All I have is a voice/To undo the folded lie—W.H. Auden
This will be my final post from London this particular academic trip, and I thought I might remark briefly on how three seemingly disparate moments here this week created one larger narrative for me of the present relationship between the United States and England.
The first moment was my presentation in which I discussed and heavily criticized the historical British empire in relationship to Ireland. Although I did discuss the colonization of India and other countries in Africa by the British and so many other western countries, my overall focus was mostly on pre-World War II England and it’s relationship to Ireland.
I won’t bore everyone with too much academic jargon related to that issue, but my presentation did include this general sentence about colonization:
. . . once someone is exposed to the brutalities inflicted by the British, Spanish, Belgians, Portuguese, French, the Dutch (the list goes on) upon the native people of their colonies and territories or in their exploitive adventures during and beyond the Age of Discovery, it consumes interpretations under the rubric of postcolonial theory.
The key word here for the point I’m going to try to make is “brutalities.” This sentence was read at the University of London to a group of academics that included British citizens, and not only did no one even dispute the conclusion, most everyone probably agreed with it entirely, just like I do, as just common knowledge. But does the casual acceptance of the point breed a complacency that is dangerous? I wonder.
The second moment, or moments, were my visits to The British Museum, pictured above, which is right across a small street from the University of London. This is where the British people store their loot they stole from their many conquests, whether as individuals or as a country, from other countries throughout history.
The museum is a gorgeous physical space, and its location was literally about 50 feet away from my conference in a non-busy back entrance. It was also completely free and there were no long lines. Security people looked through your backpack or purse or whatever, and that was it. I went several times during the conference. I did one long visit, and then just walked in other times to get some water or a slice of pizza and walk around a bit during a conference break.
But the museum contents are built on the power on the colonizer, on conquest, on the king’s or queen’s right to do whatever they wanted, on the idea that one group of people is fundamentally better and more privileged than other people. It was built on racist ideas, on marginalizing and exoticizing “The Other.” It’s the white Western world telling the history of the entire world in self-serving ways. “Look everyone,” says the Western world using the voice of The British Museum, “this is what’s important about Africa and how it should be displayed and defined.” This holds true for larger American museums as well.
There’s no getting around the conundrum. Of course, the artifacts/loot should be kept and maintained, but it’s a limiting Western view of history that prevails there and elsewhere in the Western world.
The third moment was meeting an extremely conservative British man in a pub as I was eating dinner. As many people know, it’s common to share a table at a pub in a lot of European countries. The man, with whom I shared a table, was extremely conservative and plans to vote next week in favor of Britain (nicknamed “Brexit”) leaving the European Union. He believes that United States presidential candidate Donald Trump is just what the world needs right now because the Republican candidate won’t be afraid to use military power and he’s against immigrants. Of course, I got the clear sense the man only meant certain types of immigrants. I doubt this Brit would be upset if I immigrated to England.
The scourge of colonization now only casually and complacently condemned by the intelligentsia, an unapologetic museum of stolen treasures, a British man who hates immigrants and wants war, these are not just random connections. They portend a dangerous repetition of history that doesn’t need a professor to tie together. It’s happening in England. It’s happening in the U.S. symbolized by Trump and his followers. What Western countries contain the most dangerous ideologues now? Now is not the time to let our guard down.
In his famous poem, “September 1, 1930,” W.H. Auden wrote:
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
”We must love one another or die.” It sounds too easy and sappy, I know, especially given the recent mass shooting in Orlando, Fla. at a LGBTQ nightclub, the mass immigration crisis ongoing throughout the world because of current world violence and the perpetual problems of hunger and poverty that persist in the contemporary world. I could go on.
But all that doesn’t make the power of love less true.