Whites rule. Got it?

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Ruby Hamad, ‘White nostalgia: when “timeless” fantasies turn out to be incredibly racist’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 07.09.15

Two years ago, a lengthy Financial Times essay predicted that the discovery of some disturbing colonial-era photographs would signal the imminent end of “colonial nostalgia.”

Unearthed in what was once the Dutch East Indies and is now Indonesia, they included many “timeless” images associated with the bygone days of empire; young girls in flowing white dresses, men riding elephants, women tending out-of-place flower gardens.

But alongside these representations of “lost white paradise,” were gruesome pictures of colonialism’s less pleasant side. In one, Dutch soldiers smile for the camera shortly after gunning down an entire village. Dead bodies are clearly visible in the frame.

Europeans (and Australians) have long regarded colonialism with romanticism. But images such as these meant the “western emotional memory of colonialism is [finally] changing”, wrote Simon Kuper in the Financial Times essay.

As it turns out, Kuper’s optimism was premature. Colonial nostalgia is back and Taylor Swift is the latest artist to immortalise it in her new video ‘Wildest Dreams’, where she plays a glamorous Old Hollywood movie star falling for her (married) leading man on location in Africa.

‘Wildest Dreams’ is a homage to old films like ‘African Queen’, which were themselves a love letter to colonialism. As such, while there are lions and giraffes aplenty, there is little room for black people. Unsurprisingly, many Africans are unimpressed. Writing for NPR, James Kassaga Arinaitwe and Viviane Rutabingwa explain why:

“(Swift) should absolutely be able to use any location as a backdrop. But she packages our continent as the backdrop for her romantic songs devoid of any African person or storyline, and she sets the video in a time when the people depicted by Swift and her co-stars killed, dehumanised and traumatised millions of Africans.”

The video’s director, Joseph Kahn, who pointed out the multi-racial makeup of the video’s crew, said he limited the number of black extras for purposes of historical accuracy. “This is not a video about colonialism,” he protested.

Translation: this is not a video intentionally about colonialism. Nonetheless, Kahn has “accidentally” perpetuated the colonial interpretation of Africa as nothing more than a dry landscape of magnificent animals and dramatic sunsets. It’s not so much that there aren’t enough black people in it, it’s that they’re regarded as utterly inconsequential.

Local populations don’t have to be omitted entirely for colonial nostalgia to be in effect. The 2013 Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, consisting of mostly white models in exotic locales, did include people of colour but they were used interchangeably with animals and landscapes. One model poses with a spear-wielding African man, another reclines on a raft while being chauffeured by a Chinese peasant.

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It’s as if people of colour serve no role other than to highlight the individuality of westerners. Whiteness is centralised and the colonial myth lives on: that colonialism was really not so bad after all, and that it had the blessings of locals who did little more than stand around in colourful costumes smiling beatifically.

This is the power of colonial nostalgia – it has allowed the west to completely reimagine its own history. When the truth is too inconvenient, it is simply ignored.

‘Banished’, a BBC mini-series about the First Fleet that screened earlier this year famously included not a single Aboriginal person. Producer Jimmy McGovern claimed it would have been too difficult to get the portrayal of Aboriginal people right given the two-week timeframe of the series.

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Translation: Aboriginal people had to be left out because including them would mean telling a completely different story – not one of unlucky convicts and plucky explorers braving the treacherous ocean to find “nothing but bush” on the other end, but one of Aboriginal resistance and the beginnings of genocide.

Of course, it’s not surprising that artists neglect to portray the full truth of colonialism. They take their cues from a society that has, in general, proven to be nothing if not adept at absolving itself of any need for truthful recollection of its own brutal history.

Winston Churchill, who once said that Arabs have no more claim to land in Palestine than dogs, and who presided over some shocking atrocities in the colonies, has somehow been recast as a loveable old bear who went to war “for the arts.” Lachlan Macquarie, NSW’s fifth governor who has a city street named after him, is remembered as a great “colony builder.” He was reasonably nice to Aboriginal people – as long as they didn’t show any inclination to independence. This is what happened when they did:

“In 1816 Macquarie’s paternalism was tested when hostile Aboriginal people attacked settlers along the Hawkesbury–Nepean River. His reluctant response was to send a punitive military expedition with orders to take as many prisoners as possible, shoot any who resisted or attempted to flee and hang their bodies in the trees as a warning to survivors.”

Hostile Aboriginals. Attacked. Reluctant. Exactly whose land was being invaded here?

This is the reality that white colonial nostalgia obscures. Whether or not Swift, or Sports Illustrated, or the BBC intended to glorify colonialism, that’s exactly what they’ve done. Massacres, exploitation, and enslavement were not unfortunate by-products of colonialism – they were its modus operandi and what made the western world as we know it possible.

This uncomfortable truth must be reckoned with if we are to have any hope of putting the past behind us. You cannot isolate the “good parts” of colonialism from the brutality, and then expect people of colour to accept this romanticisation of a period in history whose impacts we are still reeling from. Not in your wildest dreams.

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2 thoughts on “Whites rule. Got it?

  1. Before reading this, I have always considered Churchill a good guy. 🙂

    Have you watched Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained?

    It’s a nice read and great pictures.

    Thanks Phil.

    Anand 🙂

    Like

    • Hi Anand,
      No, I haven’t watched it but, given your recommendation of it, I will do so.

      Churchill was a megalomaniacal, racist, war-mongering bastard.

      From The Independent 07.09.15:

      ‘The young Churchill charged through imperial atrocities, defending each in turn. When concentration camps were built in South Africa, for white Boers, he said they produced “the minimum of suffering”. The death toll was almost 28,000, and when at least 115,000 black Africans were likewise swept into British camps, where 14,000 died, he wrote only of his “irritation that Kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men”. Later, he boasted of his experiences there: “That was before war degenerated. It was great fun galloping about.”

      Then as an MP he demanded a rolling programme of more conquests, based on his belief that “the Aryan stock is bound to triumph”. There seems to have been an odd cognitive dissonance in his view of the “natives”. In some of his private correspondence, he appears to really believe they are helpless children who will “willingly, naturally, gratefully include themselves within the golden circle of an ancient crown”.

      But when they defied this script, Churchill demanded they be crushed with extreme force. As Colonial Secretary in the 1920s, he unleashed the notorious Black and Tan thugs on Ireland’s Catholic civilians, and when the Kurds rebelled against British rule, he said: “I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilised tribes…[It] would spread a lively terror.”

      Of course, it’s easy to dismiss any criticism of these actions as anachronistic. Didn’t everybody think that way then? One of the most striking findings of Toye’s research is that they really didn’t: even at the time, Churchill was seen as at the most brutal and brutish end of the British imperialist spectrum. Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin was warned by Cabinet colleagues not to appoint him because his views were so antedeluvian. Even his startled doctor, Lord Moran, said of other races: “Winston thinks only of the colour of their skin.”

      Many of his colleagues thought Churchill was driven by a deep loathing of democracy for anyone other than the British and a tiny clique of supposedly superior races. This was clearest in his attitude to India. When Mahatma Gandhi launched his campaign of peaceful resistance, Churchill raged that he “ought to be lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi, and then trampled on by an enormous elephant with the new Viceroy seated on its back.” As the resistance swelled, he announced: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” This hatred killed. To give just one, major, example, in 1943 a famine broke out in Bengal, caused – as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen has proved – by the imperial policies of the British. Up to 3 million people starved to death while British officials begged Churchill to direct food supplies to the region. He bluntly refused. He raged that it was their own fault for “breeding like rabbits”. At other times, he said the plague was “merrily” culling the population.’

      and from ABC/Radio National/Rear Vision/‘Oil, democracy and a CIA coup’17.11.13:

      “Steven Kinzer: When the oil was actually found, it proved very easy for the British to pay a relatively paltry sum in exchange for what Winston Churchill described as ‘a prize from fairyland beyond our wildest dreams’. So all the oil that the British used to power their industrial growth during the 1920s and ’30s and ’40s, came from Iran. All the oil that the Royal Navy used to project British power all over the world, came from Iran. It was a vital resource that allowed the people of Britain to live at a standard of living they enjoyed, all during that period. At the same time, the Iranians, who were sitting on this ocean of oil, were living in what were some of the lowest and most miserable standards of living in the world. …

      Steven Kinzer: By the beginning of 1953 it was becoming painfully obvious to the British that their many different efforts to head this thing off were not working. And as early as 1952 they had already thought about the possibility of arranging the coup. Now they actually made an effort to do this in the autumn of 1952, but Mossadeq got wind of it; he understood what was happening.

      Actually Tehran was a very small town politically speaking in those days, and once the British put the word out to their operators that they were thinking of trying to overthrow Mossadeq, it was only a short time before Mossadeq found out about this. He did the only thing he could have done to protect himself: he closed the British Embassy and he sent all the British diplomats home. Among these diplomats were all the secret agents who were going to play in the coup. So now the British found themselves in even bigger trouble because they had exhausted all means to try to pressure the Iranians. Essentially they had stopped all production of oil in Iran and essentially told the Iranians, ‘If you don’t let us help exploit the oil, it’s not going to be exploited, it’s just going sit in the ground and no-one’s going to get anything.’ And the answer of the Iranians and Mossadeq was, ‘That’s fine, we’ll just leave it in the ground then, no problem.’ The British of course couldn’t abide that.

      So they found themselves after their Embassy in Tehran was closed, without even the means to overthrow Mossadeq. Then they really were in a kind of a panic. And they decided, this was when Winston Churchill was in his last hurrah as prime minister, the same Churchill who back in the 1920s as First Lord of the Admiralty had so urgently pressed for the takeover of Iranian oil, Churchill decided to ask the Americans to do this for him. ‘Can you please overthrow Mossadeq for us?’ this was the request that Churchill made to President Harry Truman in 1952.

      Now the CIA was a relatively new agency then, they’d only been in business for about five years; it had never overthrown a government, and it was Truman’s belief that the CIA should not do that. It was OK for the CIA to intervene and try to influence things in countries, but not to overthrow governments. So Truman told Churchill, ‘No, we don’t do that.’ ”

      They did go on to do that, with the British.

      The 1979 Iranian Revolution was the direct result of the crushing of democracy in Iran by the combined conspiring of the British and American capitalist classes, just as the growing turmoil in the Middle East now.

      Dialectics in progress.

      Best regards, Phil

      Liked by 1 person

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