Monday, February 20, 2012

The Whole Earth Is the Tomb of English People

'Let us not apologize for being the nation which turned out to be the best at colonization.' Seventeen words near the end of an obscure book by an even more obscure publisher. Yet it’s practically a manifesto, the un-coded response to the decline of Western hegemony by a sector of the public in Britain and in its former colonies. How broad a sector, it’s hard to say, and would be instructive to properly investigate. But in the meantime we can savour that phrase. Let us not apologise. Indeed not. For being the best at. Who would apologise for being very good at something? Colonization. Oh.

Duncan Balmer’s The Whole Earth Is the Tomb of English People predates Niall Ferguson's Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World by two years. They weren’t idle years, either, for the rehabilitation of our supposedly shared colonial past has taken rather different tones this side of 9/11. It is possibly interesting too that by the time the two books were published their respective authors had left Britain. Ferguson, to take up a post at New York University. Balmer, to work as an investment advisor in Auckland. It is therefore unsurprising that both books should be concerned as much with historical Britain as with its idealised double, a nation of the mind, which in Balmer’s case takes in fact the proper name of England in order for the roots of British exceptionalism to be dug deeper, extending the colonial (and patriarchal) logic to the home country itself. For Balmer is especially careful to inform us that the grievances of the Scottish, Welsh and most importantly Irish people are morally and historically baseless, and so apparently is their claim to belong to the British nation and share in its achievements. It is all for England and about England, precisely because the core nation is defined by the absence of such grievances and of otherness more generally. It is history with the occasional blemish but without negation.

Balmer’s book is not ostensibly about the British Empire, however. Its stated aim is rather to show how England’s history, borrowing from a quote attributed to Pericles, ‘abides everywhere, woven into the stuff of other people’s lives’ (13), and so it proceeds to enumerate the English inventions – the jury trial, Common Law, the Anglican Church, driving on the left, Parliament, several popular sports, the English language as lingua franca, Greenwich Mean Time, and so forth – that continue to have a significant influence outside of the geographical confines of their nation of origin. Here Balmer overlooks the obvious point that some of these inventions are so widespread because of Britain’s imperial successes. Many items on his list are also to be found in fact in Ferguson’s list of the features of British society that the Empire introduced in its colonies, which goes like this:
1. The English language
2. English forms of land tenure
3. Scottish and English banking
4. The Common Law
5. Protestantism
6. Team Sports
7. The limited or ‘night watchman’ state
8. Representative assemblies
9. The idea of liberty (Empire, xxii)
So powerful was the idea of liberty, Ferguson and Balmer agree, that no matter how despotic the empire became, ‘there was almost always a liberal critique of that behaviour from within British society’ (Empire, ibid.), and that commitment to liberty gave the British Empire it’s peculiar ‘self-liquidating feature’ – this is Ferguson again – which made it difficult for the rulers, once a colony had become British enough to aspire to political independence, to find sufficient justification to deny that aspiration.

To the extent that Balmer’s book is more interesting than Ferguson’s, it is in that it is more naïve, less guarded, and frankly more of a mess. You won’t find a single coherent argument in The Whole Earth, but you will find the naked unravelling of the thought patterns of the apologists, as if under a compulsion. The book that doesn’t want to be about Empire, just be allowed to indulge in jingoistic pride, must nonetheless grapple with the ghosts of history and in so doing expose its bankrupt logic.

One of the 914 (to date) establishing shots of England’s greatness in Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey

As in Downton Abbey, at the centre of the plot is heritage, an inheritance. The dedication of The Whole Earth to ‘Avril, Charlie and A.J.’ reads
You’ve all got English blood in your veins; be proud of it.
There is an obvious contradiction between the essentialist appeal to an ancestral bloodline and the celebration of England’s pride on the grounds of its superior ideas, as there is more fundamentally between the desire to own past achievements and the injunction to forgive and forget past wrongdoings. ‘It is surely anachronistic to still be harping on about all the alleged crimes of the English after all these years, (128)’ bleats Balmer on the subject of Irish history, without seeming equally inclined to let us forget just who it is who came up with all the good stuff.

But it would be wishful to suppose that England’s greatness could be affirmed without pointing out the shortcomings of the peoples that came under its rule. It’s like when Paul Holmes told Hone Harawira that colonisation hadn’t been so bad, I mean, now we have refrigerators in which to keep all the crayfish, don’t we (the wry smile that Harawira mustered in response is beyond my descriptive powers. You’ll find it at around 8 minutes 30 seconds of this video), which hinted simultaneously at the wretched backwardness of the native and the modernising benevolence of the conqueror, nor it could in that context have done one without the other. So too Balmer feels the need to account for the primitive political institutions and the turmoil of the nations that Britain came to colonise, most notably perhaps in the case of India, for which he blames ‘the debilitating mutual hatreds and jealousies of separate Indian states’ (136) for forcing the hand of the otherwise reluctant British State, later noting that the eventual post-colonial country was made viable by the institutions left by the departed power, and was never run so well as then the people who introduced those institutions were in charge. Of the same tenor is the observation that Australian aborigines and the New Zealand Māori would have carried on their merry stone age way had the British not taken it upon themselves to civilise them.

However Balmer is not content to suggest that Britain improved the lot of the countries it subjugated. He must also – again, like Ferguson – advance the view that it produced the most benign of all empires, and furthermore that there was no historical alternative to colonialism. If at any time in the last five hundred years you happened to sit on some natural resources and not be terribly advanced from a military-technological standpoint, Britain was simply the best thing that could (and, sooner or later, would) happen to you. Or, if you prefer: the past is a foreign country, and we had to invade it.

It is at this point that Balmer drops the line with which I started this post, and inside of which so many post-colonial attitudes are roughly crammed. However it is quite conceivable that even if Balmer were more honest and thorough in his assessment of any of the suffering caused by British imperialism – say, if he didn’t completely neglect to mention the Bengal famine of 1770, or if he didn’t shift entirely onto the Irish and Anglo-Irish landlords the blame for the disastrous handling of the Great Irish Famine – he would come to the same exculpating conclusion: that England’s dominion over so many nations was the only historically available expression of its cultural primacy, and that its net effect over those nations was a positive one, both in that it spared them from greater suffering at the hand of worse masters, and in that it accelerated their trajectory towards an enlightened modernity that values liberty and has no need for empires. Thus the value and full appreciation of the independence of the colonised is supplied by the coloniser, who only asks in return to be able to live, roam and work in the peaceful, globalised world he (sic) has created.

Except the author is not lucid enough to explicitly draw those conclusions. Instead, when the argument reaches a climax, it ejaculates into a non-sequitur, leaving us to fill the gap in logic. As in the following passage:
And while we are on the subject of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, the English not be ashamed of their history vis-à-vis these peoples either. Whatever the true facts surrounding England’s alleged heinous crimes and injustices, that was the nature of the times in which our ancestors lived: life was “nasty, brutish and short”, and the Scots, Welsh and Irish would most assuredly have done the same things to us (and occasionally did) if we had not done them better and more often to them.

Arise, England! (150)

Downton Abbey: now with 20% more lintels.

Crude, retrograde fantasies of past Western grandeur: is it really a wonder that they are so popular at the present time? Is it surprising that there is so much comfort to be found for so many in retreating to a past that has excellent production values, if not always a decent or believable plotline? Thus Downton Abbey finds value in the aristocracy in spite of everything, always teasing the viewer that a critique of its archaic social order and values may be just around the corner – the socialist chauffeur will do something, any minute now – only to revert every single time to its reactionary, paternalistic reflexes. Like when the scheming, promiscuous visiting maid counsels Daisy, the young cook's apprentice, to demand that her pay be increased by being confrontational and threatening to seek other employment, instead of politely petitioning her present superiors; or in any of the plots that involve Thomas, the evil gay valet – who as of series 2 is either evil or gay, but no longer both at the same time – and his disorderly ambitions, his desire to go off script and be something or somebody else.

The expository nature of these fantasies suggests that they wish to educate as much as to entertain. How else to explain the single most redundant detail of The Whole Earth, namely the appendix with dates and names of the Kings and Queens of England? A list one could find anywhere, but that signals in this context a precise pedagogical end, or rather a longing – later famously shared by the serving Tory State Secretary for Education – for the school system that insisted you should memorise those dates and names, because they meant something, and that you should be proud of that knowledge and those meanings, proud of the symbols of past glory. But most importantly, that you should never, ever feel the need to apologise.

Duncan Balmer. The Whole Earth Is the Tomb of English People. Auckland: Third Opinion Publishing, 2000.

Niall Ferguson. Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World. London: Allen Lane, 2002.

I stopped short of linking Balmer's book that Paul Holmes' recent outburst on the Waitangi Day protests, largely because it has been covered extensively and better than I could have. I'll refer you therefore to Diane Revoluta's response and Scott Hamilton's outstanding summation following Hone Harawira's counter op-ed in the Herald. Bloggers doing what they do best.