Pandaemonium

THE SHIFTING LINES OF THE PRESENT AND THE PAST

Don't mention the war

This essay, on the changing character of anti-German chauvinism and the contested lines of Britain’s relationship to its past, was my Observer column this week. It was published on 6 October 2019, under the headline ‘We can mention the war. Should we now talk about Britain’s darker history?’


‘I wonder if Kenan Malik is clear that the “Don’t mention the war” episode of Fawlty Towers is intended to make fun of the British obsession with the Second World War that he criticises?’ So wrote an irate John Cleese to the Independent in 1992 in response to an early op-ed of mine on British perceptions of racism in Germany. Yes, I was clear that Cleese had been satirising the British obsession – and brilliantly – but my mention of that Fawlty Towers episode was no doubt clumsy enough to draw Cleese’s ire.

I thought about that letter, and that episode of Fawlty Towers, after the infamous Leave.EU tweet last week. ‘We didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by Krauts,’ it snorted, in response to Angela Merkel’s supposed demand, in a telephone conversation with Boris Johnson, that Northern Ireland must ‘forever’ stay within the EU customs union.

Thirty years ago, that tweet (had Twitter existed then) would have seemed unexceptional. Baiting ‘Krauts’ was then a tabloid sport. Last week, it drew a torrent of criticism and not just from the usual suspects. Even the Brexit party’s Richard Tice was offended. Leave.EU eventually deleted the tweet and apologised (well, sort of).

There is more than a whiff of hypocrisy about some of this criticism. Tice, after all, was co-founder with Arron Banks of Leave.EU and had no problem with the infamous ‘breaking point’ poster unveiled by Brexit party leader Nigel Farage. Nevertheless, the kerfuffle over the tweet shows how British attitudes have changed.

Nazism remains for most people the touchstone of evil, even if, in an age in which every brutal dictator is a ‘new Hitler’ and every politician with reactionary views a ‘fascist’, the term has become so relativised as to be almost meaningless. The Second World War, however, no longer occupies the place it once did in British consciousness.

When Basil Fawlty was failing not to mention the war, that war provided for Britain a historical moment of triumph with which to buttress a less-than-triumphant present. Taunting Germany about defeat, whether on the battlefield or the football pitch, became as much a part of being British as complaining about a wet summer.

Britain’s need to draw on the past to buttress the present is probably more urgent than it was 30 years ago. But, as Leave.EU discovered, anti-German chauvinism no longer provides the resources necessary for the task.

The irony is that for many people, Germany stands condemned today not for its historic Nazism but for its contemporary liberalism. Angela Merkel’s decision in 2015 to open the borders to migrants and refugees, and its role in helping the growth of the far right, reveals for many the dangers of an overweening liberalism, that, in their eyes, has unleashed darker forces – witness the attack last week, during Yom Kippur, on a synagogue in the German city of Halle by a far-right gunman. This view of the supposed liberalism of Germany and the EU over immigration is, as I have argued, disturbingly mistaken, as are the claims about the reasons for the rise of the far right. The shift in British perceptions of Germany is nevertheless expressive of the wider recasting of political attachments and faultlines.

Brexit has thrown into turmoil not simply traditional political alignments but also Britain’s understanding of itself and of its place in the world. From debates about ‘global Britain’ to worries about the union, the question of what Britain stands for seems less certain. The past has become a battlefield in the struggle to define the present. The bicentenary of the Peterloo massacre in August was, for instance, notable for attempts by both Brexiters and Remainers to claim its legacy as their own, to draw from the 19th-century struggle for democracy lessons for the meaning of democracy today.

The shifting perceptions of Germany also speak to this contestation over the past. The Second World War has helped anchor Britain’s sense of itself as a nation, not just as the last moment when it could act as a world power but also because the Holocaust provided an unalloyed moral symbol of evil.

In her book Learning From the Germans, the philosopher Susan Neiman observes that the enormity of the Holocaust has forced Germany to address the darkest aspects of its past. But it has also allowed Britain and America not to do so, to avoid thinking too deeply about the history of slavery or of empire, to minimise their horrors in comparison with the Holocaust.

The turmoil over Brexit is throwing many of the old certainties into question. The question is – will we use that uncertainty to have a grown-up debate about history and identity?

27 comments

  1. damon

    “The backlash against Leave.EU’s revolting tweet reveals our growing maturity”

    That was the sub headline in the newspaper edition of this article.
    I’m not sure that’s right, even though I agree that the “K word” is pretty insulting.
    Is it any worse than the other national food based pejoratives?
    Is it worse than “Rosbif” and “Spaghetti”? (I did hear that last one at school).
    It’s worse maybe, because there’s a bit of substance to the sneering dislike.
    Like our history of going to war twice in the last century.
    Were people justified in being annoyed at Germany for trying to separate one part of the U.K. off from the rest in this Brexit situation?
    You could (if you were so inclined to) just see the tweet as a bit of trolling.

    But just like with the “Big Brother racism controversy” when Jade Goody called Shilpa Shetty a “Popadom” – I get really under-impressed when these stories get great media coverage and all the usual people you’d expect start telling us of their outrage. I presume Labour MP Yvette Cooper went on TV to say how “disgusting” the Leave.EU tweet was.
    I don’t know if she did, but she’s the kind of person who would have.
    I don’t see it as a sign of our maturity. Quite the opposite actually.

    Then there’s the infamous “breaking point poster”. This is now seen as something that has been put on trial and found guilty of being grossly racist. That dreadfully conceited LBC radio host, James O’Brien, references it all the time. Twice on Friday I think.
    As if there was no room for debate or discussion about it. It’s compared to similar looking Nazi Germany propaganda. No discussion, no alternative point of view – even a consideration of what Nigel Farage himself said about it. It was a real (undoctored) photograph from the summer of 2015.

    In the newspaper edition, the link about the Breaking Point poster went to a different Guardian article and started like this:

    “An anti-migrant poster unveiled by Nigel Farage has been reported to the police with a complaint that it incites racial hatred and breaches UK race laws. On Thursday night Dave Prentis, of the Unison union, said he had written to the Metropolitan police about the poster, which shows a queue of mostly non-white migrants and refugees with the slogan “Breaking point: the EU has failed us all.”

    Prentis described the Ukip poster as a “blatant attempt to incite racial hatred”. He said: “This is scaremongering in its most extreme and vile form. Leave campaigners have descended into the gutter with their latest attempt to frighten working people into voting to leave the EU.

    “To pretend that migration to the UK is only about people who are not white is to peddle the racism that has no place in a modern, caring society. That’s why Unison has complained about this blatant attempt to incite racial hatred and breach UK race laws.”
    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/jun/16/nigel-farage-defends-ukip-breaking-point-poster-queue-of-migrants

    Personally, I’m pretty fed up with this “outrage shorthand”. People like the radio show host and all those on the left who keep insisting that you can ONLY look at the poster as a bit of racist propaganda, are being overly ideological in my opinion. The photo was of a real crisis on the EU’s border. One that they were not handling at all well.
    And the thinking of some people in Angela Merkel’s government was that these migrants and refugees on the borders, needed to be taken into the EU, and then “shared out” amongst the 28 EU members.

    Just last month, the Estonian Minister of the Interior – Mart Helme – refused to join an EU interior ministers meeting to discuss migration policy. He was quoted like this:
    “Our symbolic absence is meant to demonstrate that we are not about to discuss this matter. We will not be pulled into debates. Estonia will not accept immigrants based on a central distribution mechanism.”

    You don’t have to agree with him or Farage to also agree that it’s legitimate to discuss such things, and that actually, the Breaking Point poster was “Fair Comment”.
    It’s only because of our very immature reaction to all of these subjects, that means the poster can only be viewed as “disgustingly racist”.

    • ‘You don’t have to agree with him or Farage to also agree that it’s legitimate to discuss such things, and that actually, the Breaking Point poster was “Fair Comment”.’

      Funny how the Breaking Point poster is ‘fair comment’, but criticising it, or viewing it as racist is not. And funny how it’s ‘legitimate to discuss such things’, but not to criticise the poster or to see it as racist. Does discussing an issue mean only accepting your view any issue? And is anyone who disagrees with you ‘immature’ or ‘overly ideological’?

      • damon

        When a person brings up the breaking point poster – particularly as a Guardian opinion columnist, you have to understand you are going to be viewed alongside all the other Guardian opinion columnists and the likes of the LBC radio presenter, who have turned Farage’s poster into a trope.
        Those people would like to turn that poster into a British cultural “touchstone” of an example of exceptional bigotry and hatred. Similar to the way the words “Enoch Powell” have done for decades now.

        So that’s the reason why I criticise anybody for raising the poster that way. But I certainly think it’s a subject that should be open for discussion. In a wider discussion I would certainly agree that you could criticise it.
        It’s just that the way it works now with the people who keep raising it, is that there isn’t meant to be any further discussion about it – only to agree that it was highly racist to bring that summer’s EU refugee crisis into the area of politics like that.
        The outrage was “how dare you raise such a difficult and tragic set of events that were happening right there on the ground and being shown on our TV screens”.
        And how dare he do it with an actual photograph.
        One that brought an unwelcome political view into the mainstream.

        So yes, everyone should have their say on it, but it was ALL fair comment. Farage’s too.
        What’s not fair comment though is when people try to close wider discussion down and insist that it has to be looked at only one way. That’s what most of the left are doing, so if you join in and sound like them, then you’re going to look like part of them too.

        As for the word “racist” – it’s been brought in to disrepute through overuse and misuse.
        Racist would be I presume, a country like Estonia wanting to pretty much keep the ethnic demography it has right now. Or if it was to diversify a bit, to do so slowly.
        Anyone who thought that would have to be called a racist.
        But it’s also a pretty reasonable view to have – even if you don’t agree with it.
        I was in Tallinn last week and I saw the beginnings of diversity starting, when I noticed the young men working as “Uber Eats” bicycle food delivery drivers working out of McDonald’s.
        They seemed to be Indian and other possibly west Asian people. Kurdish, maybe refugees, maybe students – I have no idea. But apart from tourists, that was about as diverse as the city got.
        If thirty percent of Tallinn was BAME, it would be a different city.
        Or it might be. Over time it certainly would be.

        I call people “overly ideological” when they support certain positions, but do so regardless of any arguments or facts that could counter their view. Ignoring awkward realities is usually the way most people go. And one way that works in the area of discussing racism and multicultural western societies like England, is to downplay issues such as disproportionate crime and conviction rates in a diverse society. A scroll through the Metropolitan Police’s website of suspects and convicted criminals shows just how horribly violent and criminal a society we’ve become. And I don’t see this kind of street and criminal culture in the streets of any of the former Warsaw Pact countries. Football hooligans and street drunks, yes – and some neo-Nazis too of course. But not the kind of daily antisocial criminality that we have in England and France.

        • ’When a person brings up the breaking point poster – particularly as a Guardian opinion columnist, you have to understand you are going to be viewed alongside all the other Guardian opinion columnists and the likes of the LBC radio presenter, who have turned Farage’s poster into a trope.’

          ‘When a person defends the Breaking Point poster you have to understand you are going to be viewed against all the racists and Nazis who have turned Farage’s poster into a trope’. If I were to argue that, you’d be the first to object (and rightly). It’s an idiotic form of argument. But it’s one that you use again and again. You criticise X by ignoring what X actually says but criticising Y, as if that is a valid criticism of X. It shows only the weakness of your argument that you can’t actually tackle X.

          ‘The outrage was “how dare you raise such a difficult and tragic set of events that were happening right there on the ground and being shown on our TV screens”.
          And how dare he do it with an actual photograph.’

          The poster was a centrepiece of the UKIP/Leave.eu campaign during the referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU. The message Farage was promoting in the poster was ‘All these brown-skinned people will be flooding into Britain if Britain does not leave the EU.’ Except that even in its own terms it’s untrue. The UK is not part of the EU’s Common Asylum System, and so only EU nationals have freedom to move into the UK. So the real question is ‘how dare you raise a difficult and tragic set of events to whip up unsubstantiated fears?’

          ‘Racist would be I presume, a country like Estonia wanting to pretty much keep the ethnic demography it has right now. Or if it was to diversify a bit, to do so slowly.
          Anyone who thought that would have to be called a racist.
          But it’s also a pretty reasonable view to have – even if you don’t agree with it.’

          ‘I don’t want to have a black family moving into my street because I want to keep the ethnic make-up it has now.’

          ‘I don’t want to have a black child in my school because I want to keep the ethnic make-up it has now.’

          ‘I don’t want Jews to live in my area because I want to keep the ethnic make-up it has now. Jews should live in their own area.’

          ‘I think people of different races and ethnicities should live in their own areas because each should be able to maintain a particular ethnic make-up. We’ll call this policy apartheid.’

          Presumably all these views are ‘reasonable’, too?

          ‘A scroll through the Metropolitan Police’s website of suspects and convicted criminals shows just how horribly violent and criminal a society we’ve become. And I don’t see this kind of street and criminal culture in the streets of any of the former Warsaw Pact countries. Football hooligans and street drunks, yes – and some neo-Nazis too of course.’

          Perhaps you should ask what else defines many of the ‘former Warsaw pact countries’. They are, of course quite diverse nations – the political and social situation in Estonia, for instance, is very very different from Belarus or Hungary. But many are heavily policed societies, with some of them growing towards being police states. In countries such as Hungary, Poland and Belarus, the media is highly controlled by the authorities and opposition views curtailed and dissent often crushed. Attitudes towards women and gays are often deeply conservative. All these, and many others, play a part in the kinds of societies that they are. For you, though, ‘diversity’ is the only issue, and the primary cause, it would seem, of every social problem. The irony is that you accuse the ‘left’ of being obsessed by diversity but you are obsessed even more, though you seem blind to that obsession.

          One of the population groups that make these societies diverse (and one that you ignore) are Jews. Many of the claims you make about non-white migrants – that they are criminals, beggars, a burden on society – were once made about Jews. Many felt – many still feel – that they needed to protect their ‘ethnic demography’ against Jews. Presumably that was a ‘reasonable’ view, too? Today, of course, Jewish communities are far smaller in Eastern Europe than they used to be – much of the old population has been driven out, fled or killed. Nevertheless, anti-Semitism is a strong force in society – again, something else you fail to mention as an important social feature. You might be sanguine about ‘some neo-Nazis’; Jews, Roma, non-migrants and other minorities that are targets, and not just of neo-Nazis but often of government policy and propaganda, are less so.

        • damon

          “When a person defends the Breaking Point poster you have to understand you are going to be viewed against all the racists and Nazis who have turned Farage’s poster into a trope”.

          OK, that sounds pretty good as a comeback, but who is it that made this poster into a really big deal? You could just see it as a stupid non-event and cheap publicity stunt.
          The only reason it’s remembered is because the left made such a big deal about it.
          Does anyone even remember the Operation Black Vote poster of the aggressive skinhead pointing his finger at the demure little Indian woman?
          It’s completely forgotten about because no one felt it was that important. Just another attention seeking attempt at getting publicity.

          As for your next lines about black people moving into your street or your child’s school, and Jews living in your area, I would say that these issues can not be dealt with in such a glib way.
          I don’t mean you’re being glib, but this whole notion of changing demographics is a much more complex issue than presenting the situations like that allows.
          You can start off by stating how mean and horrible it is to have those views ……. and you can then look at it from the “other end” and see Detroit and how all the whites (and Jewish community) just bailed out as neighbourhoods went from being nearly all white to nearly all black. I know there is a history and particular stories about what happened there, but similar things happen everywhere. In England too. Just check out “BBC Blackburn documentary” on YouTube to see a clear example of our British reality. Munira Mira comes from the Rochdale Pakistani community and she’s written about people “Living Apart Together”. It’s not good enough just to denounce people for being racist.

          As for the message Farage was promoting – you say that’s what he’s saying. Why the emphasis on brown skin? That will only make any discussion too shrill – and it’s what nearly every one of your fellow Guardian columnists does. It’s putting the worst spin possible on everything.
          The refugees were who they were and that was a photograph.

          I don’t think I’ve been to a non western country where kith and kin and tribe were not major factors in people’s everyday lives. In Africa and Asia, a white person will get called all kinds of shorthand derogatory names. It’s just how people are. It’s normal human behaviour. So when I’ve been called a “Mzungu” or a Gringo I don’t really let it bother me. The people don’t really know any better. Why are there such high standards demanded in the white western countries?
          I look at that as a form of racism myself. We don’t bother that Ethiopians call every foreigner they see “Farangi” because it’s like we don’t expect any better of them.
          But do of white people living in Blackburn and Tower Hamlets.

          “The UK is not part of the EU’s Common Asylum System”.
          Fair enough. But it was still just a photograph. And just because we’re not now, doesn’t mean that things wouldn’t change. Would a Corbyn led government still want to stay out?
          And if people really wanted to come to Britain, they probably will anyway. One way or another.
          Or like a large number of Somalians did, they waited till they had their Swedish and Dutch citizenship and then just moved to the U.K.
          But I can see how it could be seen as a pretty low down attempt to get publicity.
          On a par with the OBV one – so why give it all that publicity and infamy?

          As for the former Warsaw Pact countries, I’m not saying they are ideal places or anything like that, but that they have a different dynamic at street level. I just got to a new one yesterday, (to Riga Latvia, so I’m keen to get out and explore). Yesterday evening there was lots of people in the city centre waiting on buses to take them home to the suburbs and I couldn’t help making a mental comparison with those crowds of people and similar bus stops in say Camberwell in South London of an evening. Here the people were almost 100% white and in Camberwell it’s like “peak diversity”. The two places have such a different “vibe” or feeling about them.
          Camberwell definitely has this gritty urban edge where you have to have your wits about you.
          You can’t really stand, (like I often do when I’m out travelling), looking down at the map on your i-Pad. Doing that at a Camberwell bus stop and not paying attention to who was around you could easily lead to it being snatched out of your hands.
          In all the Eastern European countries I’ve been to, that doesn’t seem to be a problem to the same degree. Although there are a fair few drunk looking street people about too.
          But it just doesn’t have the same level of lawlessness that London has descended into.
          In London, murders and stabbings will take place in the middle of the Westgate shopping malls.
          One just happened in Shepherds Bush last week.

          I’ll think about the second half of your reply while I’m out in the city.
          It would be interesting to survey the people in places like Riga and ask them how they’d like to have London’s level of diversity. I’ve asked Eastern European guys I’ve been working with in London about this several times, and the answer is usually a big negative.

        • damon

          On your latter comments – I know a little about the countries I travel in, even if it’s only from a guide book and some local English language news websites I look up. Or old Guardian stories from their archives. I know they have their divides here between Estonian and Russian etc.
          But I don’t think I’m any more “obsessed” about diversity than a lot of people. You write about it all the time. As do your Guardian colleagues – almost daily.
          I take an interest the way someone like David Goodhart does.
          And I see that he and Eric Kaufmann are going to be at the Battle of Ideas in a couple of weeks.
          https://www.battleofideas.org.uk/session/its-the-demography-stupid-does-population-drive-politics/

          That looks interesting, and if I was there, I’d think of going. However, I went to one before with David Goodhart and (the ridiculous) Philippe Legrain and it was rather unsatisfying in the end.
          It’s just not the right kind of format to get really deep into those issues.
          Time constraints and the adversarial nature of it.

          Quote:
          “I think people of different races and ethnicities should live in their own areas because each should be able to maintain a particular ethnic make-up. We’ll call this policy apartheid.”

          Setting it out like that has a tendency towards obfuscation.
          It’s not about “different people” it’s about British people and people who live overseas at present.
          About people living in Karachi and Lagos currently, but could potentially be living in England in the near future. Your hypothesis would have everyone’s rights to live in any neighbourhood and send their children to the local school as being equal. That’s people in Asia and Africa right now and the people already living in those English neighbourhoods.
          They all have the same rights – as anything less is Apartheid.
          Fair enough, that’s the open doors philosophy. Everyone in the world should have the right to settle anywhere they like.
          But I’m pretty sure, if this position was cross examined strongly enough, then it’s flaws would become obvious.

          Just on Jews in Eastern Europe. Everywhere I go I’m always conscious of the dreadful events of the Nazi occupation. Even in the now touristy Tallinn old town there are reminders of the lost and murdered Jewish community. I’m drawn to visiting sites of their previous existence.

          However, I think that equating that kind of old bigotry and inhuman behaviour with trying to discuss our modern emerging diversity is a bit unfair – but I understand that it’s the only way “the old left” will discuss it. To me, that way of argument is so defensive – it’s like trench warfare.
          It’s the only way the Guardian writers know how to go about it. It so lacks imagination ….. and I’d even say, integrity. Does the fact that most of them are BAME have anything to do with it?
          I think it probably does, as you can see how this kind of politics is rolling out across the western world. You end up with Dawn Butler type people at the forefront of discussion.
          And that’s a problem I think, because they are very poor at what they say.

          By the way, on anti-Semitism in general, it can all get quite complicated.
          I’m not convinced about what’s said about it in the Labour Party for example.
          I mentioned before the case of Marc Wadsworth – which I think wasn’t fair.
          And elsewhere, there has been an upturn of the kind of anti-Semitism by those on the far right, culminating in what happened in Germany last week – and in Pennsylvania a few months ago.
          But those people are pretty fringe lunatics and have always been around in some form or another. You mention the Roma – and again you are going for the most obvious “prejudice and hatred” angle. While that is a factor, so is the cultural one. Integrating the Roma is really really hard. And some of your colleagues on the Guardian will even object to the idea of integration.

          I think you should go up to Page Hall in Sheffield for a few days and spend time in the streets that the Slovakian Roma people have made home there and write an Observer piece on that.
          A nuanced and objective piece on how difficult it’s going to be to “normalise” their situation.
          None of your Guardian colleagues would write such an article as they always go for the low hanging stuff.

        • Steve Gwynne

          You do realize that your first quote is about the Refugee Convention, not about EU regulation? EU asylum policy has, since 1993, been governed by the Dublin Regulation that insists that the country in which the asylum seeker first applies for asylum is responsible for accepting or rejecting the claim, and the process may not be restarted in another EU nation.

        • Damon

          ’As for your next lines about black people moving into your street or your child’s school, and Jews living in your area, I would say that these issues can not be dealt with in such a glib way. I don’t mean you’re being glib, but this whole notion of changing demographics is a much more complex issue than presenting the situations like that allows.’

          Let me make it less glib and less complex.

          Anyone who says ‘I don’t want to have a black family moving into my street because they are black’ is a racist. Anyone who says ‘I don’t want to have a black child in my school because I want to keep the ethnic make-up it has now’ is a racist. Anyone who says ‘I don’t want Jews to live in my area because Jews should live in their own area’ is a racist. Anyone who says ‘I think people of different races and ethnicities should live in their own areas because each should be able to maintain a particular ethnic make-up’ is a racist. And anyone who denies that is being idiotic, arguing in bad faith or a racist.

          Is that straightforward enough for you?

          ’I think that equating that kind of old bigotry and inhuman behaviour with trying to discuss our modern emerging diversity is a bit unfair – but I understand that it’s the only way “the old left” will discuss it.’

          There’s nothing ‘unfair’ or ‘old left’ about it. You claimed that it was a ‘reasonable view’ for ‘a country like Estonia wanting to pretty much keep the ethnic demography it has right now’. All the examples I gave were all cases of ‘wanting to keep the ethnic demography it has right now’. If you accept that it’s reasonable for people not to want ethnic demography to change, then in your view it must be reasonable not to want a black family to move into your street or for Jews to move into your area. You think it’s ‘unfair’ because it shows up your argument for what it is.

          ’As for the message Farage was promoting – you say that’s what he’s saying. Why the emphasis on brown skin?’

          Perhaps you should ask Nigel Farage. He’s the one who promoted the poster.

  2. Do we do anything nowadays EXCEPT talk about Britain’s “darker history” ?

    The talk being very largely ant-British prejudice pretending to be Honesty.

    But not to worry – soon Britain will be Over, so the debate will no longer be relevant.

    Since how can Britain survive, when so many of its inhabitants (notably many of the well-educated) hate and despise it so bitterly ?

    Or are living in a fantasy-realm, in which they are Europeans or cosmopolites.

    • You might be interested in this article.

      As has been the case in other civilizations, insofar as the political terms of “left” and “right” may have been applicable to them (“progressive” and “conservative” are often more appropriate for ancient civilizations), the oikophobes dominate in left-wing areas, while non-oikophobes and, in some cases, xenophobes and anti-oikophobic reactionaries dominate in right-wing areas. The increased hostility between these two sides in the United States comes at the expected time, since the country has already slipped from its peak and is slowly descending on the other side. The historical development of oikophobia has had a debilitating effect on many aspects of our society, on its culture, politics, and military. It is a nation so fixated by internal squabbles that it is no longer capable of effectively projecting outward, unified force.

      https://quillette.com/2019/10/07/oikophobia-our-western-self-hatred/

    • True. Every time I open a newspaper, or watch TV, there is nothing but discussions of the Opium Wars, or the Bengal famine, or Britain’s 400 year history of transatlantic slavery, or Britain’s history of betrayal of the Kurds (a policy that Americans have since adopted), or British concentration camps in Malaya, or Britain’s support for the mass butchery of supposed communists in Indonesia by Suharto, or the history of British refusing entry to Jews fleeing persecution…

      • Previous pathways of human evolution are historical lessons from which we can learn.

        Without international commercial architecture in place, slavery and imperialism was the norm, not the exception, in all regions of the world. Slaughter and bringing communities of peoples under heel was an antiquated mechanism by which to protect economic supply lines.

        What alternative could have our human evolution at the time allowed.

        What alternative history are you suggesting as an alternative to the way the British behaved at that time.

        How could the industrial revolution happened in any other way.

        The kurds aren’t being abandoned but the triangle of American, Russian and British oil companies wants the oil and gas in the Kurdistan region to stabilise oil/gas prices in order to sustain economic development and profits.

        Syria has been allowed to occupy Kurdistan rather than Turkey because Erdoğan is abit of a chancer.

        Russia is now in charge of oil and gas in the middle East with the exception of Iran and Turkey.

        We need oil and gas because our massive economies require it. Reduce our demand and the less need to protect and accumulate oil and gas reserves in countries like Kurdistan.

        • ’What alternative could have our human evolution at the time allowed.
          What alternative history are you suggesting as an alternative to the way the British behaved at that time.
          How could the industrial revolution happened in any other way.’

          I see you’ve become an eco-Stalinist. This is nothing more than a repurposing of the old Stalinist idea of the ‘iron law of history’. It wasn’t acceptable when Stalinists used it to justify the unjustifiable. Nor is it when you do so.

  3. Lucas Picador

    “But it has also allowed Britain and America … to avoid thinking too deeply about the history of slavery or of empire, to minimise their horrors in comparison with the Holocaust.”

    An obvious conclusion once you look at the problem for a while, but one that few in the US or UK seem interested in discussing. The Germans have transformed themselves into an open-minded, cosmopolitan, genuinely compassionate people while the US and UK have embraced the most mean-spirited and xenophobic aspects of their national identity.

  4. The grown up approach towards national identity contextualises national history beyond the antonyms of chauvinism, that being internationalism and the acceptance of global trends.

    Slavery, Colonialism, Imperialism and Empire were and perhaps still are, within a more capitalist context, trends which emanate from the ancient periods with slavery and imperialism being seen as an important adjuncts to economic and military power and development.

    Ostensibly, without pre-industrial European Colonialism and Imperialism, European economic development would not have happened, since without commercial markets, commercial banking and commercial institutions, there was no humane conceptions and frameworks by which European imperial powers were able to trade with disparate warring African tribal societies without threat to supply lines and human life.

    The question is whether African tribalism historically benefited from the colonial economic development that enabled European Imperialism and British slavery routes to provide the required raw materials and labour to turn European societies from peasant based feudalism into industrial capitalist societies.

    The same it may be argued was the rational for instances of all historical slavery and imperialism, including the imperialistic incursions into Britain dating back to the Viking invasions. To what extent do we owe our economic and social development to foreign imperialist powers.

    Was there a conceivable alternative pathway for human evolution and development beyond historical instances of slavery, imperialism and colonialism that don’t rely on present conceptions of ourselves, conceptions that are in themselves historical accumulations of slavery, imperialism and colonialism.

    If not, are we to forever condemn global human history as evolutionary forces from which to disparage each other. Similarly, if historical global human trends are to be similarly dispised, should humanity have remained in the pre homosapian state of animalistic trends of hunter gatherer rather than utilised slavery, imperialism and colonialism for economic and social development.

    If no alternative pathway can be elucidated beyond European slavery, imperialism and colonialism, should Europeans have remained in agrarian feudalism and should Africa have remained as largely disparate tribal societies and as a result global human evolutionary trends forced to stand still until such a time that their ingrained chauvinism no longer blinded them to their country’s faults.

    The fact of the matter is that humanity is not faultless since it is through our faults that we learn. Does this mean that that there is a Hegelian endpoint by which which humanity becomes faultless and perfected with no more need to evolve. Probably not, because evolution is not solely a product of our idealism but is inextricably woven into our ecological environments by which we must ceaselessly adapt and learn.

    This means our identity will be shaped by what is ahead as much as what has gone before. In the present era this means our identities, including our British identity, will be inextricably shaped by the incoming climatic, environmental and ecological disruptions which, through our faults, we have brought upon ourselves by being in denial about our massive ecological debt.

  5. damon

    LBC radio presenter James O’Brien brought up “the infamous ‘breaking point’ poster” again today.
    So that’s twice on Friday …. and again on Tuesday.
    This time while discussing last night’s racist football incidents in Bulgaria.
    And he added something like: “Our vile racists are more likely to be wearing chalk stripe suits than clad in black fascist gear doing Nazi salutes.”
    It’s quite bizarre because Farage works on the same radio station.

    Quote:
    “The question is – will we use that uncertainty to have a grown-up debate about history and identity?”

    I’ll have to answer “No”.
    It goes from one extreme to the other. It’s either people wanting to sanitise our past – like the unqualified support that you get for former soldiers of Parachute Regiment, regarding the killing of civilians in Northern Ireland decades ago.
    And then you’ll have Guardian writers who want to take down Nelson’s Column.

    There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of middle ground.
    You do get some very clear and correct analysis about the horrible way that the Kurds have abandoned.
    But maybe that’s easier because it’s further removed from ourselves.

    • So, someone mentioned the Breaking Point poster three times in five days. How shocking! Personally, I’m more provoked by racism than by criticism of racism.

      • damon

        He wasn’t on at the weekend 🙂

        “I’m more provoked by racism than by criticism of racism.”
        That’s a very interesting perspective and one that a whole series of articles and debates could be centred on. As I’ve already said, the word has been hollowed out and robbed of its original power – as something of great significance.
        I don’t mean that racism has lost its significance and it’s reality, but the word (the noun) has lost its shock value and it’s gravitas. And Guardian opinion writers have been at the forefront of bringing that about.
        The Spiked-online magazine has “matured” in its approach to discussing the subject, but you don’t seem to have moved that much with them.

        If someone wants to bring up the Breaking Point poster, I’m going to have to challenge them on why they still refer to it today as being some low point in recent British political history.
        I know that all the Labour women MPs would start banging on with all the usual nonsense I’ve heard said of it – like it showing “a massive line of brown skinned people” and that “there were no white faces in the photograph” etc – as if that somehow “proved” racism.
        But just because enough shrill voices keep saying such things, doesn’t mean there’s genuine substance to their allegations. And just by the way, them all complaining of the hateful misogynist aggression they get as women MP’s is only a fraction of what Nigel Farage himself gets.
        And this carry on about the Breaking Point poster is part of that.
        It was legitimate politics. It was saying (I thought) “Look what a pig’s ear the EU is making of this refugee crisis.” And how they had brought that summer’s particular stampede across south eastern Europe upon themselves, by the messages that Germany gave out about the doors being open.
        And then wanting to have an EU central distribution system to share out the great numbers that would need to be resettled. Not just refugees from Syria, but anyone who presented themselves.
        It was not possible for that situation to continue. It had to stop and it was a mistake to ever try it.
        Because many of the countries either couldn’t cope with a big influx of new people, or wouldn’t want it.
        I don’t call that racism, I’d call it something else. There could be some racism mixed in there of course, but there were also genuine objections too.

        Farage’s “crime” was to briefly wrest control of the narrative out of the hands of those like the female Labour MP’s and all the left and liberal media and refugee support groups etc. Those people regard these issues as “their domain” and will greatly resent – and even freak out – if the ignorant “gammons” start having their say on the matter too.

        Lastly, being “more provoked by racism than by criticism of racism” leads to Black Lives Matter kind of politics. And everything that John McWhorter and Glenn Loury discuss during their podcasts.
        It also seems to say, that it doesn’t matter if you make false or exaggerated accusations.
        Like against the police for example. Because “actual racism” trumps any false allegation someone might make. False and exaggerated claims of racism do great harm in my opinion.
        They damage society and can make it more sectarian.

        • ’If someone wants to bring up the Breaking Point poster, I’m going to have to challenge them on why they still refer to it today as being some low point in recent British political history.’

          As I have already pointed out in an earlier thread what was wrong with the poster, I am not going to do so again.

          ’I know that all the Labour women MPs would start banging on with all the usual nonsense I’ve heard said of it’

          I wonder if Michael Gove and all the Tory critics of the poster were also ‘shrill Labour women’? Your portrayal of the critics seems to say less about the poster than about your prejudices.

          ’being “more provoked by racism than by criticism of racism” leads to Black Lives Matter kind of politics’

          Anyone who isn’t ‘more provoked by racism than by criticism of racism’ has a badly warped moral compass.

        • damon

          “more provoked by racism than by criticism of racism”
          There’s something wrong the way that sentence is constructed.
          It makes what you’re saying a bit ambiguous.

          What does it mean? There’s racism, and there’s criticism of “anti-racism”.
          That’s what I was talking about. Criticism of mainstream movements like Black Lives Matter, Al Sharpton and his British imitations.
          Even going back to The Mangrove Nine in 1970.
          I saw a them on a YouTube and it looks like Black Panther style politics had come to London.
          Darcus Howe was with them ….. but he later made a documentary about how some aspects of race relations weren’t great. He found the very religious part of the Birmingham Muslim community “a bit overbearing” in the way they publicly practiced their religion and culture.
          So maybe he became racist in his later years. Or was he just describing what he saw?

        • damon

          We disagree about the poster then. It’s fine to criticise it – but it’s become overly commented on.
          When the LBC presenter mentions it regularly, he brings it up as a trope.
          And given how ideological his side is on such issues, it’s hard not to hold that against his judgement. He thinks he had a famous interview several years ago where he slaughtered Farage, and also mentions that regularly – when all he did actually was do an on-air sustained verbal attack on “Nige” who sat there and took it.
          As for Tories also joining in with the criticism, they’re pretty chinless – and know there’s nothing to be gained by going against race orthodoxies.
          But it’s people like the Labour women who see themselves as gatekeepers on issues like refugees. The poster was certainly controversial.
          It could have been a catalyst for a useful conversation. But we can’t do that in most western countries anymore. The gatekeepers won’t allow it.

        • ‘It could have been a catalyst for a useful conversation. But we can’t do that in most western countries anymore. The gatekeepers won’t allow it.’

          Yes, I can see how you’re not being allowed to talk about the poster. And I can see how, as a critic of the poster, I’m stopping you talking about it. Must be so frustrating.

  6. NICHOLAS JONES

    Kenan Malik once again implies the ridiculous trope that only White people can be racist or even particularist. Funnily enough, survey after survey shows that the major ethnic group in Britain most hostile to mixed relationships is South Asians, not Whites (or Blacks).

    • If you are going to make wild stupid claims at least have the decency to back it up with some evidence. Have you a single quote where I say anything of this sort? Or are you one of these idiots who fling around any accusation because they’d like it to be true, rather than because it is?

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