Blog Round Up!: March-April 2019

Tom Shillam

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.

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Blog Round-Up!: January-February 2019

Tom Shillam

The beginning of 2019 has seen much commentary on authoritarianism, political violence and student activism across the academic blogosphere. Here, I summarise some pieces that draw on new research by promising scholars, which will hopefully offer food for thought and debate!

A fitting place to start might be Brexit and the political wrangling, factionalism and jingoistic posturing it continues to unleash. Not only are leading Brexiteers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg becoming more strident; those who oppose Brexit in the major parties are splitting away to form an ‘Independent Group’ which straddles both.

This brings to mind Andrew Heath’s piece for History Matters, based at the University of Sheffield, on whether the American Civil War can teach us anything today. Heath proposes that the splits we are seeing in 2019 Britain resemble those wrought by the ‘slavery question’ in the 1850s United States – dominated similarly by two political parties – though he is careful not to elide today’s Europe question with slavery in scale or moral consequence.

What is clear is that domestic political discourse around Brexit is deeply imbued with authoritarian and violent undertones which speak to the importance of submerged, brutal histories. Karis Campion, observing the bitter hostility and ridicule meted out to Labour MP Diane Abbott on the BBC’s Question Time of 17 January – and the routine sexist and racist abuse directed at her on social media – employs the concept of  ‘misogynoir’ in considering how ‘both sexism and racism manifest in black women’s lives to create intersecting forms of oppression’.

The history of British colonialism explains this. Noting that lighter-skinned black women such as Meghan Markle receive comparably less abuse, Campion explores the histories of Caribbean plantation societies. Here, while black slave women were routinely raped, mixed-race women were used as an ‘intermediary between black and white’, sometimes becoming part of new managerial classes. Campion proposes that these ‘historical societal structures’ explain ‘misogynoir’, which ‘systematically devalues darker-skinned women’.

At the same time as history excludes some, it serves others. Kojo Koram focusses on the irony of Brexiteer MPs employing the language of national liberation in a country which historically understood itself to be too ‘civilised’ for ‘overt nationalism’. In the recent past, the language of national liberation was an anti-colonial one which paternalist British elites scorned; but Koram observes a parity of intent between today’s Brexiteer elite and certain postcolonial elites of the 20th-century, whose rhetoric sometimes concealed lust for newfound political and cultural power. Understanding where such political languages come from, Koram suggests, is one step to exposing dishonest latter-day adherents.

Other interesting pieces on the themes of race, resistance and authoritarianism in colonial history include Marlene Daut’s article on the Kingdom of Hayti, and Teju Cole’s article in the New York Times on the camera as an instrument of imperialism. Daut’s is a readable and informative piece on ex-slave Henry Christophe who became king of the first free black state in the Americas. Cole’s thorough and profound piece makes powerful arguments about how photography and photojournalism – which, when paired with a ‘political freedom of movement’, has often served to ‘aestheticize suffering’ – practiced more carefully can catalyse public action on key issues.

Ayona Datta, writing in The Conversation about how young women living on the outskirts of Delhi are using selfies to challenge standard orderings of public space, agrees with Cole that photography can be both a liberating and dangerous act. The locations where young women snap selfies, and their immediate surroundings, provide insights into control over women’s bodies in contested urban settings. Datta suggests the selfies express deeper yearnings and anxieties than ‘a simple rendition of a millennial trend’.

Indeed, studying the political arguments and expressions of the young matters to understanding contemporary politics on several continents. Dan Hodgkinson and Luke Melchiorre highlight the agency of radical students in 1960s and 1970s Africa in pushing alternate pan-Africanist and socialist decolonisation projects which authoritarian postcolonial states combatted.

Elsewhere, Associate Professor of History Elspeth Brown explores the history of Canada’s first gay student organisation, the ‘University of Toronto Homophile Association’, founded in 1969. The body prefigured today’s LGBT liberation movements in the region, and Brown includes audio clips from lead activist Jearld Moldenhauer which shine a light on the challenges – including unemployment – Moldenhauer faced for his agitation.

Finally, returning to the theme of the language and concepts employed to stigmatise disadvantaged groups and populations, Kate McAllister of the University of Sheffield writes about the history of mental health treatment in Britain. Charities like Mind are currently calling for ‘parity of esteem’ between mental and physical health conditions as politicians move painfully slowly – if at all – to recognise the country’s ongoing mental health crisis. McAllister investigates how in early 20th-century welfare legislation, the concept of the ‘unconscious’ was used to brand mental health problems imaginary. Again, the detailed study of history and its organising concepts and narratives offers crucial insights into today’s problems.

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.