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.https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/mar/13/legacy-of-violence-a-history-of-the-british-empire-by-caroline-elkins-review-the-brutal-truth-about-britains-past
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.