Sunday 11 July 2010

Sunday Mornings: Coffee, Reflections and Music

Picture the following situation:

A woman is married to a violent man. He beats her senseless every time he thinks she's done something wrong. Her family and friends keep telling her to leave him, yet she can't bring herself to do it. One day, after a brutal thumping that almost costs her her life, she packs up her bags and leaves. Initially, she has to go to a women's refuge because her former husband is still looking for her, bent on revenge. Eventually and after a lot of support from her next-of-kin, government agencies and friends, she regains control of her life. Years after this sad episode, she meets another man.

This new fellow has the right attitude from the word go. He is kind, mature, and sensitive. He knows about her previous problems and avoids mentioning them. Her relatives are happy; her friends are over the moon. After a few months of courtship the woman and the man get married. The woman can't believe her luck.

Until one day when they have an argument. He immediately brings up the unpleasant experiences she went through with her previous partner. He blames her. He tells her she is a good for nothing 'spoiled little girl'. He never raises his hand, not even his voice, but there's no mistaking what his intentions are: to put her down. His tirade is so brutal that she ends up in the toilet, collapsed on the floor, crying her eyes out.

The next morning she doesn't turn up at work. Instead she calls her best friend. She tells her everything that happened. Her friend can't believe his ears. Her husband, the adoring lover, capable of such cruelty? No, her friend can't simply believe it. Surely the woman is overreacting. The woman goes next to her mother's. To her she confides the same story. Her mother shakes her head and says: 'Maybe he's having a hard time at work. Why don't you leave him alone?'

Everywhere the woman goes, people keep making the same comment: "At least he is not beating you like your ex-. Why are you complaining? Can't you see that the guy's got too much on his plate? Look at the way you live, look at how sensitive he is. Other women would walk barefoot over broken glass to be given the opportunity you have'. Faced with comments like these, the woman withdraws slowly into her own world. The verbal abuse, however, doesn't stop, it continues relentlessly and consistently.

That's the end of the story. My question to you readers and fellow bloggers is: is the woman better off with a violent partner, with whom she knows where she stands, or is the effect of domestic abuse ameliorated by the fact that it's carried out verbally and not physically?

Don't answer, though. For that is not this week's topic.

The situation I described above - and which might have made some of you flinch a bit, so close to reality it is - is a template I use whenever I discuss different subjects such as benign vs malign dictatorships, autocratic rule or imperial power. It is the latter about which I have been thinking for the last few weeks.

Recently Michael Gove, the new education secretary, announced plans to revamp the education system, in particular, he is intent on rescuing some subjects that have lost their popularity, specifically history. In order to achieve this, he has enlisted the support of Niall Ferguson, whose book 'Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World' was turned into a television series on Channel 4 a few years ago. Nothing wrong with that, you'd probably say. Niall is probably one of the top historians of his generation. I saw the three-part-series on the aforementioned channel and learnt a great deal about the British Empire of which I was unaware before. Niall has also had a successful career across the pond, teaching history at Harvard University.

The problem, however, starts when you delve a bit deeper into Mr Ferguson's rationale and the long-term effect this could have on an impressionable young generation, more used to screen celebs (and you could consider Niall as a minor one in his field) than textbooks. Niall is actually on record as justifying the need to have a more imperial approach in the 21st century. This is a thesis he explained in the follow-up to 'Empire': 'Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire', another book with a television series tie-in. When I look at the multicultural city in which I dwell and then look at the likes of Ferguson revising and rehabilitating imperialism and colonialism, I feel despondent. The future doesn't augur well.

For starters the notion of a benign colonial power is a misleading one, but one I've heard many times in conversations. For some people, Britain was not as ruthless as Spain and Portugal whereas France treated her subjects magnanimously. Unless they happened to be Algerians who had fought in the Second World War.

The teaching of history is a thorny area, especially when it takes place in the country on whose dominions the quote 'the sun never sets on the British Empire' was based. I have no experience whatsoever of student life in the UK, it is only through my children's eyes that I'm living the history syllabus now. That's why I keep an open mind about the curriculum. But as someone born and bred in a former colony, the whole benign vs malign empire malarkey rankles a wee bit.

When you conquer, pillage, loot and keep another country under your control it matters not one jot whether you are doing it with the best of intentions or not. Same with the woman with the violent ex and her current husband. The fact that the former abused her physically and the latter verbally doesn't change the outcome: lack of self-esteem, depression, emotional crisis and self-blame, to mention but a few problems. With nations the effects are similar: identity crisis, economic dependence, lack of long-term vision. It takes years to sort out this mess, if ever. Moreover, the British colonial approach was far from benign. According to Eduardo Galeano in his book ‘Las Venas Abiertas de América Latina’, following the occupation of Havana, the British took only eleven months to ship in the amount of African slaves that would have normally taken them fifteen years to bring.

India, Kenya and Ireland bear witness to the repression, land theft and enslavement to which the British Empire subjected its colonies. Whatever benefits the colonial expansion may have brought, like a system of jurisprudence modelled on the British one and technological progress, it cannot possibly mitigate the havoc wreaked by, for example, the 1947 partition in India where close to a million people died as a consequence of displacement and civil strife. How Ferguson will deal with these facts is anyone's guess, but I would strongly advocate against decontaminating the British imperial record. Especially when the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts are still ringing in our ears.

The impression that the British Empire was gracious where the Portuguese and Spanish ones were barbarous is probably based on the fact that whereas the latter two settled in most of their colonies, the British had an exploitation and/or settlement policy. That is, some colonies were used chiefly for exploitation whilst others served as permanent residences. I don't think I need to say which ones benefitted the most from the infrastructure created by the conquistadores.

The repercussion, however, of this benevolent vs malevolent empire conundrum, is far-reaching and could do untold damage to a younger generation whom we're trying to educate on the importance of seeing different cultures as equal. The level to which this good vs bad imperial power fistfight has stooped would be sometimes risible if it wasn't so dangerous. Let me give you one example. Over the last five years the historian and writer David Elstein has been at pains trying to convince to anyone who would listen that the British did not kill as many Kikuyu in Kenya as previously thought. In a letter written to The New York Review of Books à propos de 'Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain's Gulag in Kenya' by Caroline Elkins (click here to read the letter), Mr Elstein goes on to explain that the number of deaths quoted in the book are wrong because of discrepancies between population growth and the figure of people actually murdered. I confess that I almost stopped reading when he mentioned that 'Elkins disbelieves the official figure of 12,000 Mau Mau deaths and 80,000 Mau Mau detainees in the seven-year Emergency. She suggests “hundreds of thousands” of Kikuyu died at British hands—perhaps 300,000.'

It appears that Elstein has more of a problem with a 288,000 death toll alleged discordance than with the fact that civilians were murdered. Same with the woman and her relatives and friends: they see her current verbally abusing husband as less of a threat because he uses his tongue as opposed to his hands.

If the government's intentions about revamping history are honest, then more analysis, rational debate and long-term vision need to be at the core of their project. Less fixation on kings and queen, or the Nazis, for that matter, would be a good place to start. As for Britain's imperial past, in my opinion it was just as devastating as that woman's husband's mental bullying. Sometimes tongue-lashings hurt more than fists.

Pandora's World Cup Box

'I swear' - Pandora said to me the other day - 'that when I reincarnate, I will come back as an octopus. At least I will have a pretty good chance at guessing who will make it to the final of the World Cup. My prediction of France against England in the last eight? I was wrong. The Gallic team gave up too quickly and the English came up short. My hunch of an Argentina vs Spain semifinal? The Argies couldn't quite learn their tango routine on time and buckled under the pressure of Löw's starlets. I mean, I'm all right about being upstaged by someone like Medusa, at least she can turn people into stone, but overshadowed by an eight-tentacle Chávez-lookalike?' Oh, the shame of it.

Pandora can only wonder what deputy prime minister Nick Clegg's domestic atmosphere will be like on Sunday when Dutch Mama and Spanish wife sit together to watch the final. Is that the reason why he will be part of the welcoming committee for Pope Benedict's visit to the UK, despite the fact that Nick is an atheist? Maybe he is looking for divine advice. Only Heaven knows.

And this is the end of Pandora's World Cup Box. Cracking goals and tantrums, sportmanship and dubious decisions. They will all come back four years hence. Goodbye.

© 2010

Next Post: 'Insane in the Brain' (Review), to be published on Tuesday 13th July at 11:59pm (GMT)


  1. Hi Cuban
    I'm back from my visit to Ireland and England. Your post here seems apposite to me. I'm inclined to agree with you about the hideous effects of subtle violence, even if it's only verbal.

    The British don't have such a terrific record vis a vis their treatment of Australia either,particularly of its indigenous peoples.

    And so, like you, I abhor the notion of doctoring history to make the victors the heroes.

    What struck me travelling through the bottom half of England was its 'faded grandeur'. Ireland for all its difficulties - admittedly again we travelled only in the south, seemed a happier, more generous place to live.

    All these things are conjectural. It depends on who you are and where you are. There are folks here in Australia who suffer horribly just as I imagine the beggars I saw in the streets of Dublin suffer too.

    The inequality of the world continues, but like you I think we ought not paint too rosy and false a picture about the atrocities that precede us.

    Despite my reservations about all forms of nationalism, and the history of brutality of the Dutch inflicted on their colonies, a little part of me, given my own Dutch ancestry, hopes the Dutch team wins the soccer, but I'll be happy enough too for Spain to win the Guernsey.

    Soccer tends to be a peripheral sport here in Australia. It's football that counts to many, though not so much to me.

    I watched the soccer in England and Ireland for the first time in my life. Funny that.

    Thanks Cuban.

  2. Hola Cubano!

    Es un gran placer ver und blog con profundidad.


    It is a great joy to find a blog with depth.

    Keep up the coffee, the reflections and the music.

  3. Good Sunday to you too, Cuban. I'm afraid nations will continue to tell stories that make them look good, especially if few people object. Books for public schools are trying to please a common ethos, usually embodied by the well-to-do and the majority. These folks have a stake in maintaining a certain point of view under the guise of nationalism and patriotism. Citizens, everywhere, need to write letters to editors, show up and question boards and commissioners who run our schools, and strengthen their resolve to stand up for the truth in reporting.

    Just like the family and friends of the abused woman, they will try to convince all of us of the "right" way to view history.

  4. Many thanks for your comments.

    First of all, congratulations to all Spaniards and fans of the Spanish football for their victory in the World Cup. Personally, I was looking forward to a Brazil vs Argentina final, but I'm just as happy that the Spaniards won.

    On the subject of my column, thanks, too, for your kind comments. This is a delicate subject and not always I am in a good-natured, sensitive mood to talk about it. That's why sometimes I leave a room if I am at a dinner party or a small gathering when the conversation turns to this topic. I guess that we, in the ex-colonies, or some would say in the neo-colonies (after all, in Cuba we had the Spaniards, the US, and the Castro-USSR monopoly) have a different perspective as to whether empire was ever a force for good.

    Many thanks for your feedback. Have a good week.

    Greetings from London.

  5. Cuban, this was a particularly interesting post and analogy. I agree that the damage inflicted by ideological bullying is probably under-rated - certainly it is less evidently painful and therefore more easily ignored.

    I recently got 'King Leopold's Ghost' for my Belgian companion to read - as you may guess (or know!) it is the story of Belgium's 'involvment' in the Congo. I suspect he is learning some things for the first time.

    What you describe as a potential curriculum for British students is disturbing - one would hope that the critical thinkers and unbiased historians will be able to keep their fingers in the dike holding back the teaching of revisionist history. The world was quick to criticize the Japanese (among others) for doing something similar, but obviously the same persepctive isn't available when applied to home turf. Oh dear, I'm really mixing my metaphors or something.

    Well worth the read. Thank you for your intelligent, instructive pieces, Cuban.

  6. My experience of history teachers is that they will teach history in their own matter what the syllabus dictates. And half the students (or more) won't be listening anyway...and lots of students (like me) have to drop history to take other subjects. But I understand your concerns too.

  7. A very appropriate analogy, Cuban! Like you mention, I find it ludicrous when the 'rulers' (not the ruled) categorize themselves benevolent.

    Coming from India (even though India's Freedom Movement is a second-hand, if not a third, experience for me), we do see some benefits from Enlgish rule, like the extensive railway network and a more unified India.

    But, one can see its effects on the psyche and nature of the whole nation (which are unnatural to the underlying culture) even today... So, I guess this is one of those topics that can be debated till the cows come home and then some.

  8. Oh my god, I'm so glad I was able to catch up with this post. You make many great points about history and about the approach to history that some people want to change.

    I have no faith whatsoever in the new government and their desire to change our schools approach to teaching history. I was taught in the British schooling system and it was a great way to learn, with emphasis and understanding other cultures and many different periods of history. We didn't focus on just WWII or the holocaust but a whole range of periods. And no one said that the British Empire was a good thing. That would have disgusted me.

    No tyrant is a good tyrant whether they use their fists or their tongues.


  9. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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