Out of Africans?

Taylor Swift’s latest music video is getting some heat for its idyllic portrayal of colonialism. Having watched the video, I can see why. The imagery does parallel that of so many other colonial (and post-colonial) fantasies, from the literature of the 18th century to the films of the late-20th and early 21st centuries.

Yes, as the director has since pointed out, the video is not so much set in a colonial idyll as much as it is set on the set of a motion picture depicting the colonial idyll. Which is an important difference. It’s not so much a colonial fantasy as a meta-“colonial fantasy”Unfortunately, that subtlety is likely lost on viewers in the four minutes it takes to watch the video.

Moreover, the director’s insistence that “the key creatives who worked on this video are people of colour” is actually irrelevant: white people by no means have a monopoly on the production and re-production of colonial fantasies, and the skin-color of those responsible for them in no way diminishes their impact (if anything, it might lend them legitimacy.)

The problem with something like this doesn’t stem from any malicious intentions, but rather from the way it normalizes a particular image of Africa and the colonial period. That it is “only” entertainment is precisely the point. It almost subliminally contributes to a problematic pre-existing narrative. It is not significant in and of itself–rather, it is another brick in the wall. With millions of views, a rather substantial brick, but still just one of many.

As art, however, it also represents the product of an artist (or, really, artists’) vision. Swift, the director, et. al. certainly earned a few snarky tweets and some commentary from those concerned about these sorts of things, but they don’t deserve any long-lasting scorn. Not unless this sort of thing becomes a habit. No, if anything, some critical discussion may be a rather significant silver lining to this otherwise small cloud.*

*Unless, of course, commentators alienate those amongst Swift’s fan-base who dip into the conversation.

Lives Matter

This isn’t going to be popular amongst some of my Facebook friends, but it needs to be said:

The point of “Black Lives Matter” is not to suggest that other lives don’t matter, nor is it to suggest that “black lives matter more“.

Yes, of course police lives matters. Very few people think otherwise. But these facts remain:

  1. For every one million white Americans arrested in 2014, there were 95 white Americans killed by the police.
  2. For every one million black Americans arrested in 2014, there were 138 black Americans killed by the police.
  3. For every one million arrests made in the US in 2014, there were 6 police officers killed.

Yes, of course the number of police officers killed in the line of duty is too high. Very, very few people disagree with that statement.

But in any given arrest, a black civilian is almost 50% more likely to be killed than a white civilian, and that same black person is 2,200% more likely to be killed than a police officer.

So yes, reasonable people all agree that too many police officers are killed in the line of duty every year. And yes, many or maybe even most of the incidents in which police kill civilians are justifiable, whether in self-defense, to protect others, or what have you.

But the disparity between black civilians killed by police and white civilians killed by police is striking. And remember, the difference I’m pointing out is not a result of “higher crime rates amongst African Americans.” Yes, there are socio-economic factors (as well as political and legal factors) that lead to higher crime rates amongst certain populations, and for a variety of reasons these often map to race. Put another way, yes, at least part of the reason African Americans accounted for 28% of arrests last year despite only making up 13% of the population is because African Americans were committing more crimes. There’s more to it than that, but that’s not the point.

Because, you see, that disparity does not explain the disparity in arrest-related deaths. Because the statistics I mentioned above factor that in. Again, for every one million black civilians arrested, 138 black civilians are killed by the police. Within those 28% of arrests made last year, African Americans are being killed by police at a higher rate than whites.

“Black Lives Matter” is about drawing attention to this disparity and seeking to address it. That does not have to be at the expense of addressing other issues, such as the safety of police officers. Indeed, making police officers safer (and just as importantly, making them feel safer) would likely help reduce the number of civilians killed by police every year. Indeed, a cultural bias that attributes greater menace and danger to situations involving African Americans, including a perception that African American youths are older than they actually are, likely contributes to the disparity I keep talking about.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement seeks to draw attention to and address the disparity because for so long it has gone unnoticed and unaddressed, and for too long apathy contributed to the problem. Police lives, by contrast, have long been celebrated in our culture and society (even if not only celebrated). Police are often the heroes in TV and movies, fallen officers are honored, etc. That is not to say that the way our society views police officers, their service, and their sacrifice is perfect. But too often “Police Lives Matter” messages seem to be in opposition to the “Black Lives Matter” movement and/or ignoring important differences between the situations each seeks to address.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t post “Police Lives Matter” material, of course that’s your right. I–and most people–agree those lives do matter, a great deal. But by paralleling the “Black Lives Matter” movement’s language in this way, saying “Police Lives Matter” suggests an opposing, even hostile viewpoint. Yes, of course there are those elements within the “Black Lives Matter” movement who are also guilty of hostility towards police and those who advocate for the police, but often it seems the source of misunderstanding and ill-will comes from a misinterpretation of what “Black Lives Matter” means. Not that my interpretation is the only definitive one. I just hope to have explained a little as to why and how reasonable people rally behind the banner of “Black Lives Matter” without any suggestion that any other lives matter any less. Because it’s not about any lives mattering more or less, it’s about making sure that we recognize all lives matter, and remedying situations in which some seem to matter less. If that’s been true of police lives as well, then yes, let’s do something about that as well, but let’s do it in a way to promotes greater understanding. That’s something everybody should want to see happen.

Kim Jong Un and Cher

Just picture it: Kim Jong Un prancing around the deck of a battleship in fishnets and a leather jacket, with young sailors waving their hats at him, while he belts out, “If I could turn back time…”

And then it occurred to him that he could do exactly that. By thirty minutes. You know, to stick it to those Japanese imperialists.

Now, to be fair, North Korea is simply returning to the pre-1910 standard. It was in that year that Japan forced the Korean peninsula to set their clocks ahead thirty minutes so as to be in sync with Tokyo. But today, with South Korea remaining in the same timezone they’ve been in for over a century now, this change isn’t going to do much besides cause confusion at the Kaesong industrial park, a joint North-South operation that is arguably itself more imperialistic than the current timezone.

Britain and its Empire: Friends with benefits?

Over at Breitbart (I know, don’t feed the trolls) Raheem Kassam is upset about the suggestion that Britain owes India reparations for colonial rule. Apparently, railroads, parliamentary democracy, and quinine (to name a few) prove that colonialism was beneficial for India.

Of course, this is like saying slavery was beneficial for slaves because the masters provided food, shelter, and clothing.

Seriously, though: if Canada invaded the United States and established colonial rule, should we be thankful, since they would obviously bring with them clear benefits for us: Tim Horton’s, poutine, and broader use of $1 and $2 coins? If aliens take over but give us flying cars, does that make it okay?

The piece also un-ironically calls India out for its underdevelopment, which Kassam apparently forgets is itself a product of British colonial rule. Whatever investments Britain made in infrastructure, these were first and foremost in support of first the British East India Company’s and later the Raj’s efforts to extract wealth from the country, be it in the form of raw materials or captive markets. “Development for exploitation,” to borrow a phrase from Juhani Koponen’s work on German colonialism. There’s a reason India’s production plummeted during British rule — because that’s what the British wanted.

But forget about “benefits” and the economic impact of colonialism (and the attendant social and cultural effects — forget those! Don’t think about them! Stop thinking about them!): how do conservatives reconcile their critiques of “big government” with defense of an institution of the British Raj? How do they reconcile vocal support for individual liberties and freedoms with the oppression of colonial rule? I honestly don’t get it.

Just because something wasn’t all bad doesn’t mean it wasn’t bad. I’m not saying I necessarily think reparations are the solution at this point, but denying any wrongdoing is foolhardy.

The new scramble for Africa?

The demand for power in Africa has become a major international issue. China has taken the lead in financing many power projects across the continent — mostly hydroelectric dams, but also solar power plants and wind farms. Private companies from Asia, the United States and Europe are also supplying power to an increasing number of countries.

Compare this to construction of the Cahora Basa Dam in Mozambique in the waning days of Portugal’s empire. Indeed, China is even involved in efforts to expand the capacity of the Cahora Basa Dam.

Coming to terms with the past

It’s strange to think that the first association many Americans make with Germans is Nazis. The second world war ended seventy years ago, and immediately after Germany’s surrender the Allies began to implement a series of policies meant to ensure Germany’s and the German people’s complete denazification. What exactly that meant in practice varied from occupation zone to occupation zone, and in many ways the effort proved flawed; certainly in the West the desire to get Germany back on its feet quickly allowed many former Nazis to retain or regain their positions in the (soon to be West) German economy and (after 1949) government. Indeed, very quickly the West German narrative of World War II became one of German victimhood: Germans had been victims of the American and British bombing campaigns, victims of the Red Army, and victims of Hitler and his cronies.

But the stones left unturned by denazification in the decade and a half after World War II were not to remain undisturbed, as a generation of Germans born during and after the war came of age in the 1960s and began asking uncomfortable questions about what their leaders, teachers, and even parents had done during the war. Disturbed by some of the answers they found as well as what many of them saw as the survival of conservative and even authoritarian elements in West Germany’s government and West German society, West German students, leftists, and others worked to ensure the removal of former Nazis from positions of power and move the politics of the Federal Republic to the left.

The work of “coming to terms with the past” continues to this day in Germany. Nazi flags, symbols, monuments, and street names have been eliminated, memorials and museums have been built, but work continues to make sure all victims are remembered, not just Jewish victims. Still, it is remarkable what Germans have accomplished in their efforts to not simply move beyond the past but appropriately heed its warning and root out any romanticization or nostalgia for the Nazi period. It is an imperfect process–the specter of Neo-Nazis is just the most obvious sign of that–but it has been, in the long run, an enormous success.

Especially in comparison to the United States. Parallels between the United States after 1865 and Germany after 1945 have their limits, but that does not mean they aren’t worth considering. The denazification process that began in Germany after World War II finds its counterpart in Reconstruction after the Civil War. Where denazification had its limits, Reconstruction saw disaster after federal troops were removed from the south in 1877: this move made it impossible to continue to protect the civil rights (and indeed all too often the lives) of black Americans in the south. Whereas in Germany the experience of absolute defeat and widespread desolation left few Germans willing to cling to the past, defeat in the Civil War and the experience of Reconstruction did little to similarly dissuade supporters of the Confederacy. They saw themselves as victims of their enemies in much the way Germans did after World War II, but not as victims of their leaders. Rather than rejecting the slave economy and Southern way of life that led to the Civil War, that “heritage” was preserved and mythologized. Perhaps more importantly, too many in the generations that followed failed to question their elders’ veneration of the past but instead expanded upon it. Thus the emergence of organizations like the Sons of the Confederate Veterans and the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the proliferation of monuments to the Confederacy, even in states and counties more closely aligned with the Union during the war itself.

In the decades that have followed, “de-Confederization” has proceeded slowly. Witness the Civil Rights movement and the continued romanticization of the Confederacy until this day. Progress has been slow and occurred often only in fits and starts. As a historian of Germany with an imperfect understanding of the nuances of American history, I have to wonder if one important difference between German efforts to come to terms with the past and American ones to move beyond the legacy of slavery and the Civil War has to do with the perceived origins of such efforts. In West Germany, Allied denazifaction efforts were turned over to West German authorities remarkably quickly, and efforts in the 1960s to deal with the Nazi past largely originated in a new generation of West Germans. In the American South, by contrast, it seems that Reconstruction and many of the efforts that followed were perceived as the imposition of outsiders, be it carpetbaggers in the 1870s or northern college students in the 1960s. It’s no accident that Texan Lyndon B. Johnson succeeded with Civil Rights where the conspicuously northern John F. Kennedy had failed. That is not to dismiss the efforts of southerners involved in and indeed leading the Civil Rights movement, from Martin Luther King, Jr. to James Farmer to William Harbour and beyond. But others hailed from the north, like Roy Wilkins or (arguably) Whitney Young, and the organizations these men led (the NAACP and the Urban League) undoubtedly seemed like outside organizations as well.

I think, then, this line of reasoning also offers and explanation as to why efforts to remove the Confederate flag from state houses and memorials across the South have now been successful: increasingly, it seems, there is a generation in the South that will not allow the status quo to continue and has achieved the critical mass necessary to have real legitimacy in the South. This gives governors and other state officials the political cover to do what they and their predecessors very wall may have wanted to do for decades, namely, the right thing.

The symbolism of removing Confederate flags should not be underestimated, but it is important to remember that it is a beginning, not an end point. Electing a black president and lowering the banner of hate and racism does not mean hate and racism have been eliminated. Indeed, in many ways it makes these very real problems more difficult to spot, as they are forced to (or choose to) advertise themselves less and less openly. As the German example demonstrates, however successful such a process may be, it may never be fully realized. But that’s no reason not to try.


Germany has, of course, not only the Nazi past to deal with, but also the legacy of the East German regime. Indeed, one can conceive of a constellation of overlapping pasts, including the Nazis, the East German dictatorship, Germany’s colonial history, and more.

However, much the same can be said for the United States. Indeed, while the practice of slavery in the United States was despicable and far outstripped the use of forced labor in Nazi Germany, it is worth considering whether the removal and elimination of Native Americans across the North American continent is an even greater historical sin with which Americans have not yet truly come to terms.

June 26

I suspect that going forward, today will not be remembered as the anniversary of FDR’s signing of the Federal Credit Union Act. Indeed, I think I can pretty confidently say that in the future, June 26’s “On this day in history…” will not be any of the following other events:

  1. On June 26, 1483, Richard III became King of England. Important enough in its own right, and of course it was fodder for Shakespeare’s pen (and Martin Freeman’s acting).
  2. The Treaty of Nanking came into effect on June 26, 1843, making Hong Kong part of the British Empire forever!* (*Where forever = until 1997.)
  3. In 1848, June 26 marked the end of the June Days in France, a key turning point in the 1848 Revolution and emblematic of the shortcomings of revolutions across Europe that year.
  4. On this day in 1906, the first Grand Prix was held. And where would we be today without Formula 1?
  5. In 1917, this was the day American troops arrived in France to fight during World War I. The nail in the coffin, really.
  6. Of course there was the Federal Credit Union Act in 1934.
  7. On June 26, 1945, the United Nations Charter was signed.
  8. It was on this day in 1948 that the Berlin Airlift began after the Soviet Union blockaded the American, British, and French zones in Berlin. The blockade itself was the result of enormous mistrust on both sides–the Soviets don’t deserve all the blame–and it contributed to the emergence of the Cold War and the division of Germany into two states.
  9. In other Berlin history, in 1963 John F. Kennedy famously proclaimed “Ich bin ein Berliner.”
  10. On this day in 1970, actor Nick Offerman was born. And with him, Ron Swanson
  11. 1974: The first UPC code is put into use.
  12. In 1977, Elvis gave his last concert.

It’s worth noting:

  1. June 26, 2003 the Supreme Court ruled that sodomy laws are unconstitutional.
  2. June 26, 2013 the Supreme Court ruled portions of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.
  3. June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court ruled that the constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.