Posts Tagged ‘Amritsar Massacre’

Why Did British Public Opinion Turn Against the Empire?

August 10, 2022

The British empire and its history is once again the topic of intense controversy with claims that its responsible for racism, the continuing poverty and lack of development of Commonwealth nations and calls for the decolonisation of British museums and the educational curriculum. On the internet news page just this morning is a report that Tom Daley has claimed that homophobia is a legacy of the British empire. He has a point, as when the British government was reforming the Jamaican legal code in the late 19th century, one of the clauses they inserted criminalised homosexuality.,

In fact this is just the latest wave of controversy and debate over the empire and its legacy. There were similar debates in the ’90s and in the early years of this century. And the right regularly laments popular hostility to British imperialism. For right-wing commenters like Niall Ferguson and the Black American Conservative economist Thomas Sowell, British imperialism also had positive benefits in spreading democracy, property rights, properly administered law and modern technology and industrial organisation around the world. These are fair points, and it must be said that neither of these two writers ignore the fact that terrible atrocities were committed under British imperialism either. Sowell states that the enforced labour imposed on indigenous Africans was bitterly resented and that casualties among African porters could be extremely high.

But I got the impression that at the level of the Heil, there’s a nostalgia for the empire as something deeply integral to British identity and that hostility or indifference to it counts as a serious lack of patriotism.

But what did turn popular British opinion against the empire, after generations when official attitudes, education and the popular media held it up as something of which Britons should be immensely proud, as extolled in music hall songs, holidays like Empire Day and books like The Baby Patriot’s ABC, looked through a few years ago by one of the Dimblebys on a history programme a few years ago.

T.O. Lloyd in his academic history book, Empire to Welfare State, connects it to a general feeling of self hatred in the early 1970s, directed not just against the empire, but also against businessmen and politicians:

”Further to the left, opinion was even less tolerant; when Heath in 1973 referred to some exploits of adroit businessmen in avoiding tax as ‘the unacceptable face of capitalism’, the phase was taken up and repeated as though he had intended it to apply to the whole of capitalism, which was certainly not what he meant.

‘Perhaps it was surprising that his remark attracted so much attention, for it was not a period in which politicians received much respect. Allowing for the demands of caricature, a good deal of the public mood was caught by the cartoons of Gerald Scarfe, who drew in a style of brilliant distortion which made it impossible to speak well of anyone. The hatred of all men holding authority that was to be seen in his work enabled him to hold up a mirror to his times, and the current of self hatred that ran so close to the surface also matched an important part of his readers’ feelings. Politicians were blamed for not bringing peace, prosperity, and happiness, even though they probably had at this time less power – because of the weakness of the British economy and the relative decline in Britain’s international position – to bring peace and prosperity than they had had earlier in the century; blaming them for this did no good, and made people happier only in the shortest of short runs.

‘A civil was in Nigeria illustrated a good many features of British life, including a hostility to the British Empire which might have made sense while the struggle for colonial freedom was going on but, after decolonization had taken place so quickly and so amicably, felt rather as though people needed something to hate.’ (pp. 420-1).

The Conservative academic historian, Jeremy Black, laments that the positive aspects of British imperialism has been lost in his book The British Empire: A History and a Debate (Farnham: Ashgate 2015):

‘Thus, the multi-faceted nature of the British imperial past and its impact has been largely lost. This was a multi-faceted nature that contributed to the pluralistic character of the empire. Instead, a politics of rejection ensures that the imperial past serves for themes and images as part of an empowerment through real, remembered, or, sometimes, constructed grievance. This approach provides not only the recovery of terrible episodes, but also ready reflexes of anger and newsworthy copy, as with the harsh treatment of rebels, rebel sympathisers , and innocent bystanders in the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, an issue that took on new energy as demands for compensation were fuelled by revelations of harsh British policy from 2011’. (p. 235).

He also states that there’s a feeling in Britain that the empire, and now the Commonwealth, are largely irrelevant:

‘Similarly, there has been a significant change in tone and content in the discussion of the imperial past in Britain. A sense of irrelevance was captured in the Al Stewart song ‘On the Border’ (1976).

‘On my wall the colours of the map are running

From Africa the winds they talk of changes of coming

In the islands where I grew up

Noting seems the same

It’s just the patterns that remain

An empty shell.’

For most of the public, the Commonwealth has followed the empire into irrelevance. the patriotic glow that accompanied and followed the Falklands War in 1982, a war fought to regain a part of the empire inhabited by settlers of British descent, was essentially nationalistic, not imperial. This glow was not matched for the most recent, and very different, conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. These have led to a marked disinclination for further expeditionary warfare’. (pp. 421-2).

In fact the whole of the last chapter of Black’s book is about changing attitudes to the empire and the imperial past, which Black feels has been distorted. The British empire is seen through the lens of atrocities, although its rule was less harsh than the Germans or Italians. In India the view is coloured by the Amritsar massacre and ignores the long periods of peace imposed by British rule in India. He also notes that the cultural and international dominance of America has also affected British ideas of exceptionalism, distinctiveness and pride, and that interest in America has superseded interest in the other countries of the former empire.

Attitudes to the empire have also changed as Britain has become more multicultural., and states that ‘increasingly multicultural Britain sees myriad tensions and alliance in which place, ethnicity, religion, class and other factors both class and coexist. This is not an easy background for a positive depiction of the imperial past’ (p. 239). He also mentions the Parekh Report of the Commission on the Future Multi-Ethnic Britain, which ‘pressed for a sense of heritage adapted to the views of recent immigrants. This aspect of the report’ he writes, ‘very much attracted comment. At times, the consequences were somewhat fanciful and there was disproportionate emphasis both on a multi-ethnic legacy and on a positive account of it’. (p. 239). Hence the concern to rename monuments and streets connected with the imperial past, as well as making museums and other parts of the heritage sector more accessible to Black and Asians visitors and representative of their experience.

I wonder how far this lack of interest in the Commonwealth goes, at least in the immediate present following the Commonwealth games. There’s talk on the Beeb and elsewhere that it has inspired a new interest and optimism about it. And my guess is that much of popular hostility to the empire probably comes from the sympathy from parts of the British public for the various independence movements and horror at the brutality with which the government attempted to suppress some of them,, like the Mau Mau in Kenya. But it also seems to me that a powerful influence has also been the psychological link between its dissolution and general British decline, and its replacement in British popular consciousness by America. And Black and Asian immigration has also played a role. I’ve a very strong impression that some anti-imperial sentiment comes from the battles against real racism in the 1970s and 1980s. One of the Fascist organisations that founded the National Front in the 1960s was the League of Empire Loyalists.

This popular critique on British imperialism was a part of the ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ strip in 2000AD. This was about a future in which Earth had become the centre of a brutally racist, genocidal galactic empire ruled by a quasi-religious order, the Terminators. They, and their leader, Torquemada, were based on the writer’s own experience as a pupil of an abusive teacher at a Roman Catholic school. The Terminators wore armour, and the title of their leader, grand master, recalls the crusading orders like the Knights Templars in the Middle Ages. One of the stories mentions a book, published by the Terminators to justify their cleansing of the galaxy’s aliens, Our Empire Story. Which is the title of a real book that glamorised the British empire. Elsewhere the strip described Torquemada as ‘the supreme Fascist’ and there were explicit comparisons and links between him, Hitler, extreme right-wing Tory politicos like Enoch Powell, and US generals responsible for the atrocities against the Amerindians. It’s a good question whether strips like ‘Nemesis’ shape public opinion or simply follow it. I think they may well do a bit of both.

But it seems to me that, rather than being a recent phenomenon, a popular hostility to the British empire has been around since the 1970s and that recent, radical attacks on imperial history and its legacy are in many cases simply an extension of this, rather than anything completely new.

The War on Drugs, Racism and Eugenics in Modern America

January 29, 2016

There’s a particularly chilling passage in the chapter ‘The History of “Black Paranoia” in Cockburn and St. Clair’s End Times: The Death of the Fourth Estate, where they describe the revival and continuation of eugenics policies, including the use of castration and sterilisation, and the US government’s ‘war on drugs’. The chapter as a whole is intended to show that Black Americans have very good reason for not trusting the US government, considering the numerous policies that have been deliberately enacted against them. This has includes treating them as unwitting subjects for human experimentation, and the way crimes have been specifically framed by the legal authorities so that punishment bears down hardest on Blacks and other ethnic minorities. The various anti-drugs legislation is a case in point. Although middle class White Americans also used opium, marijuana and cocaine, the laws against them were formulated and promoted to specifically attack Blacks, Mexicans and Chinese, as a way of making them seem threateningly foreign. Cannabis was originally just called ‘hemp’. It was renamed ‘marijuana’ as a way of associating with Mexican workers, who were then competing with White workers in the Depression for jobs. It was associated with the racial threat supposedly posed by Black men, often using the crude imagery of school playground racial stereotype. One government headline screamed that ‘Negroes with Big Lips Lure White Women with Marijuana and Jazz.’ And all this was going on a mere few decades after one US cigarette manufacturer offered smokers cocaine-laced ciggies for their consumption.

The Destruction of Black Communities by the War on Drugs

Cockburn and St. Clair talk about the devastation wrought in downtown L.A. by the War on Drugs, which effectively turned poor Black neighbourhoods into war zones. Wards were walled off from each other, curfews imposed, and Black men were stopped and searched on the street. 89 per cent of those arrested were released without charge. Unemployment soared, as did the proportion of Blacks in US prisons. Poverty increased, and for the first in a century, the average Black life expectancy fell.

Fred Goodwin on Inner City Men Evolving Backwards

And as conditions in the inner cities deteriorated, there was a revival of eugenics. In 1992, Fred Goodwin, the director of ADAMHA, or the Alcohol, Drug Abuse and Mental Health Administration, declared that the increase in Black violence in the inner cities may well have been due to a gene for violence. He recommended that a national biomedical campaign should be launched to isolate the gene and treat the gene’s carriers. In February of that year he gave a speech to the National Mental Health Advisory Council, in which he explicitly stated that violence had increased, as individuals in the jungle conditions of the inner cities had reverted to more ‘natural’ behaviour. He stated:

There are discussion of “biological correlates” and “biological markers”. The individuals have defective brains with detectable prefrontal changes that may well be predictive of later violence. The individuals have impaired intelligence, in this case “cognitive deficit” … Now, one could say that if some of the loss of social structure in this society, and particularly within the high impact inner city areas, has removed some of the civilising evolutionary things that we have built up and that maybe it isn’t just the careless use of the word when people call certain areas of certain cities jungles, that we may have gone back to what might be more natural, without all of the social controls that we have imposed upon ourselves as a civilisation over thousands of years in our evolution.

Planting Electrodes in Brains to Control Violence

Cockburn and St. Clair link Goodwin’s attempt to find the genetic origins of violence and a medical treatment, with that of Lewis “Jolly” West, who presided over the neuropsychiatric institute at UCLA. In 1969 West announced his plan to plant electrodes in the brain of violent offenders, in order to control them. This caused such an outcry that he was forced to abandon his plans. There are shades here of the limiter in the BBC SF series, Blake’s 7. One of the early characters, Oleg Gan, had had a limiter – an electronic device designed to prevent him from killing anyone – implanted in his brain after he killed the Federation trooper, who’d raped his girlfriend. Blake’s 7 was a kind of ‘Dirty Dozen’ meets Star Wars, in which a motley crew of criminals led by the dissident Blake took on the totalitarian Federation. It was very much of its time, and strongly influenced by the medical abuse of psychiatry against dissidents in the former Soviet Union. West and his electrodes suggest that its creator, Terry Nation, the man, who gave children the world over the terrible joy of the Daleks, was also very much aware of the totalitarian tendencies in western science.

The Castration of the Violent

One of West’s own mentors was Dr Ernst Rodin, who was in charge of the Neurology department of Lafayette Clinic. He recommended neurosurgery and castration for the ‘dumb young males who riot’. His views were echoed by West after the Watts riots, but instead of surgery, West recommended sterilising them with cyproterone acetate. In 1972 he recommended that this should be carried out on the inmates in US prisons. This caused such an outcry that his funding was cut.

The Eugenic Sterilisation of the Unfit

Cockburn and St. Clair also cover the eugenics laws enacted in twelve US states in the first two decades of the last century. Between 1907 and 1964 about 63,678 people had been compulsorily sterilised in thirty states and one colony. But this was probably an underestimate of the true numbers of the policy’s victims. In 1974 Federal Judge Gerhard Gessell, reviewing the suit brought by them, declared that 100,000 to 150,000 people with low incomes had been sterilised annually over the past few years in federally funded programmes. Allan Chase, the author of a book on this, The Legacy of Malthus, states that this is comparable to the rate of the Nazis in their sterilisation campaign.

Such programmes were supposed to be voluntary, but Gessell ruled that an unknown number had been forced into it through the authorities threatening to take away their welfare benefits. Those most frequently targeted with this kind of pressure were women reliant on Medicaid to pay their bills for childbirth. One of the intended victims of this was Katie Relf, who successfully fought it off by locking herself into her room. Chase has estimated that by the end of the 1970s, the US was sterilising 200,000 citizens annually.

Winston Churchill, Eugenics, and the Bengal Famine

And the policy was not without its supporters over here. Winston Churchill also supported the policy, and wanted to see about 100,000 degenerates in the UK forcibly sterilised. This isn’t by far the most loathsome thing the great War Leader ever said or did. Last week, Secular Talk covered the story in the Independent that 40 per cent of Brits miss the Empire. The show covered a series of crimes against humanity committed by the Empire and its servants. These included the Amritsar Massacre, the incarceration of Afrikaaner women and children in concentration camps during the Boer War, and the Bengal Famine, in which 27 million people died of starvation. The wheat that could have fed them was diverted to British troops fighting in Europe in the Second World War. For the victims, Churchill had no sympathy. He said he hated Indians, and that it served them right for ‘breeding like rabbits’. He may have been the great leader who kept Europe free, but that doesn’t stop him from also being a moral slug.

Conclusion: Don’t Trust Those Who Claim to Have Found the Gene For Whatever

Apart from its main point – that American Blacks have every reason to be alienated and distrustful of the government and authorities, the chapter also shows how recently such racist attitudes were accepted by medical authorities, as well as the use of sterilisation against the poor generally. And it also provides very good reasons for being extremely distrustful of scientists when they claim to have found the gene for ‘X’. This includes the gene for schizophrenia, for homosexuality, and for violence. The latter surfaced yet again about a few months ago. Someone was claiming that extremely violent crims had a certain mutated chromosome. Then another biologist pointed out that roughly half of everybody also had the gene, and it didn’t make them into psychos. There’s a real danger here that if we pay too much attention to these scientists, we’ll be back with sterilisation and compulsory lobotomy. Just like the early 20th century and Nazis.