THE REDS & THE WHITES & THE BLUES
Waving the flags of empire in the 21st century
by Michael Moorcock
Originally published in Arthur No. 5 (July 2003)
“It’s not easy to get everyone against you.”
Imran Khan, Pakistani cricketer, April 2002
“What God hates most is arrogance. And what I see in the United States is sheer arrogance.”
Mullah Anar M. Anif, Peshawar, Pakistan, April 2002
“Chap in a dishdash coming through.”
British officer in Iraq, March 2003
BLOOD RUNS DOWN the camera lens. The American plane has shot up a column of Kurds, US Special Forces and a BBC TV crew. “A scene from hell,” says journalist John Simpson, whose interpreter has just been killed. Some of the footage, sans the blood, is shown on American network TV for a few seconds. Most of these scenes from hell, of course, are not filmed. They are happening to people who don’t own video cameras.
Sitting here in Texas watching BBC TV on my computer reminds me that there is no film from Amritsar except the fictional reconstruction offered in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. That hypocritical piece of imperial self-serving posed as an authentic account. The massacre was portrayed as an aberration rather than the norm. I also start thinking of Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s powerful piece of romanticized imperial history. I recall how disgusted I was by Attenborough’s other essay into whitewashing middle-class liberal sensibilities, Cry, Freedom, about the murder of Steve Bitko in South Africa. The British are good at this kind of misleading sentimentality. They’re subtler than Americans who crudely rewrite history to show themselves or versions of themselves as simple heroes, whether it’s Errol Flynn single-handedly ‘liberating’ Burma in WW2, Mel Gibson defeating the British in The Patriot, Mel Gibson pretending to be a Norman baron gone native in Braveheart, the falsifications of Blackhawk Down, or Americans (rather than British) discovering how to beat the Germans with the Enigma machine. The British are ultimately more persuasive, I suspect. They’ve had more practice at this kind of patriotic propaganda than the Americans, by and large. Everyone’s learned from Goebbels, whether they know it or not, of course.
“Chap in a dishdash…”
Those of us still alert to the language of Empire remember the teenage soldiers coming home to Britain to tell stories of the tricks they played on brown civilians across the globe in the 1940s and 50s as the British slowly gave ground to angry freedom fighters in, for instance, Burma, Malaya, Kenya, Palestine and Cyprus.
I’d forgotten about dishdash, which in the language of British imperialism is used as a generic for almost any Middle Eastern garment, though I hadn’t forgotten about ‘imshi’, for instance. I’ve written a bit about British colonial occupations in, my book Breakfast in the Ruins (available free on the net at RevolutionSF off the SF Site, if you’re interested). My book A Nomad of the Time Streams also dealt with the idealism of Empire and how it gets decent people to do its dirty work (that isn’t free, but it’s pretty cheap, second hand). All my writing life, in fact, I’ve been addressing the matter of Empire and I’d rather hoped I was seeing the end of that particular aggressive folly…
Yes, now I remember ‘dishdash’. It refers to a dijdajha, a garment worn in Kuwait and the Gulf and made in two pieces, an inner garment like a djelaba known in Egypt as a gelabya and in Morocco as a jellaba (Arabic changes a bit from country to country, but it’s the same word) with an outer garment like a long coat. They’re sewn together and you put the whole thing on over your head. In recent years Indian tailoring has added a few refinements such as fancy collars, button fronts and button cuffs. I’ve never been to Iraq, however, where I believe it’s also called a dijdajha. It’s a useful garment, sometimes with pockets, sometimes with slits in the side so you can get to pockets in the clothes you wear under it. I wear a gelabya myself when in the Middle East or North Africa and I even used to wear one in Texas until someone pointed out that it probably wasn’t wise, given what now happened to Sikhs sporting turbans. I still wear it in Spain. The North African variety often comes with a hood. You can get plain white or different patterns and colors and it’s sold in light cotton or nylon for summer (or daytime) and heavy wool for winter (or night). Some suppliers offer it in embroidered versions. I’ve even seen one made in denim. It’s perfect for the climate and tends to protect other clothes from dust or sand. I only ever heard it referred to as a ‘dish-dash’ by British troops or Britons who learned their language via the army, though I think it might be Englished that way in some Gulf states. I had thought the Anglicized phrase, which refers to almost any long garment of the many worn in the East, utterly dead until this year when I started to hear it on the lips of British troops ‘policing’ Iraq (they’d had good experience recently in Northern Ireland boasted their officers).
I’ve heard the new movie of The Four Feathers is an intervention into all that. Should be worth seeing. Before WW2 Alexander Korda and John Ford between them made the North West Frontier, including Peshwar and Kashmir, rather more their own than the troops ever did. Be it The Drum or Wee Willie Winkie, Gunga Din or Soldiers Three, Kipling continued to command the popular imagination and C. Aubrey Smith was almost never out of work, busily protecting civilization from the incursions of brown potentates whose mysterious motives included driving the redcoats out of their territory.
Meanwhile, back at the front, a British officer addresses his men, advising them that Iraq is an ancient land with a history and culture they must respect. How much more civilized, my American friends tell me, than the crude Americans who know nothing of the country they invade.
The officer speaks in the romantic language of the ‘Arabist’ or what Edward Said calls the ‘orientalist’. This is the sentimental upper end of the language of empire, the kind you’d expect from Lawrence, the man who promised the Arabs a destiny they were never to win from their alliance with the British. For them the promise of Palestine to the Zionists to create the State of Israel was a betrayal. To the Jews, of course, that promise was only kept after they used the tactics of terror against the occupying British troops.
From 1882 until the early 1950s the British promised the world they would leave Egypt, which they claimed to be protecting against the Turks. They didn’t leave until Nasser made it too hard for them to stay. When, with the French and the Israelis, the British invaded Egypt in 1956, the Americans refused to help them, indeed stepped in to stop them, greatly improving American prestige in the region.
That prestige could have been built upon. Sadly the Americans were already moving into countries vacated by the British. The Anglo-American Oil Company needed that control abroad the way the Anglo-American Tobacco Company needed it at home. British and American interests, especially where investment in each other’s stocks are concerned, have always been thoroughly intertwined. What I like to call USUK is essentially one country, with an intermarried ruling caste and common financial goals. The axis of the NE US, Canada and SE England controls much of our destiny, via media as well as commerce. If you think this is new, check out Nicholas Davenport’s The Oil Trusts and Anglo-American Relations, 1923.
Over 50 years ago, after the British and their Anglo-Iranian Oil Company had been thrown out of Persia, the Americans almost immediately moved in on the territory, as they had moved in on British traditional markets in the Far East in the early years of WW2, to the alarm of the expanding Japanese Empire whose ultimate response was to bomb Pearl Harbor, causing their ally Hitler to declare war on the US and so drag America reluctantly into the European as well as the Asian conflict. A War of Empires, indeed.
In Iran the Americans soon ousted the man who had ousted the British and replaced him with the puppet Shah, a blue-blooded dictator whose thugs began a reign of terror which ultimately led to the rise of Khoumenyi and the events which threw the Americans out of Iran. Control of oil, especially in the event of a war with the Soviet Union, was at the heart of that policy, as commentators remarked at the time. Then the world’s two mightiest empires maneuvered around each other’s interests in what had come to be known as the Cold War.
It seems to me that we are not, as some insist, witnessing the beginning of American imperialism. American imperialism has been active for quite a while. Ask the Puerto Ricans, for instance. Or, of course, the Cubans. Some would say that American imperialism began in 1776 or at least as soon as the US was ready to continue the business of expanding into territories occupied by native populations. For a while, as with the British Empire, the cost didn’t seem too high. The profits appeared to outweigh the outlay in money, munitions and lives.
But ultimately, as the Romans and Turks discovered along with the British, Spanish, Dutch, Russians and French, empires are costly, unwieldy affairs. In my experience, which saw the dismantling of the British version, wiping the map free of much of its pink areas, we are again witnessing the decline of an empire as America follows Britain down the long helter skelter of history. It took Britain several hundred years to go through the process, itself already shorter than the Roman experience. It’s taking America perhaps less time to go the same route.
Some people, especially the exploited, actually do learn the lessons of history.
The resistance is becoming more thoroughly focused due to America’s recent direct actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. From Pakistan to Iran, from Indonesia to the Philippines, the exploited are also alert to the language of empire, to the words which demean them and control them and reflect the arrogance and contempt of the imperialists who these days almost always speak English.
Unlike many Moslems, Arabs themselves are horrible racists, of course. They describe themselves as the white race. Europeans are the red race. They despise blacks and Jews. The often seem to have more in common with the KKK than the teachings of the Koran. We, of course, do all we can to confirm the stereotype of ourselves as crude, ill-mannered, barbaric peoples.
Cartoon versions of the English-speaking imperialist abound in Arab cultures. This Euro-American creature has a name in much of the Islamic world which has no version of Lucifer as we imagine him. The name, the Great Shaitan, is not our Son of the Morning, but quite a different mythological being. Shaitan is a fat, greedy, swill-eating, unthinking, ill-mannered, uncaring, arrogant fool. He is the Ugly American we hope we are not. It was this image which was conjured up when Iran threw him out of their country. Shaitan originally flew the Union Jack. Even with a conscripted army ‘policing’ that part of his empire he had failed to keep his bottom on the well. When he flew the Stars and Stripes, trying a less direct imperial rule through bribed puppets and corrupted officials, his bottom was again thoroughly kicked until he was forced to leave. We might have seen ourselves as Henry V, the great heroic soldier, but they saw us as more as his early companion, Falstaff.
Empire, whether it be Ottoman, Spanish, French, Russian, English or American, is of course absolutely familiar to the frequently invaded. Imperialism, whatever name it goes by, whether the Greater Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere or the British Commonwealth, is quickly understood for what it is by the people of the street as well as by the people of the universities. Poor and privileged alike are wise to its ambitions and its disguises, even to the benign self-deceptions of its idealists. Through the 20th century in particular the colonized developed their own sophisticated intellectual rhetoric and public speech-making to counter imperialism. Thus, through the second half of the century they were able to resist it and in most cases ultimately throw it out. They ejected the French from Algeria, the English from Malaya, the Americans from Iran. As American imperialism grew increasingly open and aggressive, so they were able to counter it more thoroughly.
The colonized understand the power they face, but they also recognize an empire when it begins to weaken. And an empire is often at its most ruthless and openly aggressive when it is at its weakest.
The victims of colonialism know something the powerful probably don’t know because the powerful don’t believe they have to study the weak (or those they perceive as weak). As they squander their wealth to promote their threatened sense of self-importance they become blind to the rust-holes in their armor. The victims, on the other hand, know all too well, from past experience, how very expensive it is to maintain an empire. It’s especially expensive when terrorism begins to strike at the heart of an empire, as it did in London during the IRA campaigns, killing the empire’s civilians as well as its soldiers, destroying its confidence, its security systems, causing its citizens to wonder at last why such a price is being paid to protect those who demand only the right to protect themselves.
Our victims, in short, are hip to our self-serving sentimentality. They are suspicious of our motives and our apparent charity. They don’t want us to build them hospitals. They want to build their own hospitals and run them efficiently, according to their own ideas. If they want money they would rather earn their own, like the Caribbean banana growers whose livelihood, and indeed their whole society, is now threatened by Dole and other American-owned growers who used lawyers and loopholes defying the spirit of the law to extend their power and increase their profits, to please their impatient share-holders. The small economies want us to have a real choice, to be able to buy their citrus products, like the Moroccans and Algerians who have been blocked from European markets by EU restrictions designed to protect the Spanish and Portuguese growers.
They would like their chance to speak out against this selective protectionism which only promotes lassez faire economics when it suits the powerful. Egypt depends on our tourist trade. They want us to use their airlines, hotels and shops, to study their ancient culture and admire their long lasting civilization, but not to cry ‘imshi’ (the term you use to slow-moving animals in Egypt and which to my horror I have heard on the lips of English tourists who picked it up from their colonial forebears) when you want a crowd of street traders to stop bothering you.
The people I have met in the Middle East, for instance, would rather think well of our manners and indeed they do when we take the trouble to learn a little polite Arabic, to be on our best behavior. They would rather do business with us, to our mutual profit, than take our charity, our loaded largesse, which demands so much more back from them than a fair trade. They know how destructive the language of threat and counter-threat can be to all our economies. It has ruined Israel, for instance, which now wholly depends on American taxpayers. Their common sense tells them that mutual respect not only makes us more secure and happier, it makes us richer. They want our respect, in other words, just as our own poor want respect in their own country, just as they would rather see and show respect for those who luck and good management has made richer than themselves. They don’t want to treat us as patrons or be treated as peasants. They want to argue their case as equals through courts which recognize and protect that equality. They want lawyers, both national and international, who respect the law rather than spend their time trying to circumvent it. In the Middle East they even want to be persuaded that Israel, for which they nurse a deep, irrational and threatening prejudice, might after all be their friend, that their deep-rooted and ultimately self-destructive attitudes have no meaning or function in the modern world. After all, many Christians have at last been able to rid themselves of that habit of prejudice in the past few decades.
We can, with relatively little effort, learn from one another’s examples, as we have done in the past. We can show grace where we displayed aggression; we can observe good humor where we offered anger; learning where we demonstrated only ignorance.
Certainly violence always appears to be the easiest option, but it is rarely the cheapest. It’s the easiest commodity to sell in entertainment, in law enforcement and foreign policy. It appeals to the lowest common denominator in advertising and politics. It seems to sell beer and tennis shoes. But one thing violence ultimately is not–it is not long-term economic common sense. Violence, like empire, is very expensive. It gets out of hand. Only a few people make much of a profit from it. The rest of us lose a great deal. As they learned in South Africa and the Soviet Union, as I hope we are learning in the US, the prison business and the weapons business have a habit of enriching only a few and those few usually don’t even stick around to spend their money or even pay taxes where they made it. They don’t even pay for law enforcement when we need it, let alone education and public health.
The empire business might well be the quickest way of making short term profits for some, but it’s also the quickest way to create a decline in your nation’s fundamental wealth. Empire and conquest, whether in business or politics, is the profitable logic of the short term. Egalitarianism, genuine democracy, as America once understood and as Europe once learned from America, is the profitable logic of the long term. It seems ironic, therefore, that a nation which prides herself on her common sense, who drew her founding inspiration from the writings of Tom Paine and other fundamentally practical political thinkers, should have forgotten the lessons she taught the world. Perhaps, if she begins to listen rather than shout and bully, she will hear her own voice of reason speaking back to her at last. And perhaps she will then begin again to recall the lessons of sanity and egalitarian governance which once so inspired the parliaments of Europe and the world and made some of them at least decide that imperialism really didn’t do them any good at all.
Texas, May 2003