Saturday, June 25, 2016

A view of Brexit from elsewhere.

Like so many others around the world, I was glued for much of yesterday to my twitter feed, facebook posts, a 24 hour TV news channel, some googling, and occasional texts with my Dad. It was all Brexit all the time. For much of last nite I sat on our couch in front of the heater, a Maori person next to my Fijian husband, on a very cold evening on Darug land. Glued to the incoming information, trying to make sense of it all, I couldn’t help but ask myself whether my interest (obsession?) with Brexit was a sign of colonial ties or global connections. And now, the next morning – which is cold but sunny – I am typing a blog post about the UK. I am sketching what I see. Sketching?

In 1840 – yes the same year that the Treaty of Waitangi was signed – a British man called Thomas Babbington Macauley wrote about a future moment in which
some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.
This image of future ruin (the “broken arch of London Bridge”, “the ruins of St Pauls”) was conjured at a time of British imperial expansion and enthusiasm. Not only did it predict the end of empire but it also predicted who would view, and sketch, that end. (Let’s be clear: in 1840, and indeed most of the 19th century, ‘New Zealander’ was the term used to refer to Maori people.) In 1872 Macauley’s written vision was translated into a visual image by Gustave Dore which is easy to google but which I’ve pasted here to make things easy.

Macauley himself was a pretty interesting character, known as a politician and historian and already deeply entangled in the British colonial project. He was particularly (in)famous for his ‘Minute on Indian Education’ in 1835, in which he both ridiculed the many knowledge and literary traditions of the subcontinent and suggested the imposition of English (as language and as literature) as an explicit and specific colonial strategy. The wonderful scholar Gauri Viswanathan has shone light on the extent to which English as a discipline which we now teach in schools and universities (which I have taught and continue to teach in universities) can be traced to India rather than to England (where universities at the time were more interested in Classical – Greek and Latin – literatures). So, Macauley had been thinking about imperialism and conquest and the very specific stakes of representation (reading, writing, sketching) for quite some time.

Now, people who know about Macauley’s vision of the Maori person gazing at ruined London know that he was most directly talking about the Catholic church rather than about the British empire. And yet, there are some good reasons for seeing this as a vision of imperial (not just Catholic) ruin, and it fits into a series of many such images from the period that Julia Hell describes as the “ruin-gazer scenario” and David Skilton describes as “tourists at the ruins.” Writing about ‘Ruins of the Future’ in the context of Imperialism, Julia Hell describes Macauley’s particular vision of what she describes as the ruin-gazer scenario’s “most ironic nineteenth century version,” and argues that:
the imperial subject observes the colonized as he contemplates a scene of imperial ruin – while Macauley and his metropolitan readers look at the Maori looking.
In her analysis, she suggests there is a layering of gazes:
The scopic structure of this scenario, that is, the constellation of subject and object, look and gaze, is intriguing: while both of colonizer and the colonized look at the ruins of empire, the true object of desire in this scenario is the gaze itself, the scopic mastery exerted over the colonized. In the end, the imperial subject is still the one who is looking.
She draws attention to the gaze – the idea of who gets to look and who/ what – and reminds us: while the Maori person gazes at London, who’s gazing at the Maori person? In my case, it’s another Maori person. Specifically, a Te Atiawa/ Taranaki person. It’s me: thinking about what it means to gaze at the ruins of London. It’s me: thinking about what it means to gaze at the ruins of the place which has left so much of my own country, my own people, and myself, in ruins.

On one level, I don’t feel so invested in Leave or Remain as much as I feel invested in two strong elements of how these two positions have been described. Sure, if I’d had a vote I would have cast it for Remain – my critiques of the dodgy elements of the EU are outweighed by the alternative which has already begun to unfold or, perhaps, unravel. At the same time, I can still hear the voice of an African American scholar who was visiting Cornell when I was there as a PhD student in 2000 a few weeks after Bush the Second had been elected into office; speaking about Black people in the US who had voted for Bush, the scholar was clear that we must not further dehumanize or undermine the intelligence of people who have already been treated to such treatment for so long. Certainly this is thin ice – I am not equating whiteness in the UK with Blackness in America! – but just as certainly we can think about the many people who voted for Leave who did so out of a sense of frustration with the disempowerment, disenfranchisement and dehumanizing elements of their own lives.

But as I said, I am less concerned about the Remain or Leave than I am about two elements that are inextricable from this referendum: one, the spectre of immigration as a threat unlike no other; and two, the ability for the British to continue to treat their colonial history the way they always have done – they ignore it. People have written, and tweeted, and status-updated, and memed enough about both of these over the past few days and, indeed, years. But as I sit here, gazing at the ruins, or thinking about what it means to be a Maori person gazing at certain kinds of British ruins, I cannot help but think that these two are so closely connected that they are indeed the same thing.

UK citizens (or formerly, British subjects from Great Britain) have, since 1769, consistently been the largest immigrant group in New Zealand: they and their descendants make up the majority of our population and have done for well over a century; and they continue to make up the highest proportion of migrants to New Zealand. Because of the way that colonial apron strings and white privilege work, new white British migrants are not understood as ‘immigrants’ in New Zealand in the way that Pacific Islanders, Asian people, or other nonwhite migrants are… they arrive and are immediately at home. When TV ‘news’ cameras scan a group of people standing around for an auction, British migrants are not coded as the ‘other’ who are gobbling up all the houses in Auckland (or Sydney).

It is so deeply frustrating to hear British people whine about immigration when their compatriots jet off around the world with reckless abandon, and when their distant cousins are the majority of the population in these white settler colonies. No, I am not saying that British people shouldn’t be mobile – I am saying that British people are mobile, in ways that don’t seem to count as ‘immigration’ from their own point of view. Here we see the double standard: this is about race, not mobility. Nonwhite people are immigrants, and live in diasporas, while white people are expats or just flow between countries (a la the horizontal colonial networks Ballantyne has written about) and get to fit right in. I wonder how many of the middle class people in New Zealand and Australia who deplore ‘immigrants’ coming to ‘take our jobs’ caution their own privileged children against venturing out on an Overseas Experience or Gap Year because to do so would be to take someone else’s job. Of course, this is more complicated for the many British people who are not themselves white: constantly having to explain where they’re really from, as are all other nonwhite holders of ‘white’ passports; as if such citizenship could only be fleeting, and secondary to a real place of origin, even though asking white people in New Zealand and Australia where they’re really from is considered uncouth, stupid or revolutionary.

It is also deeply frustrating to hear these proclamations of “Independence Day” and “freedom” as if the past centuries of British imperialism never happened. What do the current British colonies think about this idea of “Independence”? How about the many millions of people whose lives continue to be shaped by the ongoing effects of British colonialism? How about the millions upon millions of people whose ‘migration’ was the result of British schemes of enslavement and indenture? How about all of us who will never get an “Independence Day” in certain terms because the tide of history has flowed in a way that has shifted the banks of the river? If only the clownish proclamation of an “Independence Day” for the UK had a way of magically reversing the centuries-long processes of devastation and loss: if only the UK had to reckon with the effects of the mess it has made in New Zealand and Australia (and Fiji, and elsewhere in the Pacific, and Canada, and the Middle East, and Africa, and…). Where on earth do people in the UK think the immigrants are coming from? Do they think there is no connection between the UK and the places from which people are migrating? Are they aware just how many migrants and refugees have seen the British flag long before they arrived at the white cliffs of Dover? The English rugby team is touring Australia at the moment, and the media made a big deal before their first game about how the current English coach used to play for Australia. When he was asked about his sense of loyalty while singing ‘God Save the Queen’ with the team at the beginning of the game, he replied ‘I grew up here in Australia singing that song.’

I remember the first time I went to London. I walked around the streets after an overnight flight from New York, and was bitterly disappointed. It wasn’t any more flashy or substantively different than any city I’d been to by then. I didn’t know what I’d expected, but it hadn’t been this. I remember walking and thinking ‘they have taken so much for centuries from so many people and places, and this is all they could do with it?’ At least if the streets were paved with gold I could look at it and say ‘this! This is where it all came!’ That first time, for me, Britain already felt slightly ruined.  

In so many ways, the UK is a too-big dog which has run through a house and wagged its too-big tail next to a sidetable. And we – who used to be intact and distinctive and stable - are the smithereens and dust, scattered on the carpet. But the UK will never reckon with those things – with my shorter life expectancy, with third-world diseases in first-world countries, with third-world diseases in third-world countries for that matter, with language loss, with ongoing genocide, with political coups and dictatorships, with alarming rates of suicide, with overrepresentation in prisons and hospitals, with the miseries of cultural dislocation and its particular effects in relation to gender and sexuality, with the ongoing uphill journey that most countries in the world continue to deal with and will be dealing with for generations to come – because it can’t see them. And when it does reckon with them, it thinks of its engagement as an interested bystander rather than as the recidivist offender. Apparently it has no idea what it has done.

Maybe I’m giving the UK too much credit. I mean, let’s be clear about the incredible resilience, agency, creativity and stubbornness of Indigenous people worldwide – and the careful, hopeful and difficult work undertaken by many white descendants of British settlers of reckoning with historical and ongoing forms of colonialism in these countries. London has been in my facebook feed since before the referendum this week because friend and colleague Coll Thrush, an historian at UBC, is posting pics of his ‘Indigenous London’ field trip with Canadian students who are tracing the various sites and archives of Indigenous presence in that city over centuries.  

And maybe we’re not really gazing at ruins. Perhaps the UK will suffer some kind of economic recession but in a few years we’ll talk about it as a blip rather than a game changer. Maybe life will go on. Maybe Cameron will be eclipsed by Trump, and maybe the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will be eclipsed by an imaginary fence between the US and Mexico. Already there’s less #Brexit in my twitter feed.

London’s medieval bridge needed to be replaced at the end of the eighteenth century, and the new one – presumably the one upon which Macauley’s future Maori sat – was opened in 1831, funded by the Corporation of London and British Government both of which had tangibly benefited from colonial trades in bodies, lands and resources. But maybe Macauley was onto something: maybe the roots of the UK’s ruin were there, deeply embedded in the very moments that felt like dizzying heights of its colonial past. And maybe those from ‘elsewhere’ who quietly sketch on broken arches, whose lives continue to be as shaped by eighteenth and nineteenth century Britain as anyone living in the UK, can see something it’s harder to see when you’re mourning the loss of the bridge you thought was yours alone.