What is to come of Black Africa?

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Ethnic slaughter in Nigeria, ethnic slaughter in Ruanda, chattel slavery in Sudan, baby raping in South Africa and refugees, crime, corruption, starvation and AIDS almost everywhere. Last week, Ted Koeppel's "Nightline" did a week-long feature on the mess in Congo. It was a graphic picture but IMO offerred no helpful ideas.

Most of black Africa has been free of colonialism for several generations. Many types of governments have been tried in that time ranging from "democracies" to Marxist dictatorships to military dictatorships to Idi Amin's charnel house to Bobby Mugabe's kill-whitey demogogery. To my knowledge, there has not been one successful nation state.

Any thoughts? The fortunes of Africa affect the entire world.

-- (lars@indy.net), February 07, 2002


Should we let them self-destruct in respectful benign neglect? Should we reinstate "The White Man's Burden"? (NYT article, may require registration, no big deal)

-- (lars@indy.net), February 07, 2002.

New York Times January 26, 2002

Kipling Knew What the U.S. May Now Learn


"Take up the White Man's burden," was Rudyard Kipling's notorious prescription for the United States as it began to rule the Philippine Islands. That refrain, from an 1899 poem, eventually became a key exhibit in the case against the racism and exploitation of 19th-century imperialism. Kipling's attitudes toward "new-caught, sullen peoples,/Half devil and half child" permanently sullied his reputation.

The notion of "White Man's burden" once again seems peculiarly relevant in thinking about the war in Afghanistan. What are the goals of the Western powers as the region is transformed? What good can be expected and how can it be achieved?

For Kipling these issues were also personal. He was born in India, and though educated in England, he returned to India as a journalist. He hoped that his writing would reveal "the whole sweep and meaning of things throughout the empire." And in fact, from 1886 to 1901 his tales (including "The Man Who Would Be King"), his poems (including "Barrack-Room Ballads") and his 1901 novel, "Kim," began to do just that.

In fact, assessments of Kipling's reputation and early works cannot be easily separated from evaluations of the British Empire. During his lifetime he was one of Britain's most renowned writers. He won the Nobel Prize, was praised by T. S. Eliot and became friends with King George V. For decades, films ranging from early silents to "Gunga Din" with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. celebrated Kipling's heroic vision.

But as the critic Edmund Wilson wrote, in literary circles the "eclipse of the reputation of Kipling" began as early as 1910. By 1941, when Wilson was writing, Kipling had "dropped out of modern literature." In 1942 George Orwell wrote: "During five literary generations every enlightened person has despised him" as "morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting." And Lionel Trilling added to qualified literary praise a dismissal of Kipling's "bullying, ruthlessness and self-righteousness."

During the early 1960's more analytic treatment came into play in important essays and biographical studies by Noel Annan, Andrew Rutherford and other scholars. But Kipling became a specialized taste, alien to both the popular and political imaginations. Irving Howe's 1982 anthology, "The Portable Kipling," tried to provide some resuscitation with a surprisingly sympathetic introduction. "History has come to Kipling's rescue," Howe wrote, "What has replaced imperialism has often been something much worse."

But the academy seemed unimpressed until Kipling's injured literary corpse was used for postcolonial examinations of Western imperialism. More subtly, Edward Said wrote a perceptive analysis of "Kim" in his 1993 book, "Culture and Imperialism," calling the novel "rich and absolutely fascinating" but "profoundly embarrassing."

It will be interesting to see how Kipling fares in a new biography, "The Long Recessional" by David Gilmour, to be published this spring by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. But the war in Afghanistan should spur yet another examination, particularly as the West becomes involved in nation building. In a region long scarred by tribal and religious massacres, invasions, poverty and corruption, the hope is that over $4 billion in aid will lead to a Western-style democracy, a Western-style justice system and a relatively free economy.

But don't these ambitious humanitarian goals themselves require a form of imperialism not all that different from Britain's at its best? Don't these intentions unavoidably assert superiority? And may not these ambitions however fantastical possibly lead to varieties of exploitation and unexpected massacres now associated with the phrase "White Man's burden"? How are burdens of imperial power to be borne as they arise in new incarnations?

Kipling's work helps shed more light on these knotty problems than it might seem, given his reputation. In much of the early fiction an empathetic imagination displaces jingoistic doctrine. The imperial enterprise, Kipling suggests, is not so easy to evaluate. It is tinged by generosity as well as venality, tragedy as well as evil.

In "Kim," for example, the street urchin son of a low-life Irish soldier and a low-caste Indian mother learns to negotiate the teeming bazaar of Indian life, impersonating and conversing with sahibs (the ruling white men) along with Tibetans, Sikhs, Afghans and Muslims. But for Kim, social boundaries and hierarchies become porous.

These natives are not sullen half- men and half-children. They are rivalrous, brutish, generous, xenophobic, kind and corrupt very much like sahibs themselves. One central character says of the white rulers: "It is with them as with all men." Another character says that sahibs who don't understand the land or its peoples are "worse than the pestilence." The students in the elite sahib school where Kim is sent against his will are abusive, snobby, racist, part of a restrictive society that pales before Kim's experiences of India.

So the novel, far from celebrating imperial authority, dismantles it, as does Kipling's 1888 tale of perverse imperial designs, "The Man Who Would Be King." Among the craggy peaks and isolated plains of a land beyond Afghanistan, two scruffy white con men conquer a series of primitive tribes. In the new kingdom, the tribes prosper; the rulers are seen as gods. But then one "king" violates the rules of a culture he does not understand. He is revealed as "not a God nor a Devil" but a fallible and deceptive man. The natives crucify him in expiation of no one's sins but his own.

The imperial project then, is fraught with dangers that claims of superiority cannot fend off. Kipling must have also recognized that one could never eliminate enmity or create loyalty by tempering the imperial project with good deeds and some prosperity. How is a sense of superiority, then, to be combined with the cultural respect latent in many of Kipling's tales?

Kipling, of course, was sure of Britain's cultural superiority as indeed, America is of its own when confronted with the Taliban. But Kipling suggests that the superiority also entails sacrifice. All "profit and gain," he asserts in his poem, must be sought not for oneself but for the other. Famine and sickness must be eliminated. Battles for peace must be waged. But nothing should be expected in return. Even if the project succeeds something Kipling believed would never happen in India imperial power should expect only "the blame of those ye better/The hate of those ye guard." In the poem's imagery, the end of nave childhood for the conquered is also the weary end of nave childhood for the conqueror.

This makes the burden seem impossibly heavy and the conflicts irresolvable. But Kipling may have come closest to an ideal resolution in "Kim." Kim, a master of cultural masquerade, is gradually recruited into what was then known as the Great Game: he becomes a British agent, joining a multicultural espionage network intent on preventing a Russian invasion. Kim's support for the Game is taken for granted. Kim never even ponders why he plays the Game.

Many critics have pointed to this as the novel's failure. But the point is that for Kim, the Great Game is an abstract commitment, an enterprise so encompassing it has little to do with any particular identity, not even that of the sahibs. Kim is not all that different from the Tibetan lama he travels with, who seeks enlightenment by shedding all forms of identity. This may be the closest Kipling came to a utopian vision in which the tensions of imperialism are resolved.

Kipling himself could never live up to such an ideal; neither, perhaps, could Kim. Britain certainly didn't. Some modified version of the hope lies behind the establishment of the new Afghan government and the humanitarian ambitions of the West: a hope that somehow old identities will dissolve, that the conqueror will spur no resentment and that internal peace will reign. But as this Great Game becomes deadly serious, as a region resembling Kim's becomes better understood, and as new forms of imperialism take shape, Kipling's notorious and tragic burden begins to seem unavoidable. So does the likelihood that there will be no utopian resolution of its latent contradictions.

-- (lars@indy.net), February 07, 2002.

"Any thoughts? The fortunes of Africa affect the entire world."

When I analyze this statement, mainly what means to me is that Africa is chock full of mineral wealth that western nations want to extract and exploit to meet their own desires and that Africa is a market full of consumers of western products. Either way, it's money that drives the connection. These two facts also mean that western nations, most especially the USA, can't seem to keep their fingers out of the African pie.

What's wrong with the idea of letting Africa guide its own destiny? I recommend we take the attitude of a physician, first to do no harm. If nothing else, it would be a huge change from what we and Europe have done for the last 250 years.

Not that it will happen, Lars. In Africa as elsewhere, the world will always consult its own wants, needs and desires first. America won't stop wanting minerals or markets. Our policy will continue to be driven by this, Africa be damned.

-- Little Nipper (canis@minor.net), February 07, 2002.

So, you advocate "benign neglect" LN? What if Nigeria wants to sell us their oil?

-- (lars@indy.net), February 07, 2002.

Before we can properly buy Nigerian oil, wouldn't it be a good idea to figure out who owns Nigeria's oil?

I haven't looked into the matter very deeply, but I strongly suspect that the original contracts for Nigeria's oil rights were signed by Nigerians whose "authority" to sign was based on nothing more than their acceptability to Shell Oil and the British government. Moreover, the current government in Nigeria has no connection whatsoever to "the consent of the governed."

That's what I mean by following the principle of "first, do no harm." Knowingly buying stolen goods harms the people from whom they were stolen. Just as a matter of practicality, you can't urge the return of stolen goods to their rightful owners before you stop stuffing them into your own pocket and calling them your own by right of purchase.

But it is hardly worth discussing, because it will never happen. The tradition of conquest, rapine and plunder is too strong in human history and too deep in human nature. We gain too much by encouraging our clients to steal and fence the goods to us. It is a good half of our livlihood as a nation. A move to virtue would bring a certain amount of poverty upon ourselves. People just won't stand for that.

-- Little Nipper (canis@minor.net), February 07, 2002.

Nipper, in this country, the "white" government made treaties with individuals who were willing to sign. These treaties were considered lawful by the "white" government in spite of the lack of greater group support among the tribes affected by the treaties. People who made unpopular treaties sometimes died violently for it, but the treaties were enforced anyway.

I live where I do because of the treaties, I think.

(Bear with me, I'm trying to make words fit the idea...) Tribal governments are not like "white" or "Euro" governments. Tribal governments often have fluid leadership and even membership rights. Making a treaty with one group willing to make a treaty has no validity in the point of view of the other groups who did not make the treaty -- but the "white" government has to get on with the program, and so whatever group signs the treaty ends up being treated as the leadership.

Very good thing for companies wishing to exploit the local resources, but not necessarily morally wrong. Tribes are not usually democracies. The will of the majority may not have a culturally-defined method of communication.

(Did I make any sense at all?)

-- helen (they@moved.us.out), February 07, 2002.

As far as I can tell, you make very good sense, helen.

The treaties the USA made with North American tribes provide a very close analog to both the imposition of colonial rule and the subsequent creation of client states run by client rulers in Africa and elsewhere. None of this new stuff invented exclusively for Africa. Hell, the Romans used most of these tricks in colonizing Gaul. As I said, "the tradition of conquest, rapine and plunder is too strong in human history and too deep in human nature." Of course, this doesn't make it right.

Which brings me back to Lars's concerns about Africa:

"Ethnic slaughter in Nigeria, ethnic slaughter in Ruanda, chattel slavery in Sudan, baby raping in South Africa and refugees, crime, corruption, starvation and AIDS almost everywhere."

To some extent these would be true with or without Africa's colonial past. Every society has its crimes and superstitions. But to a very large extent these are the byproducts of the systematic breakup of Africa's native social and political structures by the colonizing powers. We are the beneficiaries of that breakup.

The political structures that were put into place by the European colonial powers were designed to permit the easy exploitation of African resources by the industrial nations and the imposition of western economic markets in place of native industry and native markets. The place is a mess because Europe made a mess of it. When Europe left, we simply filled the vacuum and took up where they left off.

I really have no idea how Africa is going to repair the damage they and we have done. But if I had to start "helping" somewhere, I would start by removing our support for the useful thieves who are our foremost accomplices in continuing the crimes of the colonial period.

That one step might accelerate the wars and revolutions and the breakup and realignment of the post-colonial nations that has already been going on for decades. But at least it would have the virtue of putting the destiny of Africa back into the hands of Africans. After all, their destiny rightly belongs to them, doesn't it?

-- Little Nipper (canis@minor.net), February 07, 2002.


If you be talking about subsaharian Africa, I have seen the numbers. If the projections are correct [and they appear to be confirmed on a daily basis], we will be looking at the largest human disaster that we have seen [or perhaps anyone has seen]. Whole generations will disappear. It is happening as we speak. How is that for doomerism from a non-doomer. Why wouldn't people reduce themselves to short term goals; after all they only have a short term. We will see how it plays out. It sure doesn't look good.

Best Wishes,,,,,


-- Z1X4Y7 (Z1X4Y7@aol.com), February 07, 2002.

As soon as Africans worry as much about Africans as Americans worry about Africans maybe I'll worry about Africans. Except maybe if I hear that African-Americans are alot worried about Africans then I'll change my mind.

The problem isn't small and I don't really mean to make fun, but, still, what would you ask ME to DO? "Being more sensitive" doesn't count.

-- Carlos (riffraff@cybertime.net), February 07, 2002.

I've wondered before who will own Africa when the Africans are mostly dead? Doesn't look like anything can be done to stop the progression of their decline.

-- helen (past@present.future), February 07, 2002.

It is kind of like trying to stop pods of whales from beaching themselves.

Watchin' and wonderin'...

The Dog

-- The Dog (dogdesert@hotmail.com), February 08, 2002.

IMO, the "1st world" cannot help sub-saharan (black) Africa out of its current wretchedness short of re-establishing some kind of enlightened neo-colonialism. To do so would be impossibly dangerous, expensive and offensive to the countries involved. I think that Clinton did the right thing by not committing American forces to a "peacekeeping" mission in Ruanda when Hutus were massacreing Tutsis and, later on, vice-versa.

I think we should offer African nations free-trade, scientific and medical assistance within our own limitations and otherwise leave them alone. Natural dynamic systems are ultimately self-regulating. If disease and war ravage Africa to the point where the continent's popultion acheives a new equilibrium at 1/10 the current population, then so be it. Think of all the gorillas-in-the-mist that will be saved.

If what happens in the "Dark Continent" threatens the rest of the world, then yes, the rest of the world must intervene. I don't think that point has yet been reached.

Tough love.

-- (lars@indy.net), February 08, 2002.

This topic has had an audience for years, Lars. I don't see a solution to it, personally, so I'll need to be labeled with the one who was called, "morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting".

It was some years back where I was waiting for a commuter train to Chicago and stood alongside a school teacher [I think, although you know MY memory.] For some reason, we started discussing Rwhanda [or some place where the children had been starved for years.] Her thoughts [and I agree] were that if a child has been starved for the first X years, brain development just never occurred. This was around the time that the TV started showing pictures of starving children, and I remember SO's mom feeling SO sorry for them. What to do? I suppose some would like to send food, but the result would only be a more healthy looking individual without a brain.

-- Anita (Anita_S3@hotmail.com), February 08, 2002.

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