08 January 2007

The White Man's Burden

Not surprisingly, someone at the Guardian doesn't like Blood Diamond, the film I spoke of here yesterday. Not because of its plot or direction or characters, but because it's racially incorrect. Or so says Joe Queenan, himself more than a little race-obsessed; he feels that Blood Diamond carrries on an iniquitous Hollywood tradition of portraying white men as something other than totally evil racist beasts.

Queenan's specific complaint is that the film shows Leonardo di Caprio's character helping "po' black folks," thus (in his paranoid imagination) implying that black people are incapable of helping themselves. Never mind that Hollywood has also churned out a host of films premised around the "magic Negro" concept, in which Morgan Freeman or Denzel Washington or Eddie Murphy or Chris Rock help hopelessly befuddled and uptight honkies get their groove back and sort out the meaning of life, love and happiness. Never mind, too, that in real life, white people have occasionally been known to do things other than enslaving and exploiting decent and long-suffering black people. In fact, come to think of it, wasn't it white people who were largely responsible for abolishing the slave trade that had flourished in Africa for millennia?

But who needs facts, as the Guardian's unwritten masthead motto might very well proclaim, when we've got a hamhanded all-purpose ideology to resort to? And in that particular dream world, all white people, particularly those of the British and American ilk, are automatically suspect (curious, too, that the British and the Americans have both gone to war to end black slavery), and all citizens of the Third World, especially those "of colour," are to be considered wholly virtuous unless proven otherwise (and in the case of Third Worlders gone bad, like, say, Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden, it's almost always the devil, erm, the white man who made him do it.

I think reasonable people can agree that white people have done terrible things to Africa and its people, though not necessarily anything worse than Africans have done to themselves. This being so, shouldn't it be all the more imperative that white people do what they can to help out their African brothers and sisters when possible? Obviously so, though the means to accomplish this are not always clear. Certainly Fatass Bono's recipe of handing over loads of money, erm, excuse me, of browbeating other people to hand over loads of their money, is not an adequate solution, and in many cases has produced more harm than good.

Hundreds of millions in Western aid to the Horn of Africa, for example, may have kept some people alive, but has also made it possible, if not inevitable, for Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea to live in a near-constant state of warfare and brutality. The millions in "food" aid furnished to Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe have enabled the aging but still vicious tyrant to carry out a campaign of ethnic cleansing and mass starvation unrivalled since the days of Pol Pot. Writing in the Sunday Times, RW Johnson paints a chilling picture of the hellhole that once-prosperous country has become, and you need look no further than Johnson if you want a clearcut refutation of Queenan's thesis about the white man helping out the black man.

Johnson has risked both life and liberty to keep the story of Zimbabwe's ongoing agony before Western eyes, repeatedly sneaking back into the country after he, along with nearly all British correspondents, were barred by Mugabe. Not that it's likely to do a lot of good; Guardianista thinking has infected much of the media and academia, to the point where no Western politician would dream of doing anything to rescue the people of Zimbabwe for fear of being seen as neo-imperialists. So we see more ink spilled - on the occasion of his passing - on the crimes of Augusto Pinochet, whose miltary coup in 1973 killed about 3,000 people but left Chile with a functioning liberal democracy, than we do on Mugabe, who on any given day of the year is responsible for more deaths than that. Is it because, as Ali G would have put it, he is black? What do you think?

Of course white people do bear some responsibility for putting Mugabe in power in the first place, and even more so for turning a blind eye to his depredations through the years. Doris Lessing's The Sweetest Dream, which I'm sure I've mentioned here at one time or another, or should have, anyway, contains a barely fictionalised account of how Mugabe and other future Aftrican dictators like him were influenced and coddled by muddled Marxists and revolutionary playboys in 1960s London. To the drug-soaked theorists of the "New" Left, Africa was just as much a plaything and social laboratory as it had been for 19th century imperialists, and with consequences possibly even more dire. If this seems an extreme statement, consider the outcomes: after a century of European imperialism, Africa had, despite the many obvious injustices, the beginnings of an urban middle class, the rudiments of a physical infrastructure, growing and healthier populations, and relative peace. After a few decades of "liberation" struggle, Africa is beset by war and plague, with populations and life expectancies declining in many areas, and only a handful of countries possessing anything resembling stable, democratic governments.

Is this an argument for recolonising Africa? No, and for a variety of reasons, some moral, some pragmatic, no such thing is ever likely to happen. Unfortunately, tragically even, without some form of recolonisation, there is precious little that the West can do to alleviate some of Africa's most pressing problems. Can we furnish them with antiretroviral drugs to stem the rising death toll from AIDS? Sure, but the law of unintended consequences means that we're then likely to see millions more people starving to death instead, thanks to the inability or unwillingness of most African governments to maintain a functioning economy. Can we send in peacekeeping troops to separate the warring tribes and factions? Yes again, but unless we're prepared to stay for the long term - itself a form of neo-colonialism - we're only postponing, not averting the eventual bloodshed.

I remember reading a poignant story of some citizens of Roman-era Londinium, who, when the Romans evacuated Britain to deal with more pressing matters closer to home, set up something like a vigil for their departed colonial masters. Periodically they would send letters off to the Emperor, imploring him to come to the aid of his loyal subjects in far-off Britannia before they were completely swamped by the invading Saxon hordes. Something similar happened in Sierra Leone, the setting for Blood Diamond, when the (ahem, Joe Queenan) largely white British Army finally succeeded in halting the bloodbath that had devastated that unhappy country. Large numbers of Sierra Leoneans demonstrated in the streets of Freetown, asking to be taken back into the British Empire. Of course no such thing was going to happen, not least because the Empire itself is largely moribund, and as previously noted, there's absolutely no political will for such a thing, regardless of any good it might accomplish.

So what's the point, then? If there's little or nothing we in the West can do to alleviate Africa's suffering, why go on about it? Surely they'll eventually sort themselves out, much as Europeans did after a few centuries of mayhem and misery when they underwent their own decolonisation process following the collapse of Rome. The problem seems to be that we're not quite insensitive enough to sit by and watch a continent disintegrate, but at the same time not resolute or confident enough to do anything that might actually be of help.


Dave said...

Larry, don't let your hatred of the New Left, or whatever you think that is, cloud your better judgement. Yes, Americans fought wars to end slavery (sort of), but in one instance (the one I imagine you're thinking of) they were fighting other Americans who were quite fond of the practice. So that doesn't really count, especially since slavery was only abolished in then-Confederate states once they lost the war.

In addition, while you're right to mention the African slave trade, and probably right about white people finally abolishing it (I don't know, so I'll take your word for it), pay the devil his due and recognize the West's role in jumpstarting it into the worldwide moral quagmire it then became for centuries afterwards.

Hate on the Left all you want and overlook greater offenses by the Right if you must, but don't take the common anti-PC stance that white Americans are absolutely blameless. You're getting awfully close to that.

Larry Livermore said...

Dave, I wasn't thinking so much of the Americans (who as you correctly point out, came rather late and half-heartedly to the slavery abolition game) as the British, who abolished slavery throughout the Empire in 1807, and sent troops into battle in Africa on several occasions for the specific purpose of enforcing that directive on recalcitrant Arab and African slave traders who refused to get the message. That some of those incursions led, indirectly or otherwise, to a long-term colonial presence on the African continent is something you can argue was or wasn't a justifiable price to pay for that result; what's not very open to argument is that were it not for the British Empire and the colonial era, slavery might still be in existence in some of the more backward corners of Africa.

My point is not one of left vs. right; if I have any bugbear or bete noire that wants berating here (boy, do I love alliteration sometimes!), it's identity politics, which to me is just a new form of racism recast as "progressive" thinking.

Similarly, I never said or meant to imply that Americans, white or otherwise (you are aware, aren't you, that there were black Americans who owned slaves?) were blameless. However, I would take issue with your suggestion that the West was responsible for "jumpstarting [slavery] into the worldwide moral quagmire it then became for centuries afterwards."

If anything, the West's role in the slave trade was relatively brief in historical terms, spanning only about three centuries (unless of course you want to count ancient Rome and Greece as "the West," which I don't think most people would. Slavery was a large part of the African and Middle Eastern economies long before the West started interfering with those regions, and the only element the West introduced that had previously been absent was the ability to traffic slaves on a vast and worldwide scale, owing to its more advanced trading networks. There's little reason to believe that Arab or African slavers wouldn't have done precisely the same thing given the opportunity, and in fact it was they who provided Western slave traders with most of the slaves ultimately shipped to the New World.

What the West also introduced, however, was a serious moral, political and economic debate over slavery, a debate which, if it existed at all during the many centuries prior to the colonial era, had little effect and left little record of having taken place. The West's agonising over this issue, however, particularly in Britain, led directly to concrete action to end slavery once and for all; this is something about which there can be little if any doubt.

Dave said...

Now see, if your original post had sounded like your response to me, I wouldn't have taken such an issue with what you said. Thank you for laying things out with more detail.

I would still take issue with you on the West's role in worldwide slave trafficking, taking care to note that African/Arab slave trading wasn't explicitly racial and that slaves weren't locked into their position forever, unlike Western slavery. Hell, one could make a case for the West promoting, and then profiting from, shitty behavior. And we could start arguing cultural differences until we both collapsed and died. But I'm with you for most of what you said, and I appreciate your tact, so I won't start a war here. I'm also not defending African/Arab slavery, just so you know. It was different, yes, but that doesn't make it right.

As for identity politics, I agree with you, but you have a tendency to viciously berate mooncakes like the Berkeley City Council when Bush and Cheney, people with actual power, are guilty of far worse abuses. As are their supporters, I've found. Not to say that Berkeley isn't a town run by psychotic uberhippies, but bashing them to the point where it exposes a lack of perspective is a bit much. Which was the point of that "anti-PC" tirade I went on in my original response.

And no, I was unaware that blacks owned slaves at one time. First time I've heard that, and I'll look into it. But I do know that the British, while taking charge to abolish slavery in their own dealings, had no trouble exploiting the Earth's browner peoples as an empire.

Larry Livermore said...

It's true that right wing extremists have done a great deal of harm in America, probably more so than the left because the left is so flaky and incompetent at getting its hands on power or wielding it when it does.

But I have no doubt that the nutcases and "mooncakes" (a useful term which I may borrow for future use) of the Berkeley City Council would cause enormous damage should they ever have thee opportunity to expand their mandate beyond managing potholes and crackheads in a mid-sized suburb. Pol Pot, Mao, and Charles Manson no doubt seemed like harmless lunatics at one time, too.

As for whether one can or should categorise the British Empire as merely "exploiting the Earth's browner peoples," there's a renewed debate going on these days as to whether the net effect of the Empire was positive or negative. One could hardly argue that there wasn't plenty of exploitation, but at the same time, social and physical infrastructure, not to mention democratic institutions, were introduced into many countries that would very likely not otherwise have them today. I mean, we could have the same argument (and indeed I have, with my friend Bella, who lectures in ancient history) over whether the Roman Empire was a good or bad thing. But both Empires, in addition to having many parallels in philosophy and execution, are also faits acomplis. To agonise over their rightness or wrongness is both moot and anachronistic; better simply to accept that that was how things were done in those days and move on.

Anonymous said...


what are the basis of these claims.

Larry Livermore said...

What claims?