This is the text of the speech I made at the event ‘Western Democracy: Is It Worth Killing For?’, held at Bolivar Hall, London, on Monday 16 January 2012. You can watch the full event on Youtube.
What I want to talk about is the old idea of the white man’s burden, and how it relates to more fashionable ideas of ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’ that we talk so often about today.
Throughout history, oppressors have always looked for ways to justify oppression, to paint evil as good, to paint theft as charity, to paint murder as salvation.
This is certainly true of the system of colonialism, imperialism, Eurocentrism and white supremacy which has dominated the world for the last 500 years, and which has always sought to put a positive light on its very ruthless activities.
The transportation of tens of millions of slaves from Africa to the Americas; the Opium Wars; the murder of 10 million in Congo; the Nazi holocaust; the barbaric wars against Korea and Vietnam; the massacres in India, in Ireland, in Kenya, in Zimbabwe, in Palestine, in Australia, in the Americas. None of this was ever presented to people as what it was: part the ruthless quest for wealth, for money, for profit, for power.
No, it was done in the name of civilisation, of culture, of Christianity, of sharing, of progress.
Virtuous Europeans went round the world pulling the poor darkies out of their miserable backward existence. Never mind that Africa, the Middle East, Asia and the Americas all developed civilisation centuries before Europe did. Never mind that hundreds of millions were killed, enslaved, tortured and raped in this beautiful and poetic process of being ‘freed’. Never mind that this wonderful charitable activity of Europeans also happened to create the most enormous pole of wealth ever known. Never mind that the profits of the slave trade laid the basis for the industrial revolution, which in turn laid the basis for Britain’s dominance of the world. Never mind that the plunder of South America’s silver and gold laid the basis for the global financial system that still runs the world to this day.
These are but minor details - ultimately unimportant facts surrounding the spread of noble civilisation, culture and freedom.
A hundred years ago, this conception of history was described by the author Rudyard Kipling in one of his poems as the “white man’s burden”. He talks about the responsibility of the civilised, dutiful, charitable, humanitarian white man to help what he called the “half-devil half-child” peoples of the darker nations to achieve civilisation.
This was in 1899, just over a hundred years ago. It wasn’t considered controversial; Kipling wasn’t a niche fascist whose views were rejected in polite society. He summed up the dominant narrative of that era.
Now that in itself might be pretty shocking to some. More shocking is that this is STILL, in the year 2012, the dominant narrative. Yes, the vocabulary has changed. It’s not very ‘politically correct’ in this day and age to talk about the white man’s burden and about the innate superiority of white skin. But when you hear William Hague, Hillary Clinton and Nicholas Sarkozy talking about ‘humanitarian intervention’, about how it’s ok to bomb, kill and maim in order to spread ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’, they are merely using the updated language of the white man’s burden. They are promoting the idea of our western systems as being inherently superior to what exists in the rest of the world. And this provides the ideological and cultural framework for neo-colonialism, for imperialism - for the system that dominates the world today.
And this isn’t just a message that comes from politicians. Most people aren’t stupid enough to trust politicians. But it’s a message that pervades everything in our society.
Imperialism is not just a political and economic system. It’s also an ideological and cultural system. The guns and the dollars, the nukes and the assassinations, the privatisations and the invasions - these are always backed up with a complex combination of words, pictures and sounds which make up the dominant media, the dominant culture, the dominant academic trends. Just look at the what comes out of the mainstream TV channels; look at the ideas that are presented in Hollywood movies, or in popular music, or in the magazines we read, or in the news programmes we watch, or in the video games we play, or in the advertising we’re constantly exposed to, or in the college and school courses we attend.
For example, the 18th of May this year is an important date for your diaries - it’s the UK release date of Sacha Baron-Cohen’s latest film, The Dictator. This big-budget film, which will be distributed by Paramount and screened all round the world, “tells the heroic story of a dictator who risked his life to ensure that democracy would never come to the country he so lovingly oppressed.” Hahaha! Brilliant! The wit, the irony! A film about oppressive, undemocratic, brutal brown men like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qaddafi and Bashar al-Assad. And of course, it’s a mainstream film that will reach hundreds of millions of people, and basically is going to reinforce the idea that ‘humanitarian intervention’ - going to war in the name of democracy - is a Good Thing.
Now, you could make a perfectly interesting, gripping film that ran counter to the white man’s burden concept. You could make a film about how the CIA funded the fascist contras in Nicaragua and allowed them to raise funds by flooding the ghettoes of Los Angeles with cocaine. You could make a film about how the British fought wars against China for the right to push opium on the Chinese population. You could make a film about how the IMF’s neo-liberal agenda has trapped dozens of third world countries into spending more on debt servicing than they do on education. But it would be a niche film. You wouldn’t have a multi-million dollar budget. You wouldn’t have a distribution deal with Paramount. Your film wouldn’t get played at the local Cineworld.
Danny Glover talks about his difficulties getting funding for his film about Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian revolution. The production companies all told him that his film wasn’t commercially viable, that the audiences wouldn’t relate to it because there’s no white hero. If a white hero character could be inserted into the script, then perhaps the project would work. Now, if you know about the history of the Haitian revolution, you’ll know that writing a white hero into the script is a bit of a tall order! But this example shows the interesting and subtle way that the people with economic power are able to control culture and ideology.
It’s a similar situation with our music. Even the music that was created by oppressed people isn’t immune to the supremacist ideology. Look at hip-hop: yeah, it’s a wonderful vehicle for commenting on the state of the world and putting forward positive alternatives, but if you want any level of commercial success, you have to portray people of African origin as violent, sex-mad, materialistic clowns. That’s what’s going to get you a record deal.
The example of hip-hop goes to show that the white man’s burden narrative doesn’t only come out of the mouths of rich, white, Christian men. The hidden hand of the empire is strong enough and smart enough to train others in its ideology. They know how to fool people, and they know how to pay people. There are thousands of very eloquent, educated Latin American, Arab, Asian and African professors, journalists, lawyers and politicians who are trained in the west, who internalise western imperialist values and who go on to act as mouthpieces of imperialism. Just look at the role played by Al Jazeera in stirring up unrest in Libya and Syria.
As Steve Biko said: “the greatest weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed”.
So what do we get from this ideological and cultural barrage? Ultimately, we get the idea of SUPREMACY: the idea that *our* way is the best way. Everything about the ruling classes of Western Europe and North America (in short: the white power structure) is correct and good and right. Our culture is the best; our literature is the best; our science is the best; our economic system is the best; our systems of government are the best; our skin colour is the best; our civilisation is the best. The world needs free market capitalism. The world needs multi-party parliamentary democracy. And the world needs McDonalds hamburgers - those golden arches are perhaps the most vibrant and potent symbol of freedom ever known to man.
And because we have “the best”, it’s only right and logical that we allow others to have “the best”. We gotta spread this goodness! And on that basis, for example, in the interests of bringing civilisation to the cradle of civilisation, we can bomb Iraq into the stone age. Nobody can question our motives; nobody can highlight the oil deals or the rebuilding contracts; because everything was done in the interests of democracy, of getting rid of a “dictator”. The evil brown man had to go, and we should thank the good white men for getting rid of him.
The same idea of political and cultural superiority, with a generous topping of lies and disinformation, allowed us to ignore the destruction of Libya. Right now, it is preparing us to support the invasion of Syria and Iran. In fact, we haven’t opposed the existing sanctions against Syria and Iran, precisely because we’ve been presented with a completely biased view of the situation in those countries, and because our default position is to believe that we are ‘democratic’ and they are ‘undemocratic’, whatever those terms mean. And when I say “we”, I include the vast majority of the western left in that, which has been happily participating in the demonisation of Libya, Syria and Iran.
This ideology has to be exposed and defeated. And that good news is that it can be, really pretty easily. We don’t talk about the white man’s burden any more. We don’t talk about the scientific superiority of white skin, because people have proved it to be a load of nonsense. And it is just as easy for us to pick apart the load of nonsense about democracy (which is exactly why we’re having this meeting).
The contradictions of the democracy and human rights narrative are so obvious. After all, there have been hundreds of opposition movements in the oppressed countries over the decades that have fought for democracy and freedom, and yet the western democracy narrative only applies to a select few.
The west supported the right of so-called rebels in Libya to overthrow Qaddafi’s government, but it doesn’t support the right of black Libyans not to be lynched. It doesn’t think that racist rebel murderers torturing their opponents and forcing black people to climb up poles shouting “monkey need banana” is too much of a problem in terms of freedom and democracy.
William Hague supports the democratic uprising in Syria, but why didn’t his hero (Margaret Thatcher) support the democratic uprising in South Africa? Thatcher opposed sanctions against South Africa and described the ANC as terrorists. Nowadays, William Hague is one of the biggest cheerleaders for EU sanctions against Syria and Iran, and he scoffs at the idea that the Syrian opposition includes terrorist groups! It’s a well-known fact that there are organised armed groups in Syria attempting to use violent coercion for religious or ideological aims - that’s not a controversial point to make. But they’re not called terrorists in the western press; they’re called ‘terrorists’, with the old ironic inverted commas! Funnily enough, some of these militants fought in Iraq against the US occupation. When that was happening they were called terrorists. Now they’re fighting against an anti-west state, they are ‘terrorists’.
This contradiction of the democracy discourse is perhaps at its starkest in Palestine, where the western ruling classes praise Israeli democracy (it is after all a liberal democracy along western lines), condemn Palestinian terrorism, ignore Israeli state terrorism, and trample on Palestinian democracy when they don’t like the outcome (referring of course to the west’s refusal to deal with Hamas).
The US stands at the head of the so-called democratic world. But it doesn’t offer much democracy for the inhabitants of the prison camp on Guantanamo Bay. And it doesn’t offer much democracy to its prison population of over 2 million people. Over 1% of the population is incarcerated. If you’re a black male between the ages of 18 and 35, make that 25%. To be Black, Latin or indigenous in the US means to have your basic democratic rights constantly restricted. Prisoners aren’t even allowed to vote. So for North Americans to worry themselves about the lack of democracy in far-off countries about which they know hardly anything seems a little strange.
What about in Britain. Two million marched against war in Iraq - did the government listen? Where was democracy then? What about in the summer just gone, when masses of youth made it very clear what they think about racist policing, unemployment and cuts? Did the government start an immediate and wide-ranging dialogue? Where was the reform process? Or were teenagers sent to prison for the tiniest of crimes?
So it is totally clear that the idea of ‘democracy’ is being used as a fig leaf to justify the continued plunder of the world by the same old white western power structure that has ruled the roost for the last half millennium.
The only time the imperialist states are ever interested in any kind of political freedom is when they’re lobbying for the political freedom of their allies. They demands full political freedom for PRO-WEST individuals and groups around the world! They absolutely demand that the opposition in Syria be given full political rights, but they aren’t in the slightest bit concerned with the political rights of the opposition in Saudi Arabia. They demand full freedom for the oppositions in Iran, in South Africa, in Venezuela, in Cuba, in China, in Zimbabwe. But they’ve got no love for the opposition in Colombia, in Bahrain, in Jordan, or indeed at home.
So don’t buy into this stupid narrative. Expose it. Don’t be a dumb tool of the system. Especially those of us who live in the west need to have some humility and accept that we ourselves are in need of some democracy and have most definitely not found the solution to all mankind’s problems. Fanon said it nearly 50 years ago in ‘The Wretched of the Earth’ - read the conclusion! His message for the world is so clear: stop listening to these arrogant, murderous Europeans! They think they have all the answers, but they have created endless destruction across the planet! We have to experiment; we have to construct our own path, and we demand the space to do that.
When we in the west talk about the state of the world, our focus needs to be on the role of our own governments, our own corporations, on the role of imperialism. Yes, of course there are serious problems in Syria and elsewhere, but when we blame the victim for the crime, we are just joining in with the imperialist and zionist agenda. Why are there economic problems in Syria? Largely because of the liberalisation programme forced on the country by the IMF. So why blame this little Arab country trying to maintain its independence, when it’s the IMF that’s at fault? Why has there been a state of emergency for so long? Because of the permanent state of war with the country on the southern border - a country created by British imperialism in order to control the entire Middle East. Talk about a bad neighbour!
Huey Newton put it very simply and clearly: “there can be no real freedom until the imperialist - world-enemy-number-one - has been stripped of his power”. If we want democracy, if we want freedom, *that’s* what we need to focus on.