News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

The Alleged Wickedness of Imperialism

While reading John Newsinger's Orwell's Politics I came across the following: [Orwell] resigned from the Indian police while on leave in England in the autumn of 1927 and never returned to Burma. Only three years later in December 1930 a serious rebellion broke out in the Tharrawaddy district, with thousands of peasants rallying to local healer, Saya Sen. The British responded with brutal repression. By the time the rebellion had been put down, some three dozen rebels had been killed or wounded, 8000 arrested and 128, including Saya Sen himself, executed. In one district the heads of rebel dead were displayed on poles as a deterrent.

Implied there, and elsewhere, is that things were dreadful under the boot of the British. By modern standards, perhaps they were. However, by the standards of the time, how do things measure up? And, was it the case generally that when colonialists left, the incoming régime was beneficent? And before the colonialists arrived, were things a sort of unspoiled Eden? Methinks not.

After the secular and despotic Shah of Iran was thrown out in 1979, he was replaced not with a model of liberal democracy but with something approaching the same thing, indeed something even more reactionary, the religious despotism of Ayattolah Khomeini which, 35 years later, has still not been gotten rid of. After the French and American colonialists in Vietnam were thrown out, they were replaced by the communist Vietnamese with their purges of capitalists and collaborators, their ethnic cleansing of the indigenous Chinese, their complete shutdown of the freedom to own property, freedoms of speech, and anything approaching a healthy justice system. In other words, after the colonists left, the situation did not improve, meaning become more libertarian, cosmopolitan, wealthier, and see an efflorescence of the indigenous arts and fine cuisine. Nope: the situation moved rapidly ass-backwards into the darker, chauvinistic, racist, Luddite, poverty-ridden, parochial, philistine past.

In fact, one sees the above phenomena repeated again and again. One of the common misconceptions spread by the ignoramuses infesting the media and academe is that the oppressed are ipso facto a better species morally than their oppressors. Here, I'll take a pass on discussing the tendency for the person proudly moral to be in fact parochial, chauvinistic, and uninformed, and for moralizers to be a peculiarly hypocritical form of vermin, when not outright social parasites.

Instead I'll go straight to the historical precedents and try to demonstrate the actions of a few oppressed workers, considered by many opinion leaders to be a sort of superior equal amongst equals, oppressed and sweating paragons of virtue (most particularly so when compared with the villain of the piece, the cruel money-driven rapacious business owner).

Socialist workers in South Africa during the nineteen-teens formed unions to improve the wages of laborers in the gold and diamond mines. It was a glorious era, a victory for the proletariat, a small step for the working man, a giant step for working mankind. It's hard luck then, but a rather familiar and inevitable discovery, that on closer examination the miners' motivation was far from what we, in this day and age, would consider admirable.

It helps to keep in mind that union is just another word for guild; that it's a non-fancy noun for plainspoken folks without fancy pants or airs about 'em. Guilds were popular, if fortunately not very effective, organizations of like-minded professionals during the middle ages who strove to keep the competition out. Having found, unfortunately, that gentle persuasion didn't dissuade the unemployed for wanting jobs that were open and available, the guild boys would press the flesh and pad the pockets of the city fathers to have city ordnances passed enabling them to bring into play the persuasiveness of blue-suited persuaders with billy sticks. Not much has changed, as unions today function pretty much the same, though they prefer to use lawsuits and persuaders in mufti with bludgeons. Not just to get more bucks from the jackbooted employer, but, again, to keep out normal everyday unemployed chumps in the community who are guilty of nothing more than looking for a job. Unions don't want nobody competing with their boys.

Well, perhaps it can all be put down to a little harmless excess of enthusiasm.
In South Africa, their boys was white boys. Their mine union was designed to keep out Chinese unskilled labor which, then as now, often works harder and for less money. The union swelled with glorious success after glorious success, successfully ejecting the Chinese and going on to successfully eject the indigenous Africans. Go boys go! Indeed, it was the same socialist labor movement that went on to establish South African apartheid, thus getting the jump on another group of even more famous socialists who stole the historical limelight with their platform of giving jobs to "our boys" and kicking out the chinks, the kikes, the niggers, the gypsies, the gimps, and so forth. Of course, I'm speaking of the German National Socialists, the Nazis, and their best boy, Hitler.

Yet another example of the downtrodden failing to make that move up when given the chance is the early United States. Under the latter stages of British rule, the colonists had freedom of speech and assembly, democratically elected governors, access to reasonably impartial courts of law (i.e. in England), and enjoyed low taxation while enjoying the protection of the British military. After the Revolution everyone knows that things just got even better. Except that, unluckily, they didn't. There was far less freedom of speech, with more Americans jailed between 1792 and 1800 on libel charges (including Thomas Paine who got hit with a jail term) than had been jailed for libel during the entire period from 1620 to 1791. Freedom of speech was curtailed completely during the War for Freedom. After the war, it came and went, more of the latter and got to such a low state that the Alien and Sedition Act of 1798 made it illegal to criticize the incumbent political party on the premise that this was sedition. Well, this almost gave the US it's first Civil War. And, Americans were taxed significantly more immediately after winning the war, despite having receiving God's providence and blessing, democracy, than they had been under the colonial régime.

It's also worth pointing out that once the British were removed, and thus no longer responsible for keeping down revolutions, it became the responsibility of the democratic elected government to do so. Thus the Whiskey rebellion and Hay's rebellion were put down by the democratic government. And of course, slavery did not end in 1831 in the United States, as would have been the case had America remained under the British iron heel. For that matter, it's also worth pointing out that Thomas Jefferson as President of the United States did not work to assist the initially successful Haitian slave rebellion of the early 19th century. Instead, to preserve the territorial integrity of the United States -- for there was a grave threat that the Southern states would secede if the Northern states chose to assist the Caribbean slave rebellion -- President Jefferson assisted French forces defeat the slave rebellion's armies and get the slaves back into slavery where some of the French, though certainly not all, felt they belonged.

My point in offering up Jefferson is not to besmirch his fine halo, but to hopefully demonstrate that politics places all of us, good-hearted or ill, in situations that are compromising. Ergo, imperial policy was developed, implemented and terminated by all sorts of people for all sorts of reasons: good, bad, and neither.

And if this is not enough for you, then perhaps it's worth looking into some of the nasty indigenous schemes that imperialist régimes ended. In Taiwan, the multicultural practice of headhunting by aboriginals was ended by the Japanese. In Korea, institutionalized slavery was ended by the same damn Japs. The toppling of the Ching dynasty in China, largely the result of the incursions of the foreign powers beginning with the Opium War and it's dastardly design of liberalizing trade and ending the China's Drug War (no less hopeless, cop-corrupting and demagogue-inspiring than our own), helped put an end to pervasive, institutionalized cannibalism in China. The list of these good/bad deeds goes on and on and on. The British ended everything from cannibalism to ritualized murder in their own colonies. The Spanish ended ritualized cannibalism in Central America and toppled the Inca régime which was a despotic régime in its own right.

And, although many of the methods employed by colonial régime's were cruel, it's erroneous to presume that cruelty was applied to the colonized territories and not to the home regions. Although I'm sure there was a time lag, with enlightenment values and institutions first appearing in the home countries, most likely because of their more advanced economies and more pervasive levels of education, I don't think the time lag was all that great.

I say this because in United States, for example, in the early nineteen teens, a prominent strike in Colorado was dealt with by the mine owners hiring the state militia to strafe strikers with machine guns. Not once, but repeatedly over a one month period. This, the Ludlow strike, only ended when a dozen women and children died accidentally resulting in a national bout of indignation at this decidedly moral wrong. Men were expendable in those days. Many would argue they still are. Race riots in Oklahoma after the first world war were subdued by rioting mobs of white folk and through bombing black neighborhoods by plane. As late as the 1930s, US forces were called out to keep Washington DC secure from demonstrations by World War I veterans asking for pay. The first year in modern history in which the US did not see a black lynched was 1953, I believe. There was lots of cruelty to go around, though there was not as much on tap nor was it as pervasive in the newly conquered territories such as the Indian territories and the Philippines. But again, the time lag. For things did indeed get better.

However, it's also good to keep in mind that indigenous régimes prior to colonization were typically far from peaceful and progressive. Why isn't this obvious fact taken for granted? Most people believe that the whole truth lies in what they read because they trust the media and schoolbooks. But the former, like almost any business, operates on the premise that the customer is always right. If you won't read it, then you won't buy it; ergo, the media tucks it's tail and don't write about it. So there's a huge blank where the information actually required for anyone to be informed would otherwise be. As to schoolbooks, they're more subject to political fashions and crazes than politicians. At least politicians get televized debates and can talk back to hecklers. Schoolbook manufacturers just cringe in their New York offices when the good yeomen of rural Texas and California PTA committees wrap themselves in the flag, wind up the choir, and quote the Good Book. The manufactories either end up making a career change or else making every effort to include nothing that will offend nobody. That's why their products are so bland and uninformative, year after tiresome year.

And, ahem, it seems awfully naïve in retrospect to presume that people immersed in the culture and practices of indigenous despotic régime's were enlightened, democratic, and civilized in a manner which we would recognize and agree with today. Our ancestors of the day were not civilized by modern standards, not by a long shot. It's a flight of fancy, of very wishful thinking, to presume that the citizens of régimes even more backward than those of our ancestors were somehow yet morally in accordance with the elastic libertarian standards of today's modern nations.

Last of all, it is well-worth remembering the many benefits brought by colonizers. And I suspect that it is little more than a studied sophomoric cynicism to look at the history of the period, to view the pros and cons of the events of the day, and yet still come away spouting about colonizers with heinous motives. All one has to do is look at the contemporary Iraq war to see the broad range of opinion regarding the invasion. Regardless of whether one agrees with it (ex: on humanitarian or oil access grounds) or disagrees with it (ex: on imperialism or oil access grounds) it is surely a conceit to presume that everyday people (i.e. not politicians or TV personalities) with positions contrary to one's own are ipso facto insincere. Many people go overseas to assist people (ex: my father as a university lecturer working on behalf of the tail end of an imperial regime and my mother as a member of the Peace Corps).

One always prefers peace. But there are many different ways of working to better the situation of others, and sometimes, war or violence is the only way to get some of what needs to be done, done. This was particularly the case in the past. Fortunately, however, with rising standards of living and smart bombs et al, it appears that violence as a tool of persuasion is steadily decreasing today and will continue to diminish in the future.

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