Oh my, how things haven’t changed By William Bowles

10 May 2006

‘[I]f force enough can be concentrated on the area most concerned in the next few weeks, the back of the [Mau Mau] conspiracy may be broken.’ -The Manchester Guardian, September 1952

For those readers old enough (or well up on history) what strikes one about the current situation is just how nothing has actually changed when it comes to how the media covers events of importance, especially when it’s ‘us’ versus ‘them’, the ‘us’ being white, European/American ‘civilisation’ and the ‘them’—well pretty much the rest of the planet.

‘[The Mau Mau] appreciate at least some aspects of western civilisation … [but the] Mau Mau does not seek a larger share in the benefits … it rejects them in favour of the relatively barbaric traditions of pre-European Africa.’

The same ‘liberal’ Guardian went to say this of the Kenyan people, that it is:

‘not infrequent in primitive societies [when] confronted with an advanced society which is so far beyond them that they cannot feel that they can ever play a worthy part in it.’

The tabloid press went for more lurid expressions to describe the Land and Freedom Army (or the Mau Mau as the Western media deliberately (mis)labeled them):

‘Whirling their broad-blade double-edged knives the thugs slashed the middle-aged couple about the head and arms and ran.’ – The Daily Express, October 1952

One can trawl the press archives and find the same kind of garbage describing events in dozens of countries of the former colonial empires right down to the specific words and phrases, even entire theses that articulate the same kind of nonsense about ‘international conspiracies’ and ‘alien ideologies’ out to destroy Western ‘civilisation’. The more things change the more they stay the same.

Such descriptions can be found as far back as two hundred years ago and no doubt long before the mass media was a glimmer in the eye of capitalism, for what it reveals is a mindset borne not only of ‘might over right’ but of an entire ideology, a way of thinking about how the world works.

It resides in the books and comics we read as children, in the ‘education’ we have gotten at school, let alone the mass media that is reinforced by a patriarchal culture that celebrates military victories extending back literally centuries.

One need only walk around any city or town in the country to find an endless array of statues and memorials to fallen warriors, battles fought, generals, admirals, politicians and patriots, not to mention colonial explorers who ‘discovered’ this and that country or continent, bringing with them the ‘superior values’ of Western ‘civilisation’.

No wonder therefore that the public are so easily persuaded when most of us have been literally submerged in a culture of what is presented to us as the innate superiority of the white ‘race’ over all others.

It seems to me therefore that before we can even talk of getting rid of imperialism, we have an immense struggle to overcome a culture of superiority (and one counter-balanced by a deep sense of insecurity) deeply embedded in society.

It also helps to explain why even after over a century of struggle by socialists and other progressives, we are further away now than we have ever been from bringing about real change.

It further reinforces the centrality of media to the struggle and why it is imperative to explore and to expose the mechanics of the ideology of superiority of one society over another.

I address this specifically to those of us who spend an enormous amount of time and energy creating an avalanche of exposés of how imperialism works on the objective level, not that this isn’t important but without unpacking the subjective nature of imperialist propaganda that exploits the insecurities of life even as it reinforces the illusion of the potential to lose our comfortable existence to the ‘alien hordes’ who lie in wait, it avoids the reality that fundamental change will only come about with a transformation of consciousness.

No doubt I will be accused of some kind of psycho-babble with talk of changing one’s consciousness but I only have to recall my own experience of the struggle I had to break free from a welter of misconceptions I harboured about my relationship to the world and especially to people of colour. I was after all, in spite of being a third generation ‘red diaper baby’, the product of a (former) colonial empire, mis-educated at school along with the rest of the unfortunate youth of this misbegotten, rotten society.

At Saturday morning pictures, I soaked up ‘cowboy and Indian’ flicks along with my mates, I read Biggles and his struggles with ‘swarthy A-rabs’ and other alien entities who threatened ‘civilisation’ without comprehending the hidden messages buried in such crap. Luckily for me, my folks ‘propaganda’ was more persuasive than the stuff I got at school and at the Ritz, Balham as was my exposure to the people my folks hung out with who came from the four corners of the planet.

How much of that propaganda—because that’s what it was—did I soak up? And imagine what it was like for my contemporaries who had nothing to counter-balance the Audi Murphys and the Tarzans.

Perhaps it was also my feeling of being ‘different’ that contributed to my awareness of those around me who were more obviously labelled as ‘different’ and the sense that we shared something in common even if then, I had no real idea what it was.

Reared in a thick soup of imperial imagery even though it projected a world that no longer existed, it nevertheless incorporated the citizens of the former empire totally, even those like my grandparents who were immigrants, who were, in the space of a single generation, thoroughly Anglicised culturally if not politically.

Today, with the resurgence of the old imperial ambitions, it can be argued that the entire armoury has been re-invented, re-worked, much of it with a smug, ‘I told you so’ sub-text as well the obvious ‘heritage’ bullshit.

Admiral Nelson, the Battle of Waterloo and the rest of ‘our’ imperial past has been recast to fit the new circumstances but the message is clear; we were Great then and we can be Great again (I’ve even seen the tag-line used ‘Let’s put the Great back in Britain’).

For a population deep in debt and dissatisfaction and one that never escaped its parochialism, such images are powerful medicine.

How else does one explain the fact that the awful nightmare that has been visited on the people of Iraq doesn’t provoke one almighty howl of outrage and horror? We are complicit as a nation in a crime of such monstrous proportions that it beggars belief, yet it sinks like a lead balloon beneath our vision, drowned in a sea of sentimentality and nostalgia for a past that never existed in the first place and which also seeks to rationalise it, drawing yet again on a completely fictitious notion of civilisation that is alleged, we are ‘giving’ the Iraqi people!

Yes, we can blame master criminals Bush and Blair and an utterly complicit and criminal media but ultimately we cannot escape our own responsibility for permitting a crime of this scale from taking place.

The conditioning is so pervasive as to be invisible unless one makes a conscious effort to penetrate beyond the obvious. Central to the process is the simple fact that capitalist society will do everything in its power to stop you being yourself. This may sound trite but most of us live in fear of losing ‘our identity’ when the reality is that what we call our identity is actually something external, supplied to us by the dominant culture.

Thus men for example are afraid of losing their ‘masculinity’ when confronted with the reality that fifty percent of the population have been exploited for centuries.

Artificial debates rage around this single issue much of which centres on what men will ‘lose’ if women are accorded the rights that are theirs. And as the ‘debate’ enters what I regard as its final phase, we see an entire ‘science’ develop that in a desperate rearguard action seeks a solution in our genes, a ‘solution’ that has all the appearance of being objective.

We need only look back to the 19th century to see a comparable ‘science’ developed that sought to justify colonialism on exactly the same basis namely that there were innate, that is genetic differences between the white ‘race’ and the black that justified the status quo.

Today, the argument might be a tad more subtle but it amounts to the same thing. The mass media is only too quick to exploit these pseudo-scientific ideas; books are written, television programmes created, an entire industry arises around the single idea that there are innate differences between men and women that justify the preservation of the current order.

Universities expend millions exploring these useless pursuits, careers are built on sand as hypotheses come and go as quickly as they can be dreamt up. Thus one day we read that there is a gene which does this or that only to find that there is in actuality an infinity of combinations not only of genes but of the interplay between ‘nature and nurture’ that makes such ideas entirely useless as an explanation for anything of real value.

But of course, it’s not important that one or another of these ideas makes sense but that we are kept in permanent state of unease about who we really are. Moreover, the endless creation by ‘experts’ of this or that ‘explanation’ also serves to keep us in a constant state of insecurity, ‘all that is solid melts into air’.

On the positive side however, the very fact that capitalist culture feels so under threat that it has to expend so much energy dreaming up ‘explanations’ for why the world is so fucked up, reveals a deep insecurity.

I contend therefore that there are two, complimentary struggles taking place; one on the objective level, over resources and the battle for autonomy taking place mostly in the developing world and the other, a subjective one, equally as difficult but taking place on a different kind of battlefield.

Thus, whilst it is important for us to express our solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Iraq or Venezuela and do all we can to help them succeed, our own battle is here, and one that starts with ourselves, the most elusive terrain of all.

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