid in order to continue minority rule – met and had a child with a descendant of the enslaved Javanese population, who were brought to South Africa by the Dutch empire. Heavily pregnant, my grandmother exercised her right as a Commonwealth citizen to come to the United Kingdom. There she met my grandfather, the descendant of eastern European Jews who fled the anti-Semitic persecution of the Russian empire to come to Britain in the 19th century. Years later, while working at the Africa Centre in London, my mother met a British Zimbabwean, himself only here because his ancestors, like many Commonwealth citizens, were encouraged to come to the UK to top up the labour force.

If any of those three empires had not existed – if just one of them had collapsed due to internal strife or external defeat a little earlier – then I would not exist and you would not be reading this sentence. (I leave the question of whether this fact goes in the “pros” or “cons” column of those empires up to you.)

The legacy of Europe’s empires is so bound into our society that trying to remove their influence upon us is as futile a task as attempting to remove the egg from a baked cake, to borrow an analogy that the author and Times writer Sathnam Sanghera uses in Empireland. As he superbly chronicles, the legacy of the British empire is everywhere you look. Perhaps most fittingly of all, the word “loot” is itself appropriated from the Hindi word “lut”: the spoils of war.

Although Empireland is the product of wide reading rather than original research, it is a fantastic introduction for anyone who wants to learn more about the British empire. Sanghera shares his knowledge without pretension or affectation.

He also has a peerless eye for a killer fact and a great story. My favourite is that of Sake Dean Mahomed, who in the course of just one life managed to become the first Indian author to be published in English, the founder in 1810 of the UK’s first curry house and the man who established the first dodgy massage parlour – though not in the same building.

My time with Sanghera’s book was so enjoyable that it feels almost churlish to admit that I found its overarching argument wholly unconvincing. Nevertheless, I am churlish, so here goes.

Sanghera suggests that greater awareness of our imperial past would reshape our understanding of our post-imperial present. He argues that Brexit is, in part, “an exercise in empire nostalgia”. There is, to my eyes, an obvious problem here: it’s hard to claim that the Netherlands has fully come to terms with the Dutch empire, which left its mark on my family history as much as the British empire did. “Blacking up”, now rightly considered to be a shameful practice in the UK, is still widely tolerated in the Netherlands. Tony Blair apologised for Britain’s role in the slave trade in 2007; the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, is still resisting making a similar apology in 2021. Yet it is unlikely that the Netherlands will follow the UK out of the European Union any time soon.

And what about France? As Robert Gildea details in his peerless 2019 book Empires of the Mind, France and Britain’s attachments to their empires were so great that, even when their struggle against Nazi Germany was at its bleakest, the French government-in-exile and the British government spent precious time squabbling over the future of their imperial possessions. France is an essential component of the modern EU, and yet like the UK struggles to confront its imperial legacy. Sanghera is right that we can no more disentangle the UK of today from the imperial power of time gone by than we can remove the egg from a cake – but if we’re comparing it to other countries we do need to be sure that they don’t have the same problem.

Sanghera puts far too much faith in the power of historical education to change minds and thus change the present. If only people were taught that so many of Britain’s “black and Asian people had been made citizens through the imperial project”, then the debate over multiculturalism would be “instantly transformed”.

This is obviously untrue. To take the system of apartheid in South Africa: it was not erected because its architects were ignorant of their imperial legacy but because they feared terrible retribution in the event of black majority rule. Nor would anyone sensible be reassured by the idea that immigration and multiculturalism are simply “colonizin’ in reverse”, as the poet Louise Bennett puts it. Colonisation was a violent, disruptive and sometimes extinction-level event for the colonised people. Anyone who thought that immigration was the same process via a different means would be mad not to resist it.

There is much to agree with in Sanghera’s book – his case for the restitution of stolen treasures is very powerful indeed – but I struggle to understand how someone who has read so much imperial history could think that a better public understanding of that past would in itself “instantly transform” our shared understanding of the world today. Even historians don’t agree on what the empire tells us about either the Britain of 1821 or the Britain of 2021.

In the UK, an improved understanding of the horrors of the Holocaust has not made our politics any more tolerant or welcoming to refugees and victims of genocide today. Since the Holocaust moved the world to recognise and define the crime of genocide, neither the United Nations nor the UK has ever managed to declare that one is taking place until after the crime has happened. Improved understanding of the past is a good thing, but it is not a substitute for winning political arguments in the present.

One person who would agree with my assessment is Kehinde Andrews, professor of Black Studies at Birmingham City University. He also agrees with Sanghera that you cannot remove the legacy of empire from the present economic and global order.

In The New Age of Empire Andrews argues that two of the Enlightenment’s greatest thinkers, Immanuel Kant and David Hume, “provided the universal and scientific framework of knowledge that maintained colonial logic”, and that their own racism and bigotry was built into their thinking. In turn, the systems of thought that we have built on their ideas also bear the indelible stain of that prejudice. As the formal structures of empire have been abandoned, new and more insidious ones, in the shape of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have taken their place. They, too, are irretrievably tainted by the imperial ambitions of their founders.

Modern ideas of racial tolerance and unity do, unquestionably, have a racist ancestor. But the germ theory of disease can also trace its development through a number of discredited ideas: the miasma theory that illnesses are spread by “bad air”; and the idea that the mere act of smelling food could eventually contribute to fattening you up. Yet our modern understanding of how disease spreads is not doomed to failure because of its ancestry in what we now know to be flawed thinking.

Andrews derides what he calls the “white left” and its narrow focus. He dismisses the “Preston model” beloved by many Corbynite thinkers. “One of the cooperatives so praised in Preston is a coffee shop,” he writes, “and while we celebrate the benefits to the worker in Britain, the shop’s success is only possible because of the racial exploitation of the poor people farming the coffee beans it uses for next to nothing.” The new British left actually wants not a social democracy, but a return to the old “imperial democracy”.

His solution is to throw the whole cake into the dustbin of history. His focus is on “uniting Africa and the African diaspora to create a true revolution, which remains the only solution to the problem of racism”, and for the African diaspora to return to a “promised land” in Africa. This seems to me to be a little more difficult than simply getting the Preston café to pay a fair and equitable price for its coffee.

But it is central to Andrews’ belief system that it is easier to persuade the African diaspora that their aspirations are best realised back in Africa – and to persuade Africans to abandon both the borders inherited from colonialism and the dream of new borders for each of the continent’s many different peoples – than it is to get a northern English café to sell lattes at a fair price. As he writes at the conclusion of the book, “if you have come this far and believe that White people offering a meaningful hand of friendship is the solution then you have missed the point”.

I have to declare an interest here: I am the product of several generations’ worth of belief that enduring relationships can be struck across racial divides: a white South African can fall in love with a Cape Malay South African. A white British woman and a Jewish man can raise a family together. And, hell, a British-African man can father a child and disappear into the sunset without causing too much undue damage to the child in question. I have skin in the game: literally, my skin, the tone of which sits somewhere between my father’s and my mother’s.

It’s never made precisely clear in The New Age of Empire what the vision for people like me is in this united diaspora: do we get to return to Africa, or not? Is there a place for my white partner in the pan-African promised land? Do I ever get to see my mother and grandmother again? Would I have to reconcile with my father in the promised land? Would I be able to visit my great-aunt and great-uncle, who are Jewish? I’m not saying that all of these questions are deal-breakers for me, but I would certainly like to know the answers.

And if we are to discredit and discard the Enlightenment thinkers, how can pan-Africanism be the answer? Pan-Africanism is itself a product of the empire. The movement wasn’t dreamed up in Africa but by its displaced descendants in the West. The most influential and successful African supporter of the movement and a key force in the creation of what is now the African Union, Kwame Nkrumah, was likewise educated in the West, and was influenced by Marxism – which is, in turn, informed by the very ideas and philosophies that Andrews regards as irreversibly contaminated by their own imperial legacy.

Sanghera and Andrews share a common blindspot: while modern Britain is shaped by the empire, the British empire should not itself be seen as the starting point for British history. The empire was shaped by its pre-imperial past, and the Britain of today is shaped by both. The transatlantic slave trade, which undoubtedly still has an influence on the world today, can trace its roots to the slave trade within Africa, as the historian Marcus Rediker describes in his 2007 book The Slave Ship.

The empire cannot plausibly be the cause of what Sanghera considers to be a unique brand of racism, not least because that would account for neither the West’s pre-imperial anti-Semitism nor its pre-imperial racism. (As Sanghera recounts, long before empire, Elizabeth I was complaining that London’s Moorish population had grown too large.)

There is a similar problem in Andrews’ approach: my African ancestors, who sold the luckless members of other tribes, were not motivated by white supremacy but by a far older and universal sin: greed, and a desire to treat the perceived “other” – whether they look like us or not – as less than themselves.

History can illuminate the present. But it is only by confronting our shared and continued capacity for brutality against those we perceive as being unlike us – for profit or convenience – that we can build a better future.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

Source: Why the British empire cannot explain the politics of the present

Esi Edugyan: ‘Where are you from?’ In search of my Canadian identity

Great piece by Edugyan on identities:

Back in 2006, I went to live for a year at an artist colony on the outskirts of Stuttgart, Germany, a city nearly obliterated during the Second World War. I remember the blue thread of the Neckar River running along it in the fine bright air, so that from our residence overlooking the city, we could almost imagine only wilderness lay below.

It was the year Germany played host to the FIFA World Cup. Among the young artists who had arrived from all over the world, an excitement had taken hold. We were eager to be a part of things, to take in as much as we could of this moment.

There was among the German artists, especially, a kind of mild shock at their countrymen’s outpouring of emotion for their nation. For the first time since before the war – which is to say, since before their lifetimes – it had become socially acceptable to hang the national flag from windows, to fly it from cars, to drape it over shoulders in the streets. Visual symbols of patriotism were something I took for granted in Canada, so that I was surprised when, walking the Stuttgart town centre with a friend, I heard her draw a sharp breath at the sight of a child turning a tiny plastic flag in his fingers. For her, it was truly a new era.

I remember so much about those days. How a group of us would spend hours in the beer gardens dotting the city to watch on massive screens matches taking place in all parts of the country. How lightly the sun fell, cupping our foreheads in a warmth that was like the touch of a human palm. How, sometimes, the air in the gardens would reek sharply of shredded grass. And how one evening, during a match between Germany and France, the weather suddenly turned black and churning and vicious, slinging thick braids of water into our faces, so that we opened our mouths.

There was so much beauty in those hours. I recall us all walking home after that rainy match and hearing a damp susurration from beyond the path. My friend, Eugen, parted the long grasses to discover an enormous frog. We passed the frog from hand to hand, and I remember so vividly the feel of it in my careful fist – a pulsing damp shudder, like a living heart. The wonder that came over me then was like a physical shock – I felt as if anything could happen in that moment, as if the world was made of the strange and the unexpected, that it was a place of great openness and possibility.

Then, as we continued on, something happened that drew me up short. We had all been complaining about the French soccer team, but Eugen began to mock them viciously, beginning with their names. His biggest complaint was the fact that so many of them were brown or black men, children no doubt of immigrants who’d settled in France from its former colonies. “How were any of those people actually French?” he said, and then he met my eye: “And you, Esi, how are you Canadian?”

It had been a question that had defined my life, although I would not then have expressed it so. For years I had travelled in search of the place I would feel most at home – indeed, my time in Germany was part of that search – but it was slowly dawning on me that the answer had been clear from the moment I first left home, that I had been stubbornly refusing to look at it.

What became so clear to me with Eugen’s question was how much I had taken a certain kind of multiculturalism for granted, and how much, until those years of travel, I’d come to surround myself with people who also took that plurality for granted. I had always believed that there were many different pathways to citizenship and fealty and belonging beyond the single one suggested by him, which was, of course, blood. In a country in which the population of black people has never exceeded 3.5 per cent (and in British Columbia, where I’ve lived for 20 years, it is less than 1 per cent), the idea of my being able to claim anything like true Canadian-ness was, to him, ridiculous.

My parents were Ghanaian immigrants who’d met, not in Canada, but in San Francisco, as students; A mutual friend was hosting a party to watch the moon landing on his black and white television. Six months later they were married, and my brother was born a year after that. They settled eventually in Alberta, first in Edmonton, where my sister was born, then in Calgary, where I was born. They often used to joke that they stopped moving to avoid having more children.

Migration is rarely a clean narrative. Alongside the joys, stories of migration often contain the loss of treasured things, and also the gaining of things not wanted. At the centre of these stories is often risk. And indeed, when I think of my mother’s case, what I’m struck by is how much she had to risk to gain an education. She was a young woman in an African society where women did much of the work and held little of the power, and as her secondary school years were coming to an end, she was left floundering at the starkness of her choices. She chafed at the expectation that she would keep her father’s house until she found a husband. She wanted to become a nurse. In order to do so, though, she would have to leave home. And what amazes me is that she managed to do it.

I sometimes ask myself what might have happened if she had never made the choice to leave. If my father had also stayed and by some whim of chance they’d met and married in Ghana? Her near-fate as an uneducated mother and wife could well have been my own fate, too. The life given to me is lived in the shadow of that other possible life. I marvel even now at the strange combination of circumstances that had to come about for me to be here.

To be a Canadian is to accept that the story has more than one thread, more than one character, more than one point of view. It has become a near cliché to say it, but it’s true: we are a nation of many narratives and histories, and it is in the attempts to harmonize our various stories that our culture lives.

These negotiations can sometimes be fraught, but they are ours. Within my own family, there are a multitude of stories: one of my sisters-in-law immigrated to Edmonton from Hong Kong when she was eight years old, while the other is from the Coast Salish tribes of Vancouver Island, whose people have lived on the land for generations. My brother-in-law is French-Canadian. My husband’s aunt, who was born and raised in Guyana, has commented that when we sit down to holiday dinners we look like a UN summit. I think, though, that the variety that strikes her as an international feature is actually a very national one. And it is in our struggle to forever negotiate and align these stories that our identity is made and shaped and reshaped. The failure to come to a consensus on a single narrative – the hesitation and uncertainty about having one dominant story – is what the culture has become.

What do we see as features of our future stories, going forward? What is it we can be? The image returns to me of that rainy walk home in Stuttgart, the feel of that tiny life in my hands – how unexpected and full of wonder that moment was, how much it made the world feel boundless and without limits, as if the miraculous lay within reach. That feeling is what we need to harness, it is what I want my children to feel. The sense that nothing is closed to anyone, not because of race or gender or religious belief, that everything is open and full of startling possibility, regardless of who we are.

Source:     ‘Where are you from?’ In search of my Canadian identity Esi Edugyan July 11, 2019     

ICYMI – In Praise of Equipoise: David Brooks

Good piece by Brooks on the need to get out of one’s bubble and the risks of attachment to a single identity:

Group victimization has become the global religion — from Berkeley to the alt-right to Iran — and everybody gets to assert his or her victimization is worst and it’s the other people who are the elites.

The situation might be tolerable if people at least got to experience real community within their victim groups. But as Mark Lilla points out in his essential new book, “The Once and Future Liberal,” many identity communities are not even real communities. They’re just a loose group of individuals, narcissistically exploring some trait in their self that others around them happen to share. Many identity-based communities are not defined by internal compassion but by external rage.

How do we get out of this spiral?

The first step is to just get out. Turn the other cheek, love your enemy, confront your opponent with aggressive love.

Martin Luther King is the obvious model here. “Love has within it a redemptive power,” he argued. “And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals. … Just keep being friendly to that person. … Just keep loving them, and they can’t stand it too long. Oh, they react in many ways in the beginning. … They react with guilt feelings, and sometimes they’ll hate you a little more at that transition period, but just keep loving them. And by the power of your love they will break down under the load.”

The second step is to refuse to be a monad. Maalouf points to the myth that “‘deep down inside’ everyone there is just one affiliation that really matters.” Some people live this way, hanging around just one sort of person, loyal to just one allegiance and leading insular, fearful lives. In fact, the heart has many portals. A healthy person can have four or six vibrant attachments and honor them all as part of the fullness of life.

The more vibrant attachments a person has, the more likely she will find some commonality with every other person on earth. The more interesting her own constellational self becomes. The world isn’t only a battlefield of groups; it’s also a World Wide Web of overlapping allegiances. You might be Black Lives Matter and he may be Make America Great Again, but you’re both Houstonians cruising the same boat down flooded streets.

The final step is to practice equipoise. This is the trait we should be looking for in leaders. It’s the ability to move gracefully through your identities — to have the passions, blessings and hurts of one balanced by the passions, blessings and hurts of several others.

The person with equipoise doesn’t feel attachments less powerfully but weaves several deep allegiances into one symphony. “A good character,” James Q. Wilson wrote, “is not life lived according to a rule (there rarely is a rule by which good qualities ought to be combined or hard choices resolved), it is a life lived in balance.” Achieving balance is an aesthetic or poetic exercise, a matter of striking the different notes harmonically.

Today rage and singularity is the approved woke response to the world — Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders. But you show me a person who can gracefully balance six fervent and unexpectedly diverse commitments, and that will be the one who is ready to lead in this new world.