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Legacies of Empire

The British broadcaster and ‘household-name’ Jeremy Paxman is the BBC’s most fearsome interviewer. He also hosts ‘University Challenge’ which is easily the world’s most high-brow quiz show; and he writes books and essays of often interesting socio-history, the most recent being perhaps a useful warning to Americans – a writing on the wall, so to speak, along the lines of the Prophet Daniel’s “mene, mene, tekel upharsin.”

Mr. Paxman’s newest effort explores the legacy of the British Empire, chiefly on modern Britons themselves, although he can still be depended upon to exhume delightful anecdotes from far and wide: “’One Basuto king is said to have told Victoria: “My country is your blanket, O Queen, and my people the lice upon it.’” (Although I can say from experience that Lesotho’s bed-linen is now up to international standard). Here in Afghanistan I’ve only read the excerpts (linked above) and Mr. Paxman seems splendid as he tracks the psychology of loss of empire summed up a half-century past when “then US Secretary of State, Dean Acheson made the only remark for which he is remembered in Britain, that ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role’”.

The author cites a credibly imperial legacy at arms: “When, for example, the Grenadier Guards were sent to Afghanistan in 2007, they arrived sporting battle honours from the Crimean War, the Opium Wars, a campaign against Islamist forces in Sudan in the 1890s, another to subdue the Boers in South Africa at the turn of the 20th century, and a “temporary” British intervention in Egypt which began in 1882 and lasted until the middle of the 20th century. Once you’ve got that sort of pedigree, you’re keen to measure yourself against it. And perhaps, at another level, this history of involvement overseas also helps to explain why it is that British charities play such a disproportionately large role in international development and disaster relief.”

Still, British children of the upper-middle-classes or better often spend a “gap year” between school and university gallivanting the world, riding horses in Central Asia, working for a South American charity, or taking the global equivalent of the Georgian ‘Grand Tour’ of continental Europe. This is usually no bad thing, and this habit might help to break Americans of their notoriously self-satisfied insularity. But, as it assumes that the world is but a playground for spoiled rich British kids, it stems from an empire upon which the sun never set. Other European nations have no similar tradition even though some travel.

Mr. Paxman continues: “When the British went to live in the lands they conquered, they were confronted immediately with the question of what made them distinct from the people among whom they lived. Indeed, when you read the popular literature of the period, its most offensive characteristic is the assumption of racial superiority over “brutes” and “savages”. As Cecil Rhodes put it, ‘We are the finest race in the world and the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race.’”

This unquestioned sense of nationalistic superiority, racial no longer, is now more American than British, and in Afghanistan every step of interaction from American officials is calculated to diminish, insult or express official disdain for the foreign subjects of Empire.

They must be made to grovel. Deputy Ambassadors storm into Afghan government meetings with literally dozens of Yanqui yes-men in tow, while even Afghan cabinet ministers are denied so much as a note-taker when summoned to the Imperial Embassy. Simple ministerial requests, even made in person to the US Ambassador, are flatly ignored or insolently dismissed, presumably to remind these “lesser breeds without the law” just who is in charge. Policy fails and billions of tax-dollars are squandered as the gringo imperialistas make their decisions in-camera, scorning participation from their alleged inferiors who nevertheless know their country best and are not perpetually locked into Western security cocoons. And when American advisors start listening to, or cooperating with, their Afghan counterparts they are often fired summarily. This is a pervasive micro-culture among American officials and their contractors, and it certainly appears to be intentional.

In the ill-fated 1839 British invasion of Afghanistan some 15 camels came up to Kabul from India, laden with cigars so the officers could approximate the pleasures of home. It is the same today, but without the brandy and (Heaven forfend) tobacco. Walk into a British embassy office or staff-house and it is full of the same, Ikea, flat-pack, blond-wood furniture with which the economically-reduced, modern, UK-government apparatchiks furnish their tiny apartments, and the cognac is replaced with cans of cheap lager. Updated kit, same old minds.

94-lbjscarMr. Paxman may well refer to it in his new book, but the imperial attitudes remain unchanged. While nobody still kicks the servant while grumbling about the “Fuzzy-Wuzzies” and trumpeting “The White Man’s Burden,” there is still the cocksure, unquestioned sense of superiority twinned with a secular zeal to make “the little brown rabble just like us.” The missionaries are unchanged and only the religion is gone, replaced with newer secular nostrums of economic uplift, good governance, gender-balance, Millenium Development Goals, carbon-neutrality and so forth.

Without that missionary arrogance and zeal, we might learn that our imperial subjects do not wish to be quite like us. Many notice that Britain’s last remaining growth-industry is the production of bastard children; that America has slaughtered 50 million unborn since 1972; that UK streets fill with teenage girls drunk, brawling and puking; that America’s President orders extra-judicial killings without recourse to law while, in Mr. Obama’s Democrat-machine-controlled home county, the dead people vote; that old-folks in both countries are abandoned in “facilities” by their children, and many Britons fear that the popularist push for euthanasia will see multitudes of parents killed by their impatient heirs hankering for their savings and real estate. Our own grandparents and great-grandparents would be as horrified as the average Third Worlder.

But it matters not to us. Neither to the secular missionaries, our materialist Conquistadors who without a thought inflict foreign values and foreign cultural priorities; nor to the complacent voters who stop cheering only long enough to waddle between the fridge and the Fox News broadcast; nor to our state-employed, semi-Soviet, swaggering Janissaries. This is neither to say that 3rd World people do not hanker after improved systems and material benefits enjoyed by the West; nor that foreign aid can intrinsically do no good; nor that much malfeasance is not a cover for systematic financial corruption among US Government agencies and their contractors (the subject of a later discussion). But some is applied prematurely and all of it is hamstrung by an arrogant, imperial culture of which vestiges remain across Europe but in the Anglosphere advances full-throttle.

In Monty Python’s “Life of Brian,” Judean rebels ask “what Rome ever did for us”…apart from roads, laws, medicine, architecture, education and so forth. Few educated Indians, however proud or politicised, ignore the Raj legacies of law, railways, irrigation, etc., and time heals the unnecessary wounds just as the once (no doubt) brutal Aryan invaders fade into the semi-forgotten history of a great and ever-changing nation.

But the price of imperial arrogance is paid in modern coin, by the imperial taxpayers and by empires whose superior attitudes and systematic exclusion render their efforts less effective, illusory or even counterproductive. Moreover, Greeks, Romans and the enforcers of The Raj lived for centuries among the people whom they aspired to change: ours disdain them and do not, rotated in and out on 6-12 month contracts that serve their own “career paths” at the expense of both their masters and their subjects.

Mr. Paxman concludes his book-excerpt by lamenting, “If only the British would bring a measure of clarity to what was done in their country’s name, they might find it easier to play a more useful and effective role in the world.” Indeed, why not.

A millenium ago, the Scandinavians had a huge area of influence (from the Arctic Circle to Istanbul) if not precisely an empire; and more recently the Dutch Empire stretched from Europe to South America and Indonesia. Neither nations are now haunted by post-imperial hang-ups as the British are still and the Americans will soon be. Modern Scandinavians and Hollanders see themselves somewhat as role-models, democratic works-in-progress for peaceful prosperity and repositories of technical expertise which they share generously but usually in modest scale. They seem quite secure in psychological terms, lacking any need to swagger, to lecture or to demean. They refuse to make earth-shaking projections and declarations of grandeur, yet once upon a time their agents of empire must have been guilty of these modern Anglo-American sins to which all empires seem prone.

Britain is an economic power yet, and while Britons nowadays lack the sense and values of the Dutch, they might well adopt a similar, realistic view of their role—did UK leaders not get such visceral thrills by being American lapdogs. Mr. Cameron proves to be as big a Charlie as Mr. Blair in this regard, skint but unable to withstand a brass band and a chance to invade.

Economic meltdown will force Britain to mature as it will encourage America to cease its global meddling. But America’s psychological adaptation will be a hard road, confounded as it is by exceptionalist rhetoric and scare-mongering propaganda from both the Right and Left. Only then will Americans be happy with themselves, as Geo. Washington and Russell Kirk advised, providing a blue-print for the world but not demanding to crawl under every car and tinker with the mechanics.

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