A non-partisan journal of the left.

Condemnation partly motivated by hindsight

Wed 26th Sep 2012

L. P. Hartley opens his novel, The Go-Between, with the astute observation that "the past is a foreign country. They do things differently there."

We are keen on condemning our fathers and forefathers for their abominable behaviour. Winston Churchill's vicious racism and Zionism. Kennedy's Vietnam imbroglio. Martin Luther King's womanising. The slave trade. To go much further back, the Church's awful marginalization of women out of the faith. Christ's ridiculous insistence on arbitrary laws to be obeyed blindly. The list is endless.

Chomsky, Said, Pappe and many others have poured scorn on the US' hypocritical foreign policy over the last century, probably at its ugliest in colluding with a colonial settler state displacing, torturing, injuring and murdering millions of Palestinians.

The condemnation of past behaviours has become fashionable. It is partly motivated by hindsight. It is also partly motivated by sheer outrage, as any decent and humane person cannot help but be outraged by man's often barbaric treatment of other human beings. Let us look at a very short extract from a BBC news report from 1953 during the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya (for the purpose of illustrating the article the picture is from the State of Emergency in Kenya).

A white settler describes an attack on her farmhouse. "Mrs Hessburger and I were in the sitting room and I was having a light supper, in the sitting room, and Mrs Hessburger had just turned on the wireless at nine o'clock to hear the BBC News and as she turned it on and got the signature tune she came over to the table where I was having sweets. She took a nut off the table and cracked it and the houseboy came through rather hurriedly which made us a little bit suspicious. We looked up and I said "They're here." There was a number of figures in the room, all strangers. I leapt out of my chair and, luckily, I had my revolver next to me and I shot the first boy that was coming towards me and then I heard Mrs Hessburger saying, "Be careful." I turned to her and I saw one of the boys on top of her, she on her back and the boy had her by the throat with a (illegible) over her head. At the time I didn't realise my dog, dog's a bitch, was tackling the boy and I shot this boy that was on top of Mrs Hessburger and I regret to say I shot my dog."

Of course, the passage needs to be heard rather than read. The listener would soon pick up the throaty imperial voice indifferently narrating the shooting of two black men whilst regretting the accidental shooting of the dog. Her very tone and utterly calm voice puts across the sheer inhumanity of her repellent racism. There is a terrifying revolutionary war going on. To the Kenyans it was a war of liberation from British rule. To the British it was a savage uprising by the backward and childlike black man who knew no better. Notice that the savagery of the war did not intrude into the supremely civilised "Mrs Hessburger and I" getting together "in the sitting room" and "having a light supper". And, as if to reiterate the clear white man's routine, the speaker repeats "in the sitting room" - as if she fears that her listeners might misunderstand that important little detail. Needless to say, it being nine o'clock, what does one do? Listen to the BBC of course. And so "Mrs Hessburger had just turned on the wireless at nine o'clock to hear the BBC News."

The next Dickensian bit of detail is magnificent. It is the very detail that George Orwell pointed out in one of Dickens's early Edinburgh news reports as being a stroke of genius: "And as she turned it on and got the signature tune she came over to the table where I was having sweets. She took a nut off the table and cracked it."

What delicious indifference to the rest of the world. So supremely British.

It reminded me of Mikdadi writing about 1982 when, during Israel's siege of Beirut, his sister phoned him to dictate her will given the death and injury of literally tens of thousands under Israeli bombing. He writes: "I scribbled her wishes down, put the receiver in its cradle and turned the television on to watch the news."

If Mikdadi were indigenous British he might have said, "I scribbled her wishes down, put the receiver in its cradle, made a cup of tea with two sugars, got two digestive biscuits bought at 45 pence a packet from Budgens as part of their summer sale and turned the television on to watch the news."

Instead he wrote: "I watched the news from burning Beirut and sunny Tel Aviv where thousands were sitting on spectacular beaches sunning themselves utterly oblivious or indifferent to what their Air Force was doing in spreading mayhem and death in a neighbouring city."

Just like our speaker enjoying her "light supper" and Mrs Hessburger taking and cracking a nut. This idyllic existence is suddenly interrupted by the savage black man in the person of the "houseboy" coming "through rather hurriedly". Not a man leading other men in a fight for independence, but a "houseboy".

To call a black man "boy" has always been used to infantilise the race just as sexist men call women "girls" in today's corporate world. Such designations maintain the old world order of governor and governed, the power politics of master and servant. The fact that the "boy" comes "rather hurriedly" (that wonderful British understatement) causes some suspicion - "which made us a little bit suspicious." For in our superior world we do not hurry neither do we waver from our daily routine. We only state the obvious: "We looked up and I said "They're here." There was a number of figures in the room, all strangers." And, of course, there was nothing to it when a groups of blacks come in hurriedly but to leap "out of my chair and, luckily, I had my revolver next to me and I shot the first boy that was coming towards me".

The speaker's utter indifference is delicious. Not even a hesitation or remote human regret. Just a shooting of a black man with a "revolver" that was "luckily" sitting "next to me." Mrs Hessburger, in the throes of being strangled, or worse with a black "boy on top of her", still manages to say rather calmly, "Be careful." And now we come to the best part of the narrative. The speaker tells us that, at the time she "didn't realise my dog, dog's a bitch, was tackling the boy." Note yet another wonderful detail about the dog being a bitch. She shoots the "boy" - to defend Mrs Hessburger. Then, exhibiting not the remotest regret or fellow feeling for having to shoot two black "boys", she shows her racist imperial priorities wonderfully: "...and I regret to say I shot my dog."

How do we judge such an event that took place some 60 years ago? And if we cannot judge it by today's standards, but rather within its own context of time, culture and period, how then, will we be judged in 60 years time? It does not bear thinking about - those very huge innocent eyes of my grandchild will look at me in 60 years and call me - what?

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