The Malta Independent 18 August 2019, Sunday

Shipwrecked on our own islands – Part 2

Mark A. Sammut Sunday, 14 April 2019, 10:56 Last update: about 5 months ago

Last week, in Part 1, I addressed an issue which arose almost on the eve of Freedom Day: the George Cross on our flag.

I referred to the point raised by Charles Xuereb in this debate, and the fact that one of the usual responses he gets is that he is an ardent Francophile. My reactions: 1) it's not a quip, it's just a silly ad hominem response; 2) whether Charles Xuereb is a Francophile or not does not diminish the validity of his argument one iota and 3) the Napoleonic Wars have been over for more than 200 years, so to speak in terms of pro-France versus pro-Britain today - as if it were contemporary - is not only anachronistic, it is nothing short of delusional.

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I also said that Charles Xuereb does not need anybody to defend him, but his point needs to be defended, because it is valid. I promised I would be saying why in today's Part 2.

But before embarking on that discussion, I have to say something about an interesting reaction prompted by Part 1, in which I said very clearly that I did not have a strong opinion as to whether the George Cross should stay or go. However, I did say that probably Guido de Marco was right: in WWII, the Maltese fought with the bad (the Imperialists) against the worse (the Nazi-Fascists). I also argued that if the Nazi-Fascists were racist, so were the Imperialists; if the Nazi-Fascists believed in eugenics, so did the Imperialists. The implied question was: Why does emotion well up in some of us when that Cross representing the Empire is mentioned?

Because of that question - predicated on the ugly similarities between the ideology of the British Empire and that of the Third Reich (let us not forget that Reich is German for 'Empire') - somebody self-styled "Gejtu Bongailas" even claimed that I should undergo 'psycho-analysis' but, thankfully, 'on some other occasion'. "Gejtu Bongailas" then claimed that I quoted "Winston Churchill out of context".

What had I said about Churchill? I quoted a number of British intellectuals who espoused racist thinking, among them Churchill, who, in 1910, cautioned: "The multiplication of the feeble-minded is a very terrible danger to the race". I do not know how that quotation can be understood out of any context: it is as clear as daylight that it is a racist statement.

I don't want to waste anybody's time. So I'll invite all those who think like "Gejtu Bongailas" to look up Daniel Finkelstein's article in The Times (of London) of 12 February of this year: "Winston Churchill was a racist but still a great man". To drive my point home even further, find on www.itv.com (9 October 2018): "Churchill was a 'racist' and comparable to Hitler, says academic" Professor Kehinde Andrews, who focuses on Black Studies at Birmingham City University. He continued: Churchill's views on India "were so extreme, they couldn't be separated from Hitler's". These statements were made in the context of laudatory comments passed by American astronaut Scott Kelly who later retracted them tweeting: "Did not mean to offend by quoting Churchill. My apologies. I will go and educate myself further on his atrocities, racist views which I do not support". Professor Andrews also said: "[Churchill] was someone who believed the white race was superior". So "Gejtu Bongailas" and anybody else who believes that one has an "anti-British bias" when one is historically correct about Churchill and the racist views of many thinkers making up the intellectual backbone of the British Empire when we were given the George Cross: go and "educate yourselves" and only after having read stuff and understood it, open your mouths."

This is Charles Xuereb's point: the battle between myth (or memory) and fact.

Charles Xuereb is not saying that we should demolish any building (I stand to be corrected); he's saying that the George Cross is a symbol based on memory not necessarily on historical facts.

Was the British Empire a good thing? Was it driven by lofty ideals? What does that Cross represent? The legacy of the Empire, namely progress for humankind in general, and for the Maltese in particular? Maltese resilience and sacrifice in the face of Nazi-Fascist aggression? Does it make sense in today's world - when the Germans are our partners - to keep clinging to a Cross given in different historical circumstances when other ideologies held sway? Does the memory correspond to the facts and are we today happy with what those facts mean?

This is what Charles Xuereb is saying.

There are no simple black-or-white, yes-or-no answers to these questions. Was the Empire good or bad? Probably it was only ugly (for most), and inevitable. The world was ruled by empires; nation-states appeared only in the long 19th century, the Age of Nationalism. Can we ascribe moral qualities to empires or nation-states? I would not do so. But I would say that they were inevitable - almost borrowing and adapting an idea from Hegel (hopefully without incurring Kenneth Wain's divine wrath), namely that the 'State' represents the will of God.

Would it have been better had we been annexed to the French instead of the British Empire? Who knows? That's alternative history, and I sincerely dislike such exercises, simply because of the numerous unknowns who render the whole exercise futile.

Did lofty ideals inspire the British Empire? For some, certainly yes. But there was no single inspiration for all those who created the British Empire. Some - such as the missionaries - wanted to proselytise and spread Christianity and save souls. Others - like the businessmen - wanted to grow rich. Others wanted a career, or simply adventure. Many did believe that they were bringing progress to backward or primitive societies. As Marx pointed out, Darwinism was a projection of the liberal-capitalist society unto nature. And Darwinism did probably inspire many of those who expanded the frontiers of the Empire, in the sense that they really did believe in the survival of the fittest, that British society was probably the pinnacle of human evolution and that the weak should be weeded out while the others taught how to ape the achievements of their betters just like children are taught to emulate adults.

Is this anti-British? Of course not! It is a position not against a people (or a "federation" of nations), but against an ideology. Good people can and do live under the yoke of bad ideologies. When one criticises an ideology, one does not criticise the people who inhabit the universe it creates. When the West criticised Soviet ideology, it was not criticising the individuals who lived in the Soviet world. Likewise, when one criticises Nazi ideology, one is not criticising the individuals who lived under Nazi rule. There is a huge difference between ideology and the people who have no choice but to live under its yoke.

Norman Lowell: like Pilate in the Credo?

While people seem blind to the ideology which partly sustained the Empire that gave us the George Cross, there is also (justified) criticism of Norman Lowell's ideology. What is lacking is the realisation that what Mr Lowell is saying is not too different from what many in the British Empire believed.

For some people, Mr Lowell is raving mad when he argues that the disabled should be disposed of. I claim that he is not mad at all. He is simply quoting Mein Kampf and Nazi policy.

If you look up in The New York Times of 13 September 2017, Kenny Fries' article called: "The Nazis' First Victims Were the Disabled", you will find a chilling essay on what the Nazis did to the disabled. In Brandenburg, the first "T4 site", the Nazi authorities killed approximately 300,000 disabled people. Your eyes are not deceiving you: that's three hundred thousand people, killed because they were considered unfit to live: "undesirables".

For Mr Lowell, an admirer of Herr Hitler, this was good public policy. For me, a hopeless romantic, it was madness: tears have started to well up in my eyes while re-reading that article and writing these words and I have to stop typing.

Let us not be deceived.

In 1930 Britain - the Mother Country of the Empire that gave us the George Cross - Julian Huxley, secretary of the London Zoological Society and chairman of the Eugenics Society, wrote: "What are we going to do? Every defective man, woman and child is a burden. Every defective is an extra body for the nation to feed and clothe, but produces little or nothing in return."

Doing my research for this article - I rarely treat these articles as if they were dinner-party small talk - I found an academic article on deafness and imperialism. The author, who hails from the University of Sheffield, argues that "disability... not only operated as an additional 'category of difference' alongside 'race' as a way of" marking differences between the colonisers and the colonised, but was "part and parcel of the same cultural ... system". In other words, in the British Empire, race and disability were two ways of distinguishing the superiors from the inferiors.

To put it bluntly, those who (rightly so) chastise Mr Lowell for his appalling support for the Nazi policy of eliminating the disabled, should also be aware that the British Empire also saw the disabled as "different", as a category of inferior people. And so on.

Decolonisation of the mind

Decolonisation is not just a political phenomenon,  it is also intellectual.

This too, I believe, is something Charles Xuereb is trying to convey but he keeps encountering irrelevant 'accusations' of being a Francophile. One really starts despairing.

The problem for us Maltese is that we belong to a small nation, with limited intellectual resources and a small domestic market. When a Maltese intellectual writes in Maltese, they are risking oblivion. Or - in the same incredible way that Dr Xuereb's valid argument gets the Francophile flak when a love for France and things French has absolutely nothing to do with the argument - those who write in Maltese are tacitly charged with choosing Maltese because they are afraid of scrutiny by the wider world.

In part this could be true. Then again, there are some topics in which foreigners need not poke their nose: topics we refer to as Melitensia.

Be that as it may, we have a strong limitation and this is a real hurdle for the decolonisation of the mind.

In the third and last part of this essay, I shall argue this point.

My Personal Library (45)

On my shelves there is a copy of Pimlico's edition of Hitler's book Mein Kampf. I bought it from a bookshop in England and started reading it 10 years ago. I admit I had to stop: it nauseated me so much that I could not bear it any longer. It wasn't just the thematic monomania; it was the themes themselves: anti-Semitism, mostly, but not only. That said, Hitler did read a lot (of cheap pamphlets) and he understood perfectly the Darwinian subtext of the world he lived in. He was a politician, not an intellectual, more clever than intelligent. What struck me most, however, was that many of his observations can still be heard on the streets, from the working classes and some elements of the middle classes.

Look Who's Back, a novel by Timur Vermes, published in 2012, proposes the thesis that if Hitler were to come back, he would find considerable support in today's world. The book was made into a film, inspiring another film on Mussolini (Sono Tornato/I'm Back), which proposed an analogous thesis. If the Extreme Right does return, I will blame it exclusively on the Socialists, who abandoned the working classes and jumped on the liberal-libertine wagon with their fancy ideas of men wanting to become women, men marrying men and hiring women's uteruses to have children while other women abort the children they wilfully make with men, and other such chaotic thinking that renders ours the Age of Madness.

 


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