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Kenya, Conservatives, and Colonialism

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It really sticks in my craw. But that’s all right. I have a large craw. I suck it down and then I spit it out.

I spit it out: the legacy of colonialism and how conservative elements in the West obscure and deny it.

According the The Times (behind paywall) of London last week:

“Government efforts to cover up one of the worst episodes in British colonial history have been revealed by the discovery of a vast cache of documents relating to the bloody Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya.

The papers, documenting efforts to put down insurgency, were spirited out of Africa on the eve of Kenya’s independence and have been held in secret government archives for half a century.

The files were unearthed only this year after four elderly Kenyans sued the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, claiming that they were tortured during the rebellion against British rule in Kenya between 1952 and 1960.

The claimants allege that they suffered “unspeakable acts of brutality, including castrations and severe sexual assaults”, under a system of torture carried out against the Mau Mau rebels by the British colonial authorities.”

The truth of the rebellion against British colonial rule in Kenya is not newly revealed. In 2005, Harvard’s Caroline Elkins’s published Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya.

The Times reports:

“At least 12,000 rebels were killed, but atrocities were committed on both sides, and an estimated 70,000 Kenyans were held in prison camps as the British tried to quell the uprising.”

Yet according to Elkins, the entire nearly 1.5 million Kikuyu population of Kenya was interned and “screened” and in many cases tortured, with many tens of thousands, perhaps 300,000, dead.

Wrote The Times’ Ben Macintyre:

“The documents appear to have been removed from Kenya as part of a policy of extracting sensitive or incriminating files from former colonies. Historians believe that similar files relating to Cyprus, Nigeria, Malaya, Palestine and other former dependent territories may also be held in secret.”

Not really surprising, one might think, beyond the always vital particulars and trenchant human meaning of colonial history – if one has already acknowledged the truth of that history. Ah, but there’s the stick in the craw. Everyone has not. Does not.

Not that many months ago, the regrettable Dinesh D’Souza attacked Barack Obama through his merely filial relationship to his mostly absent father:

“This philandering, inebriated African socialist, who raged against the world for denying him the realization of his anticolonial ambitions, is now setting the nation’s agenda through the reincarnation of his dreams in his son.”

The always reliably retrograde New Gingrich – out of time and place, but not sympathy to be fit with pith helmet and riding crop on some colonial plantation somewhere – echoed D’Souza at National Review Online:

 “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?”

I wrote about all this at length at the time, on several occasions. There is in these attacks a not very deeply buried nativist racism, in the “inebriated African” (“socialist” is just a bonus) and the other who is “outside our comprehension.” This terminology, this kind of conceptualizing of a Black president works on the stereotypes and fears of people for whom the repetitive monosyllables “Mau Mau” still conjure the heart of darkness in which savage natives enact primitive rites of murder. This even though, in reality, in what was a manifestly just rebellion against colonial rule, only 32 white settlers were killed by Mau Mau rebels – in contrast to the tens of thousands of Kikuyus we now know were tortured and killed by the British. All this is perfectly in line, too, with those African witch doctor posters of Obama that showed up at Tea Party rallies.

More to my point were D’Souza’a and Gingrich’s unselfconscious and revealing use of the term “anticolonial.” Had they used the term “postcolonial,” one might be able to consider their antagonism in light of a particularly identifiable cultural and political stance deserving of critique. Through that defined ideological stance, postcolonialism has served as a phenomenon radically different from what we might conceive as civilizational advance and human ethical development. It has instead upended Enlightenment and Humanist values, offering a counter-perversion to colonialism that inverts the relationship between power and justice, but skews it no less.

However, the two conservative firebrands said not postcolonial, but anticolonial, as if to be anti the historical project and process of colonialism were, in this regard, to be suspect, a sign of political ideology subversive of –  of what? Some idea of American and Western democracy that still supports the historical fact and nature of British rule in Kenya – of colonial rule anywhere? Well, now we know without doubt – we always really did – what that was.

What perversion itself, then, is this ideology? What perversion, in fact, still so systemically present that the current British government – brace your ears for this one – is defending itself against the Kenyans’ suit by claiming that culpability for the acts of the British colonial government against Kenyan nationals was institutionally transferred to the sovereign Kenyan government that succeeded it.

Are we clear? The Kenyans, it is the position of Her Majesty’s Government, need sue themselves for the crimes the British committed against them.

However, the conservative – and that includes the institutional – inclination to absolve the perpetrators of colonial crimes lingers not only in the originating imperial nations, but in their inheritor cultures too. Read here, at the very start of a one-upon-a-time debate series in which I engaged, how one happy, self-satisfied band of American conservatives resentfully and ferociously dismissed the conquest of Native America.

Oddly, there is a tense symbiosis between these two extremities of Left and Right, of the postcolonial caricature of progressive, corrective justice and of an unyieldingly defensive conservatism that will admit no burden of history.

The corrupt and vicious degeneration of Far Left idealism that postcolonial theory and action represent is best exemplified today by the increasingly anti-Semitic character of its antagonism to Israel. I have written about this many times at length, too, most recently here. The fundamentally anti-Semitic character of this antagonism breeds in unique anti-Zionism, in the BDS movement, and in the growing commitment to the historical deracination of the Jewish people, by denying their ancient roots in Israel – not only those of the European Diaspora, but of the Jews of the Middle East too, who inhabited the land in unbroken continuity and who are so dishonestly discounted by this narrative.

Now, the latest vile terminological lie in New Left Newspeak, beyond casting returned Jews as colonialists, is a final conceptual corruption of all the postcolonial Left pretends to value, drawn from the very origins of colonial history: the labeling of Palestinians as an “indigenous” people in opposition to Jewish colonial invaders.

Conservatives all over the Western world justly – they think – hold themselves in superiority these days to the whole range of the liberal-Left, precisely over the postcolonial farrago. The Right thinks it has correctly identified the lowest state in this perversion of ideals, in the schoolyard of rhetorical lures the Far Left holds out all around the subject of Israel. It might be right, but for one truth, to which it is equally blind.

As long as conservatives use the furthest excesses of Left postcolonialism as their latest reason to deny the historical wrongs of colonialism and the flaws of the civilization that pursued and justified it, as long as they intellectually align themselves with its perpetrators and not with those who opposed it from without or overcame it from within, as long as they use bogeyman tropes to frighten their fellows against even their own leaders who might have genealogical connection to its victims – as long as they do all this, they have no moral advantage. It’s blind in the left eye, blind in the right. Cyclops on Cyclops.

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About A. Jay Adler

  • Shantee

    There are severe UK colonial abuses happening right now in Turks and Caicos. See TCIpost (wordpress). The people are calling for humanitarian groups to help document the UK abuses. It’s a real crisis and revolution is imminent. It is unfair for the world to let this go and take a back seat to what the Foreign Commonwealth Office has done historically and presently. A colonial take over in the 21st Century is absolutely horrifying. Thank you for sharing this.

  • http://sadredearth.com A. Jay Adler

    The history of Turks and Caicos is extraordinarily complex and fascinating. My understanding is that the original indigenous population (Taino Indians who migrated from Hispaniola and Cuba) had been killed off by disease and barbarous slave conditions by some point in the sixteenth century, just as happened in Cuba. Various historical events repopulated the islands. But as you point out, Shantee, there are still populations in the world under colonial rule. Others, like the Marshall Islanders, while now independent, struggle for restitution from the U.S. for the effects of nuclear testing on the islands. It is the absence of any historical reckoning with the legacy of colonialism that required the 2007 U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Yet after nearly five centuries of colonialism, and only five decades since the colonial era was mostly brought to a close, there are political elements that pretend to be tired of hearing about it because they have never really wanted to acknowledge it in the first place.