Ph.D. Octopus

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Lineages of Imperialist Thinking: Beck, Huckabee, Ferguson

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In the best and most typical of grad student fashions, Mircea wrote a blog post rather than his response paper, and sent it our way. This post first appeared at Mircea’s blog, Just Speculations, and challenges us to actually take a plunge into the abyss of Glenn Beck’s political thought. Is it fair to say that only a grad student on the brink of qualifying exams would dare such a thing? But this is historical scholarship applied to contemporary issues at its best — Read On.  -Luce

by Mircea

One of the things I have been trying to say for a while is that, with the 2012 election coming up, we (academics, concerned “progressives,” what have you) need to pay more serious and sustained attention to the political thought of the U.S. Right. In other words, to move beyond mere outrage at the latest crazy thing Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin say and take their ideologies and convictions at face value, explaining as much as possible where they come from and what they might mean.

If only because, for my impending qualifying exams in the History PhD. programme, I’ve been reading a bit about the British Empire, it provides as good of a place to start as any. I want to argue that certain long-standing assumptions and ways of thinking about the world (particularly the Middle East and Africa) that formed the repertoire of British imperialists in the dying days of the Empire provide a useful framework for understanding what drives contemporary U.S. conservatives in their understanding of Obama and the role of the American Empire in today’s world.

Responses to Glenn Beck’s spectacular rant on the Egyptian Revolution have ranged from sheer incredulity to anger and derision. At the risk of simplifying an enormously convoluted and paranoid argument, Beck thinks that the uprisings across the Middle East represent an alliance of Communists and Islamic fundamentalists that seeks to simultaneously institute a Caliphate and destroy Western Europe. Student protesters in London, quiescent (for now!) British and French Muslims, and the youth in Tahrir Square are all facets of the same anti-Israel, anti-American and anti-capitalist project. The obvious response is to localise every such movement and disaggregate the fear of Marxism/socialism from Islamic fundamentalism; is not Tunisia different from Egypt different from Iran etc.? Do not atheist Marxists hate Islamic fundamentalism? And so on. But this misses the real appeal of the paranoid or conspiracy bent of mind, and underestimates its historical coherence and staying power.

In her book Spies in Arabia, about British covert intelligence and air control in the Middle East from World War I through to the 1930s, Priya Satia argued that British official thinking was in the persistent grip of this very mentality. Faced with a series of nationalist uprisings after the War and with uncertain political developments in the old Russian and Turkish empire, the British intelligence community was searching for “a single secret center directing global unrest” despite the resolutely and evidently “local” character of the various movements. Everywhere they looked, the British saw “a web of secret societies dubbed the ‘Asiatic Islamic federation’ which had been converted to Bolshevism.” These worked to undermine the nation-state under Western backing of the mandates: “‘Islamic consciousness’ shared with the ‘European Labour Movement’ a highly dangerous international dimension.” (pp. 203-211)

It is easy to see how, regardless of the particular institutional and context-specific dimensions of the British intelligence problem in the Middle East at this time, the desire to apprehend the Middle East as a land of conspiracy and intrigue has been passed on to those strands of conservative thought in America that still holds vested interests in an established Middle Eastern order (today, anchored by Israel and client regimes like Mubarak’s Egypt and the Saudis rather than the Hashemite monarchies) that works for the benefit of the “paramount power.” Beck’s rhetoric is a mere reflection, and a faithful one at that, of the anxieties that inevitably come with imperial trusteeship. The political task facing us today, just as it was for critics of Empire in Britain’s parliamentary democracy, is to expose and attack these interests as they stand. Ridicule only gets us so far.

Another interesting and somewhat unexpected example of how British imperialists’ old narratives have crept into contemporary mindsets is Mike Huckabee’s recent bizarre claim that Barack Obama’s “childhood in Kenya” exposed him to a view of the British Empire different from the one the average American is expected to hold. Huckabee says that Obama’s “view of the Mau Mau Revolution in Kenya is very different than ours because he probably grew up hearing that the British were a bunch of imperialists who persecuted his grandfather.”

In Caroline Elkins’s book Imperial Reckoning, a devastating (if sometimes overstated) expose of the British detention system that brutally suppressed Mau Mau by imprisoning, torturing and killing thousands of Kikuyu, she explains that Mau Mau had acquired such salience in the British public mind because it seemed that “civilization itself was at stake.” Stories of Mau Mau atrocities enabled this particular anti-colonial movement to stand in for the quintessential “black African nightmare” endangering the civilizing mission of the Empire. It is only through this particular yoking of racist fantasy to wider imperial aims that the very real brutality and “eliminationist” mindset of the Colonial government and the white settlers could disappear from view.

So on the one hand, it appears paradoxical that Mike Huckabee, American patriot extraordinaire, would feel the need to defend the British Empire, and expect most Americans to instinctively do so as well. After all, since Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Eisenhower U.S. foreign policy (for however self-interested motives) had been firmly committed to decolonization and opposing British imperial interests. Why should this legacy of American foreign policy matter less than the rather vague racial identification that allows Huckabee to make such a claim? Are contemporary American audiences really that similar to the haughty British officials directing the Kenyan camps and to the hedonistic, virulently racist settlers of the White Highlands? Only through a deep, blind acceptance of that original civilizing claim can Americans be expected to instinctively condemn Mau Mau and defend the Empire. Their barbarity is the same as that which we see all around us in the world today; the British civilizing mission, our own as well.

So we come, at last, to Niall Ferguson. I have indirectly taken on his defence of imperialism before, but his recent public statements (especially as a columnist for Newsweek) have become so outrageous, it does me no good to not address him by name. From arguing that the Arab revolutions should be opposed because they are driven by illiterate masses to issuing threats about a wave of testosterone-fueled Chinese and Indian youths descending upon the West (“Lock up your daughters” is the exact quote), Ferguson has become a radical neo-conservative whose public views are becoming, to my mind at least, increasingly uncivil and dangerous.

What interests me more than dissecting these views is what Ferguson continues to say about Britain itself. In a recent interview with the Telegraph, Ferguson worries that Britain has lost those “killer apps,” particularly the Protestant work ethic, that enabled it to once rule the world. When asked if Britain’s economic future lies with closer European integration, Ferguson emphatically rejects the notion that getting sucked into a (presumably economically moribund) “European federal state” is the answer. Instead, Britain should turn to the East, to the centres of contemporary finance capital that were, at their origins, “British inventions,” namely Hong Kong, Singapore, and (such are the ironies of history) New Delhi.

Escape from Europe, turn to the (old) Empire: a narrative with a long and storied past in British history. It is only the circumstances of the moment, when Britain seeks no longer to direct but to participate in international capital flows, that has changed. We hear echoes of Joseph Chamberlain, who called for an Imperial Zollverein that would trade goods (Australian wool, Canadian wheat) primarily with itself. But Ferguson is no protectionist. He is perhaps more like Palmerston, seeking an “informal empire” of trade by breaking into Eastern markets. But again, it is not Britain’s empire but China’s, with whom Britain must now deal from a position of supplication and weakness. Incidentally, in his paranoid fears about Egypt (where he is on the same page as Beck), he echoes the shrewd Beaconsfield (purchaser of the Suez Canal) and the hapless Gladstone (paralyzed by the spectre of the ‘Urabi revolt).

While Beck and Huckabee have, perhaps subconsciously, ingested and regurgitated the old narratives of British imperialism, Ferguson is the last colonial official standing, a man calling for the attitudes of the British Empire to be revived in a world for so long now without it. The logic of economic and strategic interests that leads people of a certain political bent to think this way, regardless of what the balance of power may be at this moment, is still there. Recognizing these interests and the assumptions that produce or sustain them is the first step to arguing against them, if we think it important.


Written by Kristen Loveland

March 9, 2011 at 07:00

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses

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  1. […] “black African nightmare” endangering the civilizing mission of the Empire. … world mission middle east – Google Blog Search Lion of Judah Movie- Sponsor: Lion of Judah the Movie- Check out "The […]

    • Many thanks for this really valuable and interesting post. I agree with your idea that we need to delve deeper into the American Right’s political thought and world-view. It is simply lazy – and complacent – of critics of these people to dismiss them as crazy, unbalanced etc.

      I just want to extend your discussion of the imperial context.

      Satia’s book, while a good piece of scholarship, is only part of the puzzle. Her evidence is drawn largely from the National Archives, and as such only represents a selective view of official thinking. The reality, of course, was much more complex, when one looks at the perspective from officials in Egypt, India, Iraq, and the consular staff in the Hijaz, who were rather sceptical of such notions as an Asiatic Islamic Federation given their more detailed knowledge of facts on the ground – informed, it should be said, by the extensive number of Muslim employees in imperial service who were vital conduits of information from centres such as Mecca and Medina, inaccessible to the British. It would be interesting to trace in detail how the viewpoints expressed in Satia were transmitted and transplanted to the US.

      Moving onto Elkins, while I agree with her argument, that the end of British rule in Kenya was certainly brutal and appalling, her research is open to criticism, being based on a series of oral interviews on a couple of research trips to Kenya. I’m not trashing oral history, to be clear, but just wanted to flag that up. I think the stereotype of hedonistic white settlers is a very selective view of the white community in Kenya – recent research has uncovered the trials and tribulations of so-called “poor whites” in the colony – these need to be integrated into the overall picture.

      I need not say much about Ferguson. His latest book has been trashed by the right-wing Spectator magazine in the UK. His star in waning amongst his traditional supporters in the Mother Country, at least.

      And finally, Disraeli only purchased 50% of the Suez Canal Company’s shares. And Gladstone wasn’t paralysed by events in Egypt; rather, he was distracted by events in Ireland and his Home Rule project.

      JP Schneider

      March 9, 2011 at 14:30

      • Thanks for these comments, JP. You are spot on in what you say about Satia and Elkins.

        I know I was grasping at straws with the Ferguson analogies, but I had just finished reading about the 1882 revolt so I felt compelled. Gladstone’s paranoia may indeed have become real at some point – as Juan Cole says in Colonialism and Revolution in the Middle East, the riot in Alexandria that turned into a “massacre” of Christians by Muslims instantly raised the alarm and gave Gladstone a new target for his rhetoric that recalled his speeches against Turkish atrocities in the Balkans during the Midlothian campaign.
        Disraeli fits in even less because he was out of power by the time the invasion happened. But he’s in many ways the real alarm-sounding imperialist, and his concern for the security of Suez reappears on Beck’s chalkboard even if, as Cole points out, the canal was in no danger of falling out of Franco-British hands at any point during that period. As we saw with this Revolution, too, once Mubarak was gone no peep about the Canal (or, for that matter, the Israel treaty – yet).


        March 9, 2011 at 23:20

  2. Sometimes I get sucked into thinking that Ferguson has suddenly become newly outrageous in his political commentaries or is getting worse (e.g. he was a guest on Beck a couple times in the past couple years, among other things). But then I realize that it’s ever been thus. Is he any worse than in his onslaught of pieces in the lead-up to the Iraq War, for example? I think the turning point came in the late 1990s upon receiving tenure, and he’s been pretty consistent in laying out his political perspectives/sensibility ever since, not necessarily steadily worse.


    March 9, 2011 at 14:08

  3. Thanks for the cool analysis! (You don’t know me – I’m friends with Kristen.) Anyway, I read Beck’s lesson rather differently, since my background isn’t in British Imperial history. Beck’s seem to me a lot like the judeo-bolshevism arguments of anti-Semites after the First World War, except instead of Jews as capitalists/religious-zealots/bolsheviks, all wrapped up into one peoplehood, you have Muslims as religious-zealots/bolsheviks, without the capitalism, maybe because anti-capitalism isn’t available to the Right anymore?

    The reason I bring up anti-Semitism is because I think that race could come back into your argument as to why Beck and Huckabee are so prone to conspiracy theories: the answer might be in the theory they selected–one that depends on seeing an entire people as *immutably* bent by their very nature to screw white folks one way and if not that way then the other: if not through backward religiosity then through its antithesis, Marxism-Leninism. And that kind of conspiracy is what reminds me of 20th-century racial anti-Semitism. The conspiracy doesn’t have to make sense, not even to the perpetrators, because they’re just shapeshifting until they get the ideological alchemy right for poisoning the blood of the West once and for all.

    I really think this is how these people think. Do you think racism is there, or am I pulling a broken strand?


    March 9, 2011 at 17:58

  4. First thing’s first – Beck looks over and done. The right has recognized the electoral risks of playing with extreme anti-intellectual fire. The man has alienated just enough people that his firing up of the base has become a greater liability than an asset.

    And in the wake of that such implosions, it’s morbidly fascinating to watch the right attempt to apply new intellectual garnishes. Newt Gingrich and Peter King are kicking up dirt over multiculturalism, importing a battle from Europe over a “problem” which doesn’t really exist in the US – at least until, and I’m being characteristically pessimistic, they’ve managed to hype it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. What this will translate into in terms of foreign policy – with Ferguson as cheerleader – is unpleasant to contemplate. I think Adam, above, is right to impute a racial animus. Luckily, these people all have to tangle internally with the still-loud libertarian / strict Constitutionalist / national interest faction, who tend to be suspicious both of culture war bloviations and any imperialism it justifies.

    Anyway, Ferguson is hardly the first provocateur urging American empire to follow Britain’s into conquistadorial disrepute. Rudyard Kipling wrote “White Man’s Burden” for the same reason. But he was hardly a persuasive enabler of American world power status. At the risk of sounding somewhat deterministic: intellectuals often give their fellow thinkers’ ideas too much credit. The US has already followed Britain down empire’s path, subconsciously – as a consequence of overwhelming power and opportunity. I believe they call the method “fit of absence of mind”.

    C Szabla

    March 10, 2011 at 01:45

  5. Just a brief comment on your tying Beck (“subconsciously”) to British imperialism. His conspiracies are much closer to home. Conservatives made all kinds of similar arguments throughout the Cold War, even before. Check out Leo Ribuffo’s classic book “The Old Christian Right” and you’ll find similarly fantastical conspiracies being woven by American right-wingers in the 1930s. But let’s face it, if we’re talking about dominos falling, many liberals had similarly irrational and unhistorical arguments during much of the Cold War (at least though 1968), which landed the US military in Southeast Asia. In other words, Beck’s not so weird in an American context (though his demeanor is a bit crazed, particularly in the clip you posted above.)

    Andrew Hartman

    March 10, 2011 at 23:33

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