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.  


  1. I think that Alice has hit the nail on the head when she is talking about the Leave vote being boosted by the electorate feeling disempowered and disenfranchised and their taking the opportunity of the Brexit referendum to give the establishment a reversed V for Victory salute.

    The mistake I think is to write off what happened in the UK as not being relevant to us. How connected to the various political leaderships or parties do ordinary New Zealanders feel right now? What do they stand for and do you relate to that? How does the ordinary NZ citizen engage? Where is the leadership whereby parties actually take a stand and propose solutions for important issues of the day for NZers and get the rank and file involved and empowered rather than just point score or make glib speeches?

    Perhaps NZers need to take matters into their own hands on the big issues such as opening the door of their marae to the local homeless (big ups to Te Puea marae for doing that).

    But I think that the political establishment across all liberal democracies such as our own need to take account of the lesson of Brexit and think about re-connecting with the electorate so that their own people don't raise the reverse V for Victory at them on something critical one day.

  2. I am an Englishman living in England. I voted to leave the EU because it has morphed into something that I did not originally sign up for. Over the years, our generally weak Prime Ministers have given up more an more of our sovereignty and self-determination to Brussels. I had voted for a trade agreement, not political union. This vote, although immigration has had its own voice, is about control. Control of our laws, control of our parliament and control of our country as a whole. Unfortunately, the Remain camp do not seem able to accept the referendum result and are behaving like spoilt children who can't have what they want. A similar situation occurred in Scotland with their independence referendum.
    We live in interesting times.

    1. How did you manage to read through an entire essay written by an indigenous person talking about colonialism, and come out the other end talking about what you feel you didn't sign up for? Feeling helpless, out of control, disenfranchised in "your" nation? Yes. She said that. And she said that as a survivor of hundreds of years of active colonial genocide, violence, occupation, and mayhem that, I assure you, NONE OF US SIGNED UP FOR.

      I'm no fan of the EU, but for brits to compare the perceived erosion of their culture through globalisation and visa-free work and school to the literal slaughter and enslavement of nonwhites and the stripping of colonised lands from which the UK derived so much wealth isn't just insulting, it's so crass as to beggar belief.

      Or rather, it would if Alice, along with many others the world over, pointed out exactly the attitude your reply typifies.

      "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."

      The "Leave" vote was promoted and underwritten by xenophobic white nationalists, regardless of whether you yourself ascribe to the overt message of autonomy or the barely covert drum-banging racism. I would strongly suggest that the UK, in building an empire that spanned the globe and destroyed our rightful forms of governance in homage to itself, has no right to plead "autonomy" until after it has repaid the international debts incurred by slavery, indenture, theft, looting of cultural treasures, genocide, piracy, war appropriation, treaty violation, and trespass.

      Your queen's head is on our money, and your vassal states occupy our land. You benefit materially from shaping our ancestors lives, and now our lives, to prop up and continue to develop and enrich your culture. The fact that you have allowed your politicians to waste that wealth with such a lavish hand has nothing to do with the EU, which has been funding preservation of ancient languages and heritage sites in the UK while Blair and Cameron whizzed your nation down their pant-leg continuing Thatcher's austerity platforms.

      I have a great deal of sympathy for marginalised people in Britain, but that is Britain's doing, not anyone else's. I am furious that our lands and peoples were exploited for so long, and there's so very, very little to show for it in Britain. The least you could do is take care of people fleeing the destruction you created. The least you could do is make an effort to be the beacon of peaceful, reasonable, intellectual civilisation you have always insisted you were, after all those trillions of pounds worth of material wealth that has streamed to you. Right?

      No? Xenophobic poverty, for the sake of protecting a national identity that doesn't exist without acknowledging the Empire you decline to take responsibility for? Nothing more English than tea, chips, and heroin - but none of them would be British icons without the violence of colonial occupation.


  3. Thanks for this post! Really important things to think about, beautifully said.

  4. The leave movement aren't just concerned about 'other races' entering Britain, they don't like the free movement of other white people from EU countries like Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, where-ever, because they can come and work in UK, usually in jobs Brits can't or wont, do.
    I'm not as classically educated as the writer of this and angst about past colonial wrongs by Britain doesn't feature as much on my agenda. I'm a Brit who has lived in NZ for over 40 years and is proud to be a Kiwi as well. When I first came here I was as disappointed as she was when first visiting London. Our expectations are often built on inappropriate beliefs.
    I don't know what to make of Brexit. It isn't Independence Day, neither is it an almighty cock-up. It's just a sad indictment on how removed politicians can become from ordinary people.

    1. If you are a white immigrant living in NZ, I ask you to reexamine the phrase "angst about past colonial wrongs." It's not past. You are still there. Māori people are still marginalised. Māori people are still second-class citizens in their own land, which now bears a name that is not in their tongue.

      Colonial NZ police are still teaching and materially assisting their neighbours in methods of violently quelling resistance to occupation in Papua New Guinea.

      Framing just, and even MILD, criticism of ongoing carceral occupation of indigenous land as "angst about past colonial wrongs" is extremely dismissive, even offensive. Indigenous peoples are overrepresented in British or former British colonial prisons, and in poverty, suicide, and violent death. This was not the case before colonial dispossession. This is the direct result of colonial dispossession.

      I can't speak for Alice, or for any other indigenous person outside of my chippewa nation, but I recognise your attempt to place responsibility for colonial violence in the past from my own dealings with both Canadians and British people who style themselves as "ex-pats" instead of immigrants, and I just want to say: no. It is not past. You are still here uninvited. You have not asked the legitimate territorial nations of these lands if you can stay. It's not even on your radar, and that's why it's very much not in the past. Not even slightly. Not when your presence is explicitly at the cost of indigenous dispossession.

      Thank you for reading this far.

      Please consider what I have said.

  5. Too many bleeding hearts cannot see the bigger picture with having a European Union, & that is, TPTB trying to create a borderless, fully-controlled society whereby the rights and votes of everyday punters, will be slowly eroded by those in high places who want a new world order. Why should we be one big borderless land? Why are the smaller voices being drowned out by a referendum over a referendum over a referendum... just in case we don't feel quite bullied enough. The people have spoken. Will their choice under democracy be honored?

  6. to anyone who thinks this is a victory for the ordinary man, think again. Big business, Big banks, Big governments, are not about to give up all their advantages to the masses without a fight. they (the stay group) have the media (vested interest), the bureaucrats (vested interest), the money markets (vested interest), the politicians (vested interest), the corporates (vested interest), unelected politicians (vested interest) all looking for ways to stop the ordinary person from having a say in their own country.
    New Zealand is not part of the common market, Japan is not part of the EU and like so many other countries they manage very well in a competitive world.
    Import tariffs - covered by the World Trade organisation. those same economists who did not predict any of the worlds financial nightmares are now convinced Britix means the end to UK trade - Will everyone in the UK stop buying VW's overnight? Will Spain stop building holiday homes and airports in a bid to halt the flow of British investments? these and what a silly question. does Italy, France and the remainder of the EU only borrow from British banks because of the EU association or is it because they provide a competitive product at the most advantageous rates?
    this is a wake=up call to politicians all over the world to start listening to the people who vote them into positions solely for the purpose of representing those same people and their wishes... and not for the benefit of corporate greed or self aggrandizement... MP, PM elected official all equal PUBLIC SERVANT .... listen to the will of the people and stop using public funds to subvert.
    Peter Thomas

  7. Comments I think are more on the ball then the post.

    1. Many of these comments have perhaps missed (ignored?) the point of this post and instead reveal attitudes that substantiate the author's observations and central concern: that Britain to this day 'apparently has no idea what it has done' via colonization, that it will never reckon with its past wrongs; even now, perhaps in ruins, it fails to see that that which has potentially set its future trajectory towards ruin - i.e. the Leave vote - is a reaction to its own original, colonial actions... The author is saying that, with its colonial project, Britain may have set its own demise in motion long ago, as hinted at in Macauley’s vision. It’s interesting that just as the author suggests Britain is failing to see its own central role in the Brexit mess, so do her commentators here appear to be missing the bigger picture point this post is making, turning their attention to (albeit still important) yet comparatively smaller aspects of the issue.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. This is exactly what we discuss at home. I have two comments: The essence is if you want fair in the world the wealthy white needs to give back. Also: This story could be told globally of women too

  10. Brexit is a gigantic conjuring trick in which billions magically vanish from the global economy - and especially the British economy - whilst the discontented are given their imaginary moment of power and then advised to live with the consequences that they themselves chose. As an Englishman living in the (currently) United Kingdom who was pro Remain for largely pragmatic reasons, I think it's fair to say that for the 48% the 52% have been conned quite brilliantly by the plutocrats and their allies. The poster's analysis re colonialism and its wake is an important perspective on these cruel processes too. The two 'events' are inextricably bound up...