From when America needed Syria to fashion rules of the Colonial Atlantic, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
Just as the Central Intelligence Agency came into being in September 1947, two of its officers drove east out of Beirut over the mountains to meet a colleague who had just arrived in Damascus. Archie and Kim Roosevelt were cousins—grandsons of the buccaneering 26th U.S. president no less—and, though only 29 and 31 years old respectively, were already veterans of the world of intelligence. Archie, who had recently completed a posting as the military attaché in Iran, was the new head of the CIA station in Beirut; Kim, who had served in the Office of Strategic Services during the war, was posing as a journalist on a commission for Harper’smagazine. The man they were going to meet would eventually become equally well known. His name was Miles Copeland.
Once the two Roosevelts had met up with Copeland, the three men embarked on a tour of Syria. Ostensibly, they wished to see the country’s numerous Crusader castles; in reality, they were talent-scouting. In particular, they wanted to identify Syrians in positions of influence who had benefited from an American education and might be willing to help them in a matter that had assumed the greatest strategic significance. The cover and the real purpose of the mission dovetailed rather well: By the fall of 1947, Syria had become as important to the United States as it had been to the Crusaders eight centuries earlier. [continue reading]
On Thursday, Indian Supreme Court struck down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a colonial law that still repressed LGBTQ Indians seven decades after independence. Colonialism distorted Indian society: It favored some groups and disfavored others. The legacy of these colonial wrongs endures in democratic India because majority rule does not necessarily take note of minority concerns—despite every citizen’s theoretical equality under the Indian Constitution. Colonial prejudice is also refracted through modern opinion when, for example, people have defended Section 377 on the basis that it preserved “traditional Indian culture” despite its literally having been written to impose British legal views on the subcontinent. The Indian Supreme Court stepped in last week and argued forcefully that courts have a unique duty to protect minorities, in this case the queer community, against majoritarian disfavor or apathy.
The judgment is a major victory for privacy, and the right to privacy is a prerequisite for decolonizing law. Colonial governance in British India was based on the presumption that colonial officials were almost always right while Indians were almost always being nefarious. Under such a system of surveillance and control, privacy was impossible. [continue reading]
I first came across Julia Kristeva’s name in the late nineties, when I was a teen-ager, on the masthead of a small Bulgarian newspaper, Literaturen Vestnik, to which I had just begun contributing. She had joined the editorial board in 1995, in a purely symbolic capacity: her name was meant to lend cachet to the obscure cultural weekly, published in Sofia, where Kristeva and I grew up. Kristeva had moved thirty years before to Paris, where she became internationally celebrated as a literary theorist and psychoanalyst, shaping Continental philosophy alongside Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault.
A striking and glamorous figure, she was increasingly prominent as a public intellectual, writing and lecturing on nationalism, the meaning of revolt, and the female genius, among other subjects. Kristeva did not get much involved in the cultural or political life of her homeland. Still, her position on that little masthead made her subject to the purview of an organization created in 2006, shortly before Bulgaria joined the European Union: the Committee for Disclosing the Documents and Announcing the Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army—more popularly known, in Bulgaria, as the Dossier Committee. [continue reading]
Michèle Audin was three years old and fast asleep with her two younger siblings when French paratroopers burst into her family’s flat on the third floor of an apartment block in Algiers and dragged her father away. She never saw him again. Following his late-night arrest, on 11 July 1957, Maurice Audin, 25, a mathematician, was tortured and killed by French soldiers operating under special orders to do whatever it took to crush Algeria’s struggle for independence. His body was never found. His assassins were never identified, never officially investigated and never punished.
Last week, after a relentless 61-year campaign by Audin’s widow Josette, now 87, President Emmanuel Macron admitted the state was responsible for his death and acknowledged for the first time that France had used systematic torture during the Algerian war. For Michèle, the declaration has been almost a lifetime coming. For France, it has taken more than 55 years to confront the unpalatable truth about a conflict that has long cast a shadow over the republic, its history and successive leaders. [continue reading]
In 2017, Stella McCartney ran into trouble during Paris fashion week. Her faux pas was cultural appropriation: using Nigerian Ankara fabrics, reportedly pretending to have “discovered” them, and dressing her almost exclusively white group of models in the fabric.
In 1791, British traveller Anna Maria Falconbridge complained of the failure of her own attempt to promote cultural appropriation of European fashions, while describing her visit to the Temne, in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Spending time with Clara, the wife of the royal secretary, “I endeavoured to persuade her to dress in the European way, but to no purpose; she would tear the clothes off her back immediately after I put them on. Finding no credit could be gained by trying to new fashion this Ethiopian Princess, I got rid of her as soon as possible.” Now, maybe it’s just me, but I always think Anna Maria would have given Gretchen Wieners a run for her money as Regina George’s BFF. Her book, Two Voyages in Sierra Leone, is full of snarky comments about fashion in Sierra Leone, but it comes across as so much posturing. [continue reading]