Round Up March/April 2019
Britain, Protest, Colonialism
As the beleaguered British government lurches from one constitutional fracas to another, it seems apt again to begin with Brexit. Despite the appearance of torment – in a recurring theme for this month’s round up – the political actors involved are perhaps behaving more rationally, for better or worse, than imagined. Aaron Ackerley notes the disturbing proximity of leading ‘Brexiteers’ to ostensibly independent think tanks and brings to light a deeper history of hapless British politicians forming influential pressure groups behind the scenes.
The British government has overlooked a recent petition to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU, which garnered over 6 million votes. But are petitions as contemporary and ineffective as we might think? As the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre approaches, Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller contend that petitioning acts ‘as a tool for building a broader campaign and an enduring instrument for popular politics beyond and outside elections’. Ruth Mather explores the contributions of female reformers to early 19th-century protest, emphasising their ingenuity in negotiating with a ‘tyrannical government’ which was claiming to ‘offer paternal protection to its citizens’ while actually behaving violently towards them.
Shirin Hirsch sets this violence within a broader imperial context, reminding us of how black revolutionary Robert Wedderburn drew comparisons between atrocities abroad and the oppression of the working class at home. Similarly, on the anniversary of another colonial atrocity – the Amritsar Massacre of 13 April 1919 – Oliver Godsmark remarks on how political actors today continue to treat such violence as an aberration rather than a means through which to initiate difficult conversations about Britain’s past.
Anti-Colonialism, Decolonisation, Memory
A number of writers have considered how scholars of different backgrounds and disciplines can help begin these conversations. Eva Schalbroeck – perhaps offering a model for historians of other regions – explores how students of Belgium and the Congo can write revisionist and challenging histories which help establish ‘more culturally diverse post-colonial relationships’. Meg Foster highlighted the problems that can result from the uncritical portrayal of the histories of indigenous societies. In her review of an exhibition of Oceanic art held at the Royal Academy of Arts in London last year, Foster argues that such exhibitions often index indigenous artworks as objects of intrigue, distracting us from reckoning with their continued affective importance for the producers.
Speaking of the imperial mind and its affinity for ‘exotic objects’, Tom Harper of the University of Surrey studies how China has been variously depicted in the Western world as ‘a uniform mass with little or no individuality and prone to extreme cruelty’ and more recently as a neo-colonial power comparable to ‘the Great Powers of the Past’. Today, China is using its growing geopolitical clout to try and reshape these depictions.
Mark Fathi Massoud and Hussein Omar both offer hope in the face of authoritarian retrenchment. Omar shows how uprisings which occurred across North Africa and the Middle East 100 years ago comprised not isolated protests but an early ‘Arab Spring’ in which local actors exchanged ‘slogans, ideas, ideals and personnel’ in resisting European imperial intrigue. His emphasis on how history might have turned out differently had alternative ideas entered the ascendancy is replicated by Massoud, who demonstrates that a democratic conception of Sharia – which comprises ‘a broad set of values and ethical principles’ rather than the rigid code of law implied by Islamophobes – predominated among many politicians and intellectuals in early postcolonial Sudan.
Reason and Resistance
For those more interested in modes of political control in authoritarian states, in December Elena Goukassian penned a fascinating piece in Lapham’s Quarterly about the associations between time and power. She argues that the standardisation of time zones from the mid-19th century onwards has provided a means for authoritarians across the world to assert control over populations and manoeuvre towards important geopolitical allies.
As she suggests, as political power consolidated within the state, actors on the periphery resisted. Quan Nguyen offers some context for the recent attacks of prominent politicians on schoolchildren protesting about climate change, reminding us that the ‘understanding that emotions must be tamed for the sake of rational discourse…stands in a long tradition of Western philosophy’. Victoria Brooks goes into much greater detail about this Cartesian tradition, emphasising its gendered character, and calling for new philosophies which do not ‘value ideas over bodily sensations’.
Of course, developing new philosophies of life in an increasingly authoritarian and xenophobic global political climate demands intercontinental networking. On this note, it is worth rounding off this blog with the movements and arguments of two very different but equally determined internationalist activists in the mid-20th century. Samuel Zipp argues that Wendell Willkie – a little known Republican nominee for President in 1940 who later travelled across Africa and the Middle East observing the spread of nationalist movements – engineered an egalitarian and anti-imperialist vision of international order which is worth re-examining today. Carolien Stolte looks into an anti-imperialist actor with greater affective and symbolic reach among decolonising African and Asian peoples – African-American singer and activist Paul Robeson. Despite the US State Department preventing him travelling over a period of 8 years through the 1950s, by 1958 Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was calling for ‘a widespread celebration or Robeson’s sixtieth birthday’. This was thanks to the ingenuity of countless Global South activists and internationalists many of whom were inspired by Robeson’s music. Their refusal to be bowed by censorious states and a global atmosphere of growing political cynicism perhaps offers hope today.
Tom Shillam is PhD student at the University of York who holds a Departmental Scholarship from the Department of History. His research considers how mid-20th century South Asian intellectuals synthesised anti-authoritarian ideas of their own with those of writers elsewhere to propose a different decolonising politics to the dominant developmentalist dogmas of the time. Catch him on Twitter @tomshillam.