Europe and Colonial Guilt in the Age of Apology
by Mike Ungersma
“The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being- it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.”
― Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
In philosophy, there is a concept known as ‘infinite regression,’ a helpful notion in trying to establish causation. It involves determining what caused whatever one is examining, and then looking at the cause of that event, and the one before that, and so on. Or, as the website Conservapedia puts it: “An infinite regression is a proposed chain of causation in which each purported cause itself requires another event of exactly the same type to cause it.” According to one contemporary philosopher however, there is an important qualification before infinite regression can be accurately employed in examining any cause back to its origin. Steve Patterson writes:
. . . each proposition in the chain – without exception – is contingent on its preceding premises. Each proposition is like an empty vessel, dependent on the truth-value of the premise before it. If there’s a falsehood anywhere in the chain, it poisons every conclusion which follows.
In the complex world of history, where trying to figure out why events took the turn they did, such reasoning may be problematic. But it nonetheless seems to form the basis for countless arguments currently raging around colonialism. Occupying someone else’s land for profit and exploitation is bad, hence all of the bad events that followed that initial action must also be bad, unlawful and immoral. As an example, take Owen Jones, columnist for Britain’s Guardian, and earlier, The Independent. It was in the latter that Jones attempted ‘exposing’ the evils of especially British colonialism. In one column, after citing instances of colonial cruelty in British India, South Africa and the Sudan, he goes on to argue that while colonialism might have technically ended decades ago, its legacy lives on:
Hundreds of millions still suffer from the consequences of colonialism. As the then-South Africa President Thabo Mbeki put it in 2005, colonialism left a “common and terrible legacy of countries deeply divided on the basis of race, colour, culture and religion”. Across Africa, the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent, conflicts and divisions created or exacerbated by colonialism remain.
Jones, and countless other commentators, are now part of a growing cottage industry condemning colonisation. They are joined by thousands of students and their professors, action groups and charities, and even many politicians. Their collective viewpoint is the accepted canon in academia and elsewhere. To question them or their reasoning can be a perilous business. Ask Bruce Gilley. A professor of political science at Portland State University in Oregon, Gilley questioned the long-established orthodoxy in an article last year for the academic journal, Third World Quarterly, entitled “The Case for Colonialism.”
“Western colonialism,” he claimed, “was, as a general rule, both objectively beneficial and subjectively legitimate in most of the places where it was found.”
Gilley went further: “The countries that embraced their colonial inheritance, by and large, did better than those that spurned it.” And, “It is hard to overstate the pernicious effects of global anti-colonialism on domestic and international affairs since the end of World War II.”
The Third World Review, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, is published by Taylor and Francis. Within weeks of airing Gilley’s article, it was withdrawn “at the request of the academic journal editor, and in agreement with the author.” Taylor and Francis claimed to have been threatened with violence, as did Galley himself.
The London-based Independent, covered the incident extensively:
An online petition calling for an apology and retraction from Third World Quarterly, attracted 6,936 signatures and accused Prof Gilley of “pseudo-scholarship” and arguments that “reek of colonial disdain for indigenous peoples … with the predictably racist conclusion.”
The lead drafter of the petition, Jenny Heijun Wills, associate professor of English and Director of the Critical Race Network at the University of Winnipeg added: “In our current political context, the lives and safety of refugees, and allies are being threatened by radicalised white supremacist groups.
“These kinds of ideas are not simply abstract provocations, but have real, material consequences for those who Prof Gilley seeks to dominate and objectify.”
The Independent, 12 October 2017
The rage about colonialism feeds into so many contemporaneous disputes: immigration, nationalism, populism, racism itself, issues surrounding multiculturalism, overseas aid, ‘state-building’, and on and on. As long ago as 1971, in his T. S. Elliot Lecture Series at the University of Kent, cultural historian George Steiner identified the trend: “Seeking to placate the furies of the present, we demean the past.” He went on:
We soil that legacy of eminence which, whatever our personal limitations, we are invited to take part in, by our history, our Western languages, by the carapace and, if you will, burden of our skins. The evasions, moreover, the self-denials and arbitrary restructurings of historical remembrance which guilt forces on us, are usually spurious. The number of human beings endowed with sufficient empathy to penetrate genuinely into another ethnic guise, to take on world-views, the rules of consciousness of a coloured or ‘third-world’ culture, is inevitably very small. Nearly all of the Western gurus and publicists who proclaim the new penitential ecumenism, who profess to be brothers under the skin with the roused, vengeful soul of Asia or Africa, are living a rhetorical lie.
It is what another academic, Professor Amikam Nachmani, of Bar Ilan University, Israel, has called ‘the haunted present,’ the title of his 2017 book. He notes:
This European colonial debt is prevalent particularly among the Left and liberals of the continent’s political map and is a paralysing drug. These circles feel guilty because of their countries’ imperialism, slavery, ethnocentrism, racism and oppression of minorities in Europe and suppression of national aspirations in the colonial world. They consequently reveal their understanding and even express sympathy with the Muslim migrant who reacts violently against the ‘white’ majority. The paralysing result is manifested in calls for European authorities not to insist on the assimilation of the newcomer, not to expatriate immigrants already on the continent.
“The essential element of a nation is that all its individuals must have many things in common”, and “they must also have forgotten many things.” A remark attributed to the 19th century French philosopher, Ernest Renan. In other words, part of being a nation can involve getting its history wrong, and most do. Moreover, most are highly selective about their history, understandably so since a country’s collective memory is its collective identity. Self-evidently, Britain’s heavy involvement in the slave trade – a hugely profitable ‘business’ – was morally wrong. And remarkably, it went on for half a millennia. Can it be judged in terms of today’s morality? Of course, just as future generations will condemn and chastise the present generation for its failure to stop war, halt the spread of disease and famine, and tolerate inequality.
So, in the ‘Age of Apology’ what is to be done about the sins of our fathers?
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa, “my fault, my fault, my most grievous fault” – lines from the Confiteor that are part of the Roman Catholic Mass. In an echo of that ritual, the colonial nations of Europe approach the ‘altar of history,’ acknowledging their forefathers were wrong and behaved badly, pushing the very topic into the mainstream of public awareness almost to a level of self-loathing. This is unique in human history. George Steiner:
What other races have turned in penitence to those whom they once enslaved, what other civilizations have morally indicted the brilliance of their own past? The reflex of self-scrutiny in the name of ethical absolutes is, once more, a characteristically Western, post-Voltairian act.
On bended knee and prostrate before their God, Catholics strike their breasts with each utterance of this passage from the ancient Latin mass, praying for forgiveness of their sins. Is Europe now sharing in a similar rite of mea culpa? Self-flagellation is meaningless to those who were harmed over the centuries of colonial oppression. And on a practical level, what meaning can it have to their descendants? Would it not be better to employ the energies expended in this bitter debate dealing with the sins of our own age which future generations will hold the us responsible? In the words of the priest at the end of another Catholic rite, the confession, “Go forth and sin no more.”
Mike Ungersma, Cardiff, Wales, May 2018