The shared guilt of empire

Sunday I went to a small demonstration in support of Ukraine, in Radcliffe Square in Oxford. One of the speakers recalled his experience hearing about the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956, and himself being in Prague in 1968. The point being, the Russians are at it again, just like then.

But I couldn’t help but think, the invasion of Hungary was ordered by Khrushchev, who grew up in Ukraine. This is how it is with empires: No one has clean hands. The victims find their way to service of the empire, not actually to positions of power among the perpetrators. The same way, the Scottish and the Irish like to see themselves as victims of English colonialism, but their forebears were also fighting for and even leading the armies of British conquest.

pro-Ukraine demonstration

The dead end of 70s childrearing

People often raise their children with ideals that they don’t really hold themselves, either because they on some level think they would be better people if they shared these ideals and hope their children will be better (tolerance, patience), or because they think these ideals are particularly appropriate to this stage of life (sharing, studiousness, Santa Claus). But I’ve been realising that some of what I learned as I child — at home, at school, and from the general culture

I genuinely found it weird that Barack Obama was attacked for harboring a secret “anti-colonialist” agenda (inherited from his father’s experience fighting the British for Kenyan independence. If I’d had to say what the core historical experience was that Americans harked back to, that defined our national identity, that we could agree upon, it was the history as colonials fighting for independence. The people opposing Obama dressed up in colonial-era costumes, harked back to the Boston Tea Party, striking a blow against the imperial power. Continue reading “The dead end of 70s childrearing”

Plus ça change: Partition of Poland edition

If you wanted to refer to a paradigmatic example of wanton brutality in international affairs, the invasion and division of Poland by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939 would likely spring to mind. That’s why I was struck by the 1903 remark on the Boer War cited by Richard Toye in his book on Churchill’s imperialism:

Bourke Cockran, Churchill’s Irish-born politician friend, thought the war to be “the greatest violation of justice attempted by any civilized nation since the partition of Poland.”

I suppose now you could say, “the partition of Poland was the greatest violation of justice since the last partition of Poland.” You’d leave out the “civilized nation” bit, not exactly because Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union wouldn’t qualify, but because the concept no longer seems to have much explanatory power.

More Zionist anti-semitism

I commented recently on the good fit between classical antisemitism and Zionism, despite the efforts of some to associate necessarily antisemitism with anti-Zionism, perhaps on the basis of both having the prefix “anti”. I just came across another forceful testimony to this alignment, from a figure less notorious than Adolf Eichmann. In the book Churchill’s Empire (about the development of Winston Churchill’s attitudes toward the British Empire), Churchill is quoted on the subject of Zionism from a 1920 newspaper article:

He distinguished between praiseworthy “National Jews”, loyal to the countries in which they lived, and the “sinister confederacy” of “International Jews” whom he claimed were largely responsible for the Bolshevik revolution. In this analysis Zionism offered a “third sphere to the political conceptions of the Jewish race”, and Churchill predicted that, “if, as may well happen, there should be created in our own lifetime by the banks of the Jordan a Jewish State under the protection of the British Crown […] an event would have occurred in the history of the world which would, from every point of view, be beneficial, and would be especially in harmony with the truest interests of the British Empire.”

Old-time Darwinism

I’ve just been reading Adam Tooze’s book on WWI and its aftermath. I see Tooze as the great Marxist historian that never was — I don’t know anything about him other than his two books, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t like the comparison — since the grandest human affairs, in his accounts, end up in orbit around the black hole of capital. Anyway, I came upon an interesting quote there that reminded me of why some people of good will found themselves repulsed by Darwinism, particularly by Darwinian hangers-on who try to cite the “lessons” of Darwinism for human affairs.

The Japanese delegation to the founding conference of the League of Nations sought to have a ban on racial discrimination written in to the League covenant. (Not that they opposed racial discrimination in general, but they often enough found themselves on the unpleasant end of it.) Colonel House, a senior American diplomat and advisor to President Wilson, suggested to British foreign minister Arthur Balfour splicing the line from the US Declaration of Independence “All men are created equal” into the Covenant preamble. Balfour rejected this out of hand.

The claim that all men were created equal, Balfour objected, “was an eighteenth-century proposition which he did not believe was true.” The Darwinian revolution of the nineteenth century had taught other lessons. It might be asserted that “in a certain sense… all men of a particular nation were created equal”. Bot to assert that “a man in Central Africa was created equal to a European” was, to Balfour, patent nonsense.

Of course, one needn’t look far to find scientifically-interested chatterers — and occasionally scientists themselves — citing Darwin-themed research to prove that all the prejudices they ever had (these days they tend to emphasise difference between sexes rather than between races) are not only true, but indisputable because they have been proved by science.

I suppose it’s also worth reminding oneself what kind of racist colonialist swamp early Zionism got its start in.

When to call it quits

Today is the day of the Scottish referendum. As I’ve commented before, I don’t really have a personal opinion about the question, though I think Scottish independence would probably make my life marginally worse. (To the extent that I have a coherent political view of the situation, it is mostly concurrent with that expressed with some eloquence by Charles Stross. I’d much prefer to see a federal UK. I guess that’s what happens when you let aliens with their strange ideas infiltrate the nation.)

The only sense in which I think I have relevant expertise is with regard to the way people are talking about risk. The whole thrust of the No campaign has been to conjure up dangers, known and unforeseeable, of Scottish independence. I think they’re probably right — in particular, I think the economists are right that Scots are being misled by those who claim that they can successfully keep the British pound as their currency. On the other hand, there are also risks of staying part of the UK. In particular, the risk of being taken out of the EU by an English public that is increasingly insular in its outlook (inlook?) Since everyone’s fond of divorce metaphors, we might see Scotland as a woman whose jealous husband is trying to force her to move with him away from her friends and family. There is a long tradition of Scotland using relations with the Continent as a balance against England. It’s not so much a question of whether Scotland wants to be part of a bigger nation or go it alone; it’s a question of whether Scotland wishes to confederate with England or with Europe. And despite a reasonably successful 307 year run with England the choice for the future is not so obvious.

And that raises what I think is the most irksome twist of the No campaign’s logic: The question of timing. If you protest early against a new arrangement, you can be told, “You haven’t given it enough of a chance”. But if you wait too long, you can be told it’s really been settled by custom and tradition. (To be fair, “you haven’t given it enough of a chance” wasn’t really the argument against the 18th century Scottish rebels, who tended to find English muskets doing the persuading.) Surely it’s reasonable to reconsider these sorts of arrangements after 300 years or so. England offered Scotland the opportunity to be a co-coloniser rather than a colony, and it accepted. Now that the imperial dream is not just dead but despised, isn’t it reasonable to ask a new generation whether the union is still meeting their needs?

The cost of anti-terror

By way of Brendan James at The Dish comes this report by Ben Richmond on the disruption of vaccination efforts in rural Pakistan caused by the CIA smuggling a spy into Osama bin Laden’s refuge disguised as a health worker distributing hepatitis B vaccines. I won’t question the justice of killing bin Laden, nor will I call it useless because bin Laden may have been, by that point, barely even a figurehead of al Qaeda. I appreciate the value of propaganda by force in the important struggle against violent Islamists.

But when we reckon the costs against the benefits of killing terrorists, let us consider the 22 vaccination workers killed and 14 injured in retaliation attacks, or the many thousands who will be killed or maimed by polio, now that the realistic hope of soon eradicating that horrible disease has been set back, perhaps for a very long time. One wonders iƒ the cost to public health had any place in President Obama’s decision-making in approving this particular CIA operation. Is there anyone who speaks up for non-American interests? Is there any number of  lives of the poor bystanders for whose sake a US president would judge it worth giving up a symbolic victory in the struggle to save American (and wealthy western more generally) lives? Other than because of threats of diplomatic or military retaliation against Americans.

I’d be genuinely interested if any political theorist has thought through how this calculus works.