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.

The White Nerd’s Burden

Call it digital imperialism, perhaps, in that the values are arriving not inside artworks made by others but through a tool that locals can use themselves. As Thailand is discovering, the smartphone — for all its indispensability as a tool of business and practicality — is also a bearer of values; it is not a culturally neutral device.

That may be at least partially true, but it’s also worth remembering that contact zones–whether they’re of the “traditional”, colonial sort or the digital variety–are places where there is a great deal of agency. Technology like smartphones may be bringing values with them, but if they are, it is still the users who embrace those values, however wholeheartedly or (more likely) ambivalently. More to the point, it may also be a tool allowing for the expression of values and the pursuit of agendas that were already present or are only partially a response “outside” influences (a problematic enough binary in a globalized world.)

Without that perspective, this (and several other articles in the issue) fall into the familiar trap of telling us more about the “digital cultural imperialists” (condensed here to Americans or even Silicon Valley) than about those on the other side of the equation.

The problem with the civilizing mission of the nineteenth century was not necessarily a lack sincerity–though it was frequently a pretense. Rather, the “White Man’s Burden” also completely devalued what indigenous peoples created before and after the arrival of westerners. Whether “digital imperialism” produces “a virtuous circle” or not, we’d be wise not to repeat that mistake.

Anti-colonial vs. UN-colonial

Conservatives and Kenyan Sri Lankan anti-colonialists can agree on something — their disdain for the UN:

The power balance that existed in the United Nations Organization is no more with the collapse of Soviet Union. The UNO has become an instrument of colonialism. In addition to NGOs, Christian and Catholic churches and dispersed Tamils, the UN is also promoting colonialism.

Between the General Assembly and the Security Council, the UN can have a split personality at times — it has historically protected imperial interests and challenged them. But the evidence in this particular case is dubious. For instance, the West claims to want to promote freedom of speech, but:

The English speaking people in Sri Lanka think that there is freedom of speech in the USA. There is no freedom of speech. How many people in the US read newspapers?

I’m afraid that’s not the metric, even if you’re generous enough to include television news and online sources along with “newspapers”.

Colonialism and European integration

Writing about Asian unity, Mallika Shakya makes this excellent observation about Europe:

In Europe, it was initially the colonial stakes and later the fear of the Cold War which brought the nation states on board for regional integration.

Yes, yes, yes. Exactly. But many people seem to forget the former and focus on the latter. Especially as regards West Germany.

I really need to finish that manuscript.

In defense of the British Empire?

As you may — or more likely, may not — have heard, there’s a referendum taking place in the Falklands. The question put to residents of the islands: whether or not they wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. (Check out this BBC story to see mobile polling stations in action!)

The Falkland Islands, you’ll recall, made a cameo in last year’s Iron Lady, playing a role loosely based on themselves circa 1982.

Even before the final results have been tallied, two things are clear: the islanders will overwhelmingly support remaining part of the UK, and the Argentinian government will dismiss the results. They already have. The government of Argentina claims sovereignty over the islands (known in Argentina as the Malvinas) and rejects the notion of asking the British subjects currently inhabiting them if they’d like to remain British as ludicrous.

It’s usually pretty easy to criticize European possession of overseas territories. It’s easy, for instance, to make a case against minority rule. But that’s not the case in the Falklands, where the British represent 55% of the population. And it’s easy to condemn the decimation of indigenous populations as a result of war, disease, or forced labor. But, again, that’s not the case in the Falklands, where there was no native population before the arrival of Europeans.

It seems some people, like the Guardian‘s Roy Greenslade, are falling into the easy habit of criticizing imperialism, but the Argentinian government is just as guilty on that count as the British.

Yes, Argentinian claims go back to the early nineteenth century. But British claims go back to the eighteenth century. Spain may have the best case for sovereignty over the islands, with claims that go back even further.

What makes the islands Argentinian? Their proximity to Argentina?

That’s not good enough. At least not when some 1,900 people live on the islands. Maybe if they were uninhabited the government of Argentina could make a better case. But especially at this point, after 180 years, the only harm Argentina suffers if the Falklands remain British is to their national pride, and it’s a self-inflicted wound. The alternative, by contrast, would mean trampling the rights of living, breathing Falkland Islanders.

Heaven forbid one make a fool of oneself

Brigadier-General Reginald E. H. Dyer testifying before the Hunter Commission about the Armistar massacre:

I think it quite possible that I could have dispersed the crowd without firing but they would have come back again and laughed, and I would have made, what I consider, a fool of myself.

But I imagine Fulford would suggest this was just an isolated incident?

(Via the latest episode of The Bugle.)

Colonialism, rehabilitated?

Robert Fulford is done with “appropriate attitudes” about colonialism:

Beneath all such discussion lies a profound assumption: Colonialism was simply a crime of history. It shouldn’t have happened.

This remains the widely accepted view. Universities teach that colonialism was dictatorship imposed by force of arms. The powerful controlled the helpless, always to the detriment of the latter. Hundreds of textbooks support that conclusion, and not just in politics.

There are so many problems with his piece, but I’ll limit myself to three points.

  1. Universities teach that colonialism was dictatorship imposed by force of arms.

    Colonialism usually was dictatorship imposed by force of arms. See: the Americas (conquistadors, Ango-Powhatan wars, etc.), Asia (Dutch conquest of Indonesia, Opium Wars, etc.), Africa (English, French, German, and Portuguese colonial wars, Belgian control of the Congo, etc.)

  2. The powerful controlled the helpless, always to the detriment of the latter.

    Considering the direction most literature in the field of colonial studies has gone in the last decade or two, this couldn’t be more off the mark. Indigenous peoples almost always contested European power, often in ways Europeans never even recognized, and many members of colonized peoples found ways to benefit from colonial rule, whether at the individual level or more broadly.

    Remember, if historians love to do anything, it’s complicating narratives.

  3. But it doesn’t really matter how much colonized peoples benefited from colonial rule — that still doesn’t make it just. Even if we accept the assertion that, in the long term, Indian society as a whole benefited from colonial rule, it still doesn’t change the fact that Indian individuals suffered and died as a result of colonial rule.

The third point is key. So often the very same conservatives and libertarians who would never dream of countenancing the sacrifice of individual liberties for the sake of social advancement turn around and justify colonialism on these very grounds. “Yes,” they seem to say, “some Indians saw their liberties trampled, their lives destroyed, but so many more benefited.” Yet the mention of single-payer health care or tighter gun control in the United States elicits cries of “Tyranny!” (Yes, I realize Fulford is Canadian. The point still stands.)

And that really is just the tip of the iceberg. Don’t get me started on “the many forms of creativity that Britain also distributed around the world.