We watched this film last night;

It tells the story of a girl growing up in the extreme poverty of Ugandan slums who discovers a gift for chess, which becomes her way out and up. Along the way she is supported by a remarkable man who recognises her talent and then through kindness and persistence, supports her learning. In common with all such Disney stories, the story had been made ‘safe’ in all sorts of ways but it still made me cry like a drain.

As I thought about why it was upsetting me so much, I realised it was about two things; firstly it was because of the kindness it contained. Whenever I see kindness, particularly towards small ordinary people, it breaks me open. Secondly it was because of the fact that chess is not an option for most poor children. Let me say more about this.

Films like this work because Phiona, the girl at the centre of the story, has a secret superpower that allows her to transcend the poverty that she was born in to – she can play chess. The story then becomes a redemption story of the self-made kind (albeit with the aforementioned help/kindness.) Phiona succeeds because of her inate abilities and her hard work and persistence which allow her to achieve an escape simply not available to others who grew up in her community. In many ways, this is the American dream, transplanted to Africa. It is the myth of meritocracy and exceptionalism applied to a place where the lie is most cruel.

Of course some people always transcend the poverty, they are born in to through luck, through good judgement, through hard work and through giftedness. These stories of survival and prospering can be inspirational and uplifting, but are they ever liberating? Or might they actually have the very opposite effect? The problem with gifted exceptionalism is that it is… exceptional. It has no relevance whatsoever to the vast proportion of the population.

It changes nothing.

The poor stay almost exclusively poor. The middle class can feel vindicated by their own worthyness. The rich can support a few chess tournaments and welfare programmes aimed at uncovering other exceptions.

We also learn nothing about the nature of poverty, whether in Manchester or Kampala. We can continue to blame the poor for their own squalor, as if it arose from indolence. We can watch programmes like ‘Benefits Street’ safe in the assumption that these people chose their own station in life and/or lack the gumption to emerge from it.

Or we can look to Africa and claim that the starvation and subsistence living are caused by corruption/poor education/over population – despite all evidence to the contrary. Despite the long term destructive effects of imperialism and globalised resource extraction. We can do this because clearly that girl can still thrive.

Photo by namo deet on Pexels.com

Poverty is a prison, but one with escape tunnels pre-installed, allowing a steady trickle of escapees. Just enough to convince us all that it is not a prison after all. The walls of the prison are not made from concrete, but rather from impaired opportunity of the kind that starts even before we are born. (This Australian account of the effects of poverty on child development is worth reading.)

How do you tear down this prison?

What is needed is a new kind of Jubilee.

In case you are not familiar with the ancient Hebrew idea of Jubilee, it was given to the Israelites by Yaweh as a kind of reset, in which all the economic, social, cultural and environmental circumstances in the society where examined in the interests of justice and liberation. There were to be seven year ‘sabbath’ years and then every seventh sabbath would be- jubilee. There is of course much debate as to how and if this law was every applied, but whether or not it was, the idea still resonates.

What would jubilee look like in Kampala? Would it look like a chess tournament from which a gifted girl was plucked and elevated?

I think not.

Tall towers must always fall…

We are on the cusp of what might yet become a global conflict, emerging right in the heart of a European peace and prosperous stability that we thought would be the new normal. Why did we think this? Has any century ever gone past in which wars did not significantly shape our human experience? Have we learned to let go of the dream of empire?

This sounds cynical, as if I am accepting of the nature of violence as part of normal discourse. I am not.

Rather I think that human history is characterised by a struggle between opposing ideals; altruism and aquisition and that it is our job to examine what we are as both individuals and communities in order to find a better ballance between these imperatives. This is a constant, life long thing for all of us, something which in the west is made all the more difficult by affluence and comparative ease. Our great religions know this paradox well, but it is no surprise that this aspect of their teachings has often been lost to the service of empire, leaving it to prophets and troublesome priests to raise their voices from the margins.

We see this again right now. The head of the Russian Orthodox church has justified the war, but not all his priests have followed him.

History, we are told, is told from the perespective of the victors. I would take this further and say that it is written and propogated almost exclusively from the perspective of ascendant empire. The empire builders have always needed a justifying narrative – in Putin’s case it is a load of wierd stuff about Nazification and liberating people from corruption. Meanwhile, we in the west raise our eyebrows in moral outrage and compulsively watch grainy videos of real tanks and real bombs which kill real people.

But what of our own history? In the UK there is a battle going on over this. Attempts to understand the nature of our own colonial/imperial history have been recieving a push back from the very top.

Perhaps the ‘anti-woke’ culture war are nothing more than a convenient distraction, but it is an effective strategy because the mythology that has been woven around the British Empire has such a stronghold over our sense of identitiy. When we think of British history, we think of Nelson and Spitfires and benign civilisation offered to the dark heart of Africa by missionaries like Livingstone. This indeed is history told from the perspective of the victors and the empire builders.

The lies it contains are so strong that they still seem true a hundred years after the empire has fallen- at least to us anyway. The rest of the world is not so sure. Caroline Elkins has revealed this in carefully researched detail;

What Elkins and many other historians have been able to show is that these empire excesses where not outliers, but rather violence and conquest were at the very heart of the whole British empire project. It evolved over time, shifting and becoming more sophisticated, but it was always a story of torture, subjugation and massive theft.

Legacy of Violence is a formidable piece of research that sets itself the ambition of identifying the character of British power over the course of two centuries and four continents. Elkins, perhaps minded of her previous brush with controversy, sometimes approaches her task with the meticulous doggedness of a trial lawyer rather than a storyteller in search of an audience. Examining the Boer war, the Irish war of independence, the uprisings in India, Iraq and Palestine, as well as British rule in Cyprus, Malaya and Kenya, she insists that such appalling acts as the Amritsar massacre, far from being – as Churchill argued in parliament – “an event that stands in singular and sinister isolation” were much closer to being a default position.


Am I just the wokest person on-line?

Aparently not – this seems to be Owen Jones. And on that note, it is worth checking this out for a different perspective on woke wars, and how ludicrous it can be to try to preserve perspectives that are forever changing;

It can be hard – almost impossible – to have an honest conversation about the history of empire, but one thing is undeniable; all empires fall. No matter how desperately imperial powers try to hold on to the power and privilege they have carved out, in the end the tall towers that they build must all fall.

The problem in our history is that as each one falls, another one rises up.

I will finish with this. One reading of the words and teaching of Jesus is to understand that it was all about empire. In the face of oppression, inequality and violence he proposed an alternative kind of empire known as ‘The Kingdom of God’. This exists not to save us after we are dead, but to propose a way of living that is extra-empire/post-empire/anti-empire. The subversive morality of this teaching got him and many of his followers in to trouble and still does.

If we are to have an honest conversation about the violence unleashed by Putin, we have to start by remembering that he follows in a long chain of exemplars, many of whom were white British.