Lineages of Imperialist Thinking: Beck, Huckabee, Ferguson
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
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.