It is now obvious .. that the intellectual "narcissism which orders the past to please the present" can also find "violent external expression in war and in an indifference towards the destruction, suffering and death of others".
That's Pankaj Mishra, quoting Richard Drayton, in a new article in the Guardian, about the vogue for imperialist nostalgia that still permeates the increasingly rickety elites of the West, drawing these bankrupt enterprises deeper and deeper into pointless and murderous adventures. A few more excerpts:
The British empire, George Orwell wrote, was "despotism with theft as its final object". So what has made imperialism an intellectual fashion in our own time, reopening hoary disputes about whether it was good or bad? After five years as a colonial policeman in Burma, where he found himself shooting an elephant to affirm the white man's right to rule, Orwell was convinced that the imperial relationship was that of "slave and master". Was the master good or bad? "Let us simply say," Orwell wrote, "that this control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested." And "if Burma derives some incidental benefit from the English, she must pay dearly for it."
Orwell's hard-won insights were commonplace truisms for millions of Asians and Africans struggling to end western control of their lands. Their descendants can only be bewildered by the righteous nostalgia for imperialism that has recently seized many prominent Anglo-American politicians and opinion-makers, who continue to see Asia through the narrow perspective of western interests, leaving unexamined and unimagined the collective experiences of Asian peoples.
Certainly, as Joseph Conrad wrote in 1902, "the conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much." Two years after Conrad published Heart of Darkness, Roger Casement, then a British diplomat, revealed in a report that half of the population of Belgian-ruled Congo – nearly 10 million people – had perished under a brutal regime where beheadings, rape and genital mutilation of African labourers had become the norm. Such overt violence and terror is only a small part of the story of European domination of Asia and Africa, which includes the slow-motion slaughter of tens of million in famines caused by unfettered experiments in free trade – and plain callousness (Indians, after all, would go on breeding "like rabbits", Winston Churchill argued when asked to send relief during the Bengal famine of 1943-44).
... Nevertheless, in one of the weirdest episodes of recent history, a Kipling-esque rhetoric about bringing free trade and humane governance to "lesser breeds outside the law" has resonated again in the Anglo-American public sphere. Even before 9/11, Tony Blair was ready to tend, with military means if necessary, to, as he put it, "the starving, the wretched, the dispossessed, the ignorant" around the world. …Sensing a sharper rightward shift after 9/11, many pith-helmet-and-jodhpurs fetishists boisterously outed themselves, exhorting politicians to recreate a new western imperium through old-style military conquest and occupation of native lands.
Sensing a sharper rightward shift after 9/11, many pith-helmet-and-jodhpurs fetishists boisterously outed themselves, exhorting politicians to recreate a new western imperium through old-style military conquest and occupation of native lands. … Clearly, it would help if no Asian or African voices interrupt this intellectual and moral onanism. Astonishing as it may seem, there is next to nothing in the new revisionist histories of empire, or even the insidious accounts of India and China catching up with the west, about how writers, thinkers and activists in one Asian country after another attested to the ravages of western imperialism in Asia: the immiseration of peasants and artisans, the collapse of living standards and the devastation of local cultures.
In 1903, Liang Qichao, China's foremost modern intellectual and a major early influence on Mao Zedong, was visiting America when Washington manipulated its way into control of Panama and its crucial canal. It reminded Liang of how the British had compromised Egypt's independence over the Suez canal. Liang feared that original meaning of the Monroe doctrine – "the Americas belong to the people of the Americas" – was being transformed into "the Americas belong to the people of the United States". "And who knows," Liang added in a book he wrote about his travels, "if this will not continue to change, day after day from now on, into 'the world belongs to the United States'".
This is, of course, the precisely the view now taken by the entirety of America's bipartisan political elite, its media elite, and vast swathes of its ordinary citizens, who have been marinated in this belief for generations. They do believe -- simply, deeply, sincerely -- that the "world belongs to the United States" and that the United States has the right to order the world as it pleases. No one who looked clearly and dispassionately at American foreign policy in the post-war years could say otherwise.
And what lesson did our noble Western civilizers teach to their ignorant, differently-colored charges? Mishra notes:
"In the world," Liang concluded bleakly, "there is only power – there is no other force … Hence, if we wish to attain liberty, there is no other road: we can only seek first to be strong."
A lesson that Liang's pupil, Mao, took to heart -- and applied with horrific force. This process was replicated throughout the post-colonial world. Here one recalls the bleak saying of the Iraqis after the United States launched its war of aggression there in 2003 and overthrew its former favorite, Saddam Hussein: "The pupil has gone; now the master has come." Mishra notes these grim cycles:
In his book The Myth of Independence (1969), the Pakistani leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto warned his postcolonial compatriots that their "power to make decisions radically affecting the lives of our peoples" was being "curtailed by the cannons of neo-colonialism". Overthrown and murdered by a pro-American military despot, Bhutto was himself to exemplify what Ryszard Kapuscinski described as the tragic "drama" of many well-intentioned Asian and African leaders. Kapuscinski focused on the "terrible material resistance that each [leader] encounters on taking his first, second and third steps up the summit of power. Each one wants to do something good and begins to do it and then sees, after a month, after a year, after three years, that it just isn't happening, that it is slipping away, that it is bogged down in the sand. Everything is in the way: the centuries of backwardness, the primitive economy, the illiteracy, the religious fanaticism, the tribal blindness, the chronic hunger, the colonial past with its practice of debasing and dulling the conquered, the blackmail by the imperialists, the greed of the corrupt, the unemployment, the red ink. Progress comes with great difficulty along such a road. The politician begins to push too hard. He looks for a way out through dictatorship. The dictatorship then fathers an opposition. The opposition organises a coup. And the cycle begins anew."
Mishra concludes with the Drayton quote above, and this observation:
Moreover, a narcissistic history – one obsessed with western ideals, achievements, failures and challenges – can only retard a useful understanding of the world today. For most people in Europe and America, the history of the present is still largely defined by victories in the second world war and the long standoff with Soviet communism, even though the central event of the modern era, for a majority of the world's population, is the intellectual and political awakening of Asia and its emergence, still incomplete, from the ruins of both Asian and European empires. The much-heralded shift of power from the west to the east may or may not happen. But only neo-imperialist dead-enders will deny that we have edged closer to the cosmopolitan future the first generation of modern Asian thinkers, writers and leaders dreamed of – in which people from different parts of the world meet as equals rather than as masters and slaves, and no one needs to shoot elephants to confirm their supremacy.
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- Published: 27 July 2012