Shedding Imperial Conceit

06/27/2015 08:47 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2016

In the summer of 1971, I spent some time in London on my way to Lebanon where I was to begin my dissertation research. I had left the United States consumed with our long war in Vietnam. Out of my American bubble, I was soon to discover a world in which it appeared "all hell was breaking loose." There were coups, wars, and ethnic strife consuming Northern Ireland, Sudan, Israel/Palestine and India/Pakistan.

Being addicted to news, each morning I would read as much of the press as I could. I became intrigued by and invested in these many conflicts and was satisfied, at first, to find the reporting sufficient to whet my appetite for daily developments in each of the unfolding crises. What I found disconcerting, however, were the headlines, the opinion columns, the editorials and the political cartoons. All too often, they were, in a word, racist.

Irish, African, Arab and South Asian alike were crudely caricatured. Their conflicts were portrayed as the unfortunate but expected behavior of lesser species.

At one point, it dawned on me how to account for this British fascination with and condescension toward these particular conflicts. All had been former British colonies and all these peoples had been (or, in the case of the Irish, still were) British subjects. The Empire was gone, but imperial conceit was alive and well.

I thought about this disturbing mindset last week during the Western World's celebrations of the 800th Anniversary of Magna Carta. There were elaborate commemorative events and significant press commentary on the meaning of the document.

Writers, however, were not of one mind. Magna Carta was seen as either "the foundation of western liberalism and the bedrock of the rule of law" or as an "irrelevant document" whose importance has been "exaggerated and distorted".

Those who made the "bedrock" case frequently quoted this Magna Carta passage:

No Freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised [wrongly deprived] of his Freehold, or Liberties, free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will we pass upon him. Nor condemn him. But by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land...we will not deny or defer to any many either Justice of Right.

One can argue whether this noble statement of rights was merely aspirational, since the 1215 A.D. document had no real impact, or inspirational, in that it provided the basis on which future generations could build. This debate, however, misses an important point.

I would argue that what Magna Carta and its successors, in fact, created was the veneer of liberalism, tolerance and rule of law -- which, while providing for the rights of a few, masked the horrors of colonial oppression. Donning the mantle of liberalism, Britain justified its imperial conquest and its subjugation of one-fifth of humanity as an enlightened and civilizing venture, the goal of which, they claimed, was to lift up the less civilized preparing them for self-rule.

However much apologists for the Empire promoted this fiction, the entire enterprise was, in reality, a mask designed to justify the crude plunder of the world's riches and the enslavement of its peoples. And, when their subjects rebelled, callous neglect or horrific violence followed. The histories of the Irish, the Africans, the Arabs, and the South Asians are replete with tales of massacres, imposed famine, denial of freedom, mass imprisonment and torture. Thus the very rights the British claimed for themselves were denied to those whom they saw as less deserving.

This is not mere ancient history. It is playing out today, and not just in the consequences of British (or French, or German, or American) imperial misadventures. It informs our Western portrayal of the "East" and our understanding of its peoples. We still see ourselves as the civilized world, the bearers of universal values. And we still portray the "East" as less civilized, more prone to violence, less respectful of human life and liberty.

No doubt, the brutality of Syria's long and ugly war, the horrors of the so-called "Islamic State", the grotesque sectarian violence in Pakistan, Nigeria and Burma, and terror of Hamas help to fuel these caricatures. But before we make judgments about "the uncivilized East", we need to recall the hundreds of millions killed by the "civilized West" during the last century in Europe and in the rebellious colonies, and the hundreds of thousands killed in the past decade in Iraq.

It is for this reason that our starting point in any discussion ought to be one of self-awareness and humility. This does not render us mute in the face of cruel acts of inhumanity. But it does caution against speaking from the vantage point of undeserved superiority, since, in many instances, it is our actions that may have spawned the very atrocities we are condemning and, in our own history, we have behaved just as abominably. Self-awareness doesn't silence us, rather it challenges us to modify the approach we use and the tone we take in speaking about contemporary horrors.

Just as it was both unseemly and unproductive for the British press to demean the Irish or the Pakistanis, it is equally so for Americans to ignore our recent history in Iraq, or for the Israelis to ignore their behavior toward the Palestinians, or for the French to remain blind to the consequences of their brutal occupation of Algeria.

Only when we understand and acknowledge our past and shed our imperial conceit will we be ready to play a constructive role in challenging and correcting current abuses and working to create a better future.

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