From forgetting and remembering war to a new documentary on the British Empire’s bloody legacy in India, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Viet Thanh Nguyen
“I come here mindful of the past, mindful of our difficult history,” Barack Obama said during a May 2016 visit to Vietnam, “but focused on the future — the prosperity, security, and human dignity that we can advance together.” Such a sentiment, a seeming acknowledgment and an attempt at reconciliation, has become commonplace among Americans; the Vietnam War no longer casts a dark cloud over the nation’s consciousness. This shift in rhetoric is accompanied by the United States’ reinvigorated campaign to establish Vietnam as an allied, capitalist bulwark against China — part of Obama’s vaunted pivot to Asia. The United States has sought to promote neoliberal economic policies through trade deals and sponsorship of a private university (Fulbright University Vietnam), while also lifting a decades-long ban on the sale of military equipment to Vietnam.
Against such neoliberalization, false reconciliation, and historical amnesia, Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of the 2015 Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Sympathizer, is waging a literary battle on behalf of the Vietnam War’s forgotten victims. The Sympathizer follows a Vietnamese communist double agent living among and spying on Vietnamese refugees. In it, Nguyen tackles cultural insularity, nationalism, and imperialism, which drive American cultural production about the Vietnam War. [continue reading]
If you wanted to hear the future in late May, 1968, you might have gone to Abbey Road to hear the Beatles record a new song of John Lennon’s—something called “Revolution.” Or you could have gone to the decidedly less fab midtown Hilton in Manhattan, where a thousand “leaders and future leaders,” ranging from the economist John Kenneth Galbraith to the peace activist Arthur Waskow, were invited to a conference by the Foreign Policy Association. For its fiftieth anniversary, the F.P.A. scheduled a three-day gathering of experts, asking them to gaze fifty years ahead. An accompanying book shared the conference’s far-off title: “Toward the Year 2018.”
The timing was not auspicious. In America, cities were still cleaning up from riots after Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination, in April, and protests were brewing for that summer’s Democratic National Convention. But perhaps the future was the only place left to escape from the present: more than eight hundred attendees arrived at the Hilton. “They met in the grand ballroom,” the reporter Edwin Yoder wrote at the time, “which is not so much futuristic as like a dimly remembered version of the 1920s small-town grand movie house.” [continue reading]
In 1918, Azerbaijan became the first democratic and secular republic in the Muslim world. Called the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR), its creation marked a watershed for governance of a mainly Islamic society in that it granted equality to all citizens and provided for universal women’s suffrage years before many Western countries. Yet, a century later, commemorating the event is proving to be a complicated affair for Azerbaijan’s present-day government. Many observers regard Azerbaijan’s current political system as nominally democratic, yet authoritarian in practice. Thus, it is fitting that President Ilham Aliyev’s administration is taking a delicate approach to celebrating the establishment of a genuinely pluralistic government.
In addition, Müsavat — a prominent, yet largely toothless opposition party today — sees itself as the successor to the ADR’s founding party of the same name, and thus claims a connection to the 1918 events. The opposition’s veneration of the ADR leadership is a nuisance for the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP), which tends instead to extol Heydar Aliyev, Ilham’s late father, as independent Azerbaijan’s founding figure. In this regard, the government may worry that celebrating the ADR will tacitly help legitimize the activity of its opponents. [continue reading]
Ewout Van Den Berg
Africa is a Country
Three weeks ago I, together with a group of fellow Dutch antiracist activists, planned to go to Dokkum, a city in the Friesland province of the Netherlands, to protest the Intocht, a celebration that serves as the symbolic arrival of Sinterklaas. If you’re unfamiliar with the Dutch version of Santa Claus, here he appears as an old white man on a horse, along with a blackface “helper” known as Zwarte Piet or Black Pete. Black Pete was invented more than 150 years ago and bears the racist symbolism of the bloody Dutch colonial past. The figures are acrobatic, silly and have historically spoken with a caricatured Surinamese accent (an allusion to immigrants from the former Dutch colony in South America). In the weeks between the Intocht and the Evening of the Gifts, on the 5th of December children sing songs with lyrics such as “Even if I’m black as coal I still mean well.”
On the day of the protest, we never arrived. Racists blocked the highway in order prevent us from reaching the city. The police made no effort to stop the blockade. It’s not the first time that activists were prevented from protesting during the Intocht. The resurgence of the movement against Black Pete started in 2011, when two black Dutch activists, Quinsy Gario and Jerry Afriyie, were violently dragged away and arrested at the intocht for wearing “Black Pete is Racism” t-shirts. Africa is a Country covered those first protests extensively. Ever since, protests have routinely ended in mass arrests (with one hundred arrests in Gouda in 2014 and two hundred in Rotterdam last year). The arrests are usually accompanied by brutal police violence mainly aimed at black activists. [continue reading]
In a Brexit-scarred Britain, increasingly reminiscent of its days as a colonial power, a new documentary on the ghastly Bengal famine of 1942-43 is raising fresh, uncomfortable questions on the Empire’s bloody legacy. The documentary, Bengal Shadows, made by two Bengali-origin French filmmakers, revolves around the British empire’s role, especially that of former Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in causing and exacerbating the Bengal famine, which starved nearly five million people to death.
It held its first show in the United Kingdom last month, at a screening at the School of Oriental And African Studies (SOAS), University of London. The film has sought to tie in rare eyewitness accounts with historical research material and aims to pin the blame for the famine firmly onto the empire’s policies and Churchill’s decision making. With Britain increasingly showing signs of a growing nostalgia for its colonial past, this documentary is seeking to initiate a fresh conversation about the bloodied, little-known legacy that British colonialism has left behind in India. After last year’s referendum vote to leave the EU, there have been increasing calls to either glorify Britain’s colonial past or, ‘white-wash’ its past crimes. Since the vote, policymakers in the UK have been hinting that Britain would now develop a fresh focus on the Commonwealth and creating new trade partnerships with them. Internally, officials have dubbed this plan a way to create ‘Empire 2.0’. The UK’s International Trade Secretary Liam Fox even convened a first-of-its-kind meeting of trade ministers from across its former colonies earlier this year. [continue reading]