Monday, July 9, 2012

What Happens When You Don't Learn from History

Everyone gets nostalgic now and again. Whether it's a comfortable place you can't return to, a fuzzy old sweater that disappeared in a move, or just ordinary pining for the supposed simplicity of years gone by, it's deeply human to look back at the past and be convinced that things were so much better back then. This kind of ordinary, idle nostalgia is common but harmless these days--hell, when it comes to the economy, it's probably more significant than you would think.

It's not all like that, though. It's one thing to be nostalgic for your favorite toys or Saturday morning cartoons from when you were a kid; it's something else entirely to be nostalgic for something that is recognized as more and more loathsome with the passage of history. Things like the European colonial empires! Sure, I could possibly forgive Europeans of the 1960s or so feeling that sense of loss and regret, that they'd been on top of it all and where was the justice? A lot of things have changed in fifty years, many of them for the better.

Conrad Black doesn't think so. After all, the last fifty years saw him spend some time in prison. Now that he's out, he's making up for lost time... and who better to pen a wistful regret for how much better than its post-colonial replacements the British Empire was than an ex-colonial British criminal? When I came across his latest opus, "Post-Colonial Killing Fields" in the National Review, my jaw hung open; I couldn't believe I was actually reading something that had been written in 2012. The tone of the article belongs more to 1912.

"No one could seriously dispute," says good ol' Conrad, "that almost all of sub-Saharan Africa, all of North Africa except Morocco, all of the Middle East except Israel and Jordan and most of the oil-rich states, and the entire former British Indian Empire were better governed by Europeans."

I have no words.

Yeah, because when I think of the British Empire, the first thing I think of is "freedom." Because doesn't everyone associate colonial oppression with freedom?

Conrad's thesis is effectively this--that it doesn't matter how good or bad the Europeans were, because the things that happened after their former colonies gained independence were a lot worse, and so in retrospect the things the Europeans did seem not all that bad. Now, I was brought up with the notion that two wrongs don't make a right, but that's not all that this is. This is willful ignorance. Sure, he can admit all he wants that Belgium was "frequently inexcusably heavy-handed (!!!) in the Congo" - that does not absolve Belgium from responsibility for what its colony became. Witness, for example, the time of the Congo Free State, an absolute monarchy under the thumb of King Leopold II where the logical response to villages not meeting their quota of rubber gathering was execution, where communities were levelled to make room for plantations, and where decades of forced labor killed millions.

That kind of experience can seriously fuck up a country. Is it any surprise that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is in the state it's in today, when it has that in its history?

Conrad similarly glosses over India's experience of being dominated by the United Kingdom, emphasizing the legal and linguistic legacy it left behind in India, but glossing over the negatives--to hear Conrad tell it, the end of British colonial domination in India came "with scarcely any violence, apart from the regrettable episode at Amritsar in 1919, and the sectarian relocations when they left." In other words, the intentional massacre of as many as a thousand people is "regrettable," and the displacement of tens of millions of people and the Indo-Pakistani War of 1947 can be summed up as "relocations." Incidentally, Conrad's overview completely ignores other "regrettable episodes" such as the Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre, where British troops murdered hundreds of non-violent protestors in Peshawar, and conveniently ignores the fact that there were already significant independent states in India before they were conquered by Europeans.

As for the French, well, even though they may have been "less benign than the British" they "were splendid city planners in Saigon, Dakar, Casablanca, Beirut..." Yeah, because we all know that if you build nice cities, it totally forgives rapaciousness and conquest and exploitation. He even takes it as far as colonial America--and sure, when you compare notes the Thirteen Colonies weren't treated all that badly, most likely because they were inhabited by white people, but that still doesn't excuse the lack of representation that was one of the big rallying points in the runup to the American Revolution.

Let me sum this up real quickly, here: modern states that were European colonies were not better off when they were European colonies, and there's a simple reason for it that goes beyond the lack of representation, the oppression, and general exploitation. European colonies were run for the benefit of the colonial master, not the colonies themselves - if a certain thing improved the lot of a colony, it would be because the ruling colonial power believed it to be in its own best interest. Choice is sacred, self-determination is vital, and the colonies of Europe had neither.


  1. Why do you care about the writings of a convicted felon of non-Canadian citizenship?

  2. Because, for some damn reason that I have difficulty understanding, there are quite a few powerful people who pay attention to what this particular convicted felon has to say.

    Also, I have my history degree hanging on the wall right above my desk; I figure that calling people out for their flagrant misrepresentations of history counts as "using it."

  3. Whoa, someone rated this "try harder" - the lowest rate that can be given! Was that you, Conrad?