Empire Syndrome: Denial, Delusion and British Relocation

Travelling while black can be exhausting. As a British traveller you are often perceived by Americans, Australians and Europeans as a fellow ‘westerner’ and ally. This, combined perhaps with a complete lack of awareness of what it means to be a diasporic African, can allow people to feel comfortable enough around you to come out with some wildly offensive commentaries. Such comments can range from the mildly problematic to the outrageously racist but almost all of them are truly worth analysing.

I was once speaking with a New Zealander about her prospective relocation to Dubai for a tax free wage that would relieve the financial pressures of living in London, and finally allow her to start saving. She despaired having to adjust to a new culture and worried about things like covering up in the heat and not kissing her boyfriend in public. Her frustration culminated in this sentence: “I get that they want hold on to their religious values and stuff but they need westerners”.

My lips parted as I hoped to articulate some kind of response, but no sound escaped as I stood, dumbfounded. I know nothing about Dubai. But from her description of her life in London, she definitely needed Dubai more than Dubai needed her. The patronising tone behind the words “their religious values and stuff” had me completely floored. To dismiss an entire religion, culture or way of life as if it were small print to the greater story of My Life seemed painfully ignorant and self-involved. The arrogance of this statement marked me. As an immigrant arriving into a country solely to earn a better wage that you have no intention of paying taxes on, how is it possible to still feel such a sense of entitlement?

This brought into sharp focus a term I jokingly came up with years previously to explain some of the equally arrogant and ignorant things I would hear (almost always white) travellers say. The term empire syndrome, I decided, denotes the belief that ‘westerners’ have unparalleled rights to the world because the world has so much to learn from them. Empire syndrome is responsible for phenomena such as the selectively used term ‘expat’ and domestically can be connected to our unforgivably poor treatment of refugees here in the UK. It is the worrying belief, often manifested by British travellers, that there is always some element of contribution in being British abroad. The world needs the English language, British education and good, tolerant, liberal western values and here you are giving it to them! What commendable philanthropy!

The stereotype of the ‘Brit abroad’ as loud, proud and unapologetically ignorant is a label usually tacked onto ‘lads on tour’ type holidays in Spain or Greece that will later be made into a reality TV show. Of course, not all holiday-makers in on the continent are embarrassingly drunk and those who are quietly minding their own business always go unnoticed (indeed, positive stories of working class life, generally, go less reported). But in every brash British holiday maker is the hint of an attitude of “Here! Have my culture! It’s probably better than yours anyway.”

The ‘cultured’ middle classes tend to remain exempt from this label and many travellers whether to India, Peru or Madagascar are indeed polite and respectful in their attitudes and the way they interact with people. But more, in my humble experience, are simply incredibly polite neo-colonialists. These are the people who, with a straight face, will take one cultural norm they’ve ‘discovered’ from siestas to lateness to disregard for traffic signals, to explain why [insert entire state, continent or religion here] will always be behind the west. It is culture, not colonialism, pillage, unfair international trade deals or monopolies on means of production which is at the root of global inequality. How blessed the backwards people are to have you, Mr Neo-colonialist Sir, in their midst.

Academic discourse on foreign direct investment into countries with smaller economies, usually in the case of expansion of international corporations, tends to suggest that it is good a for a country’s economy. It provides jobs, teaches key skills, trains locals for future opportunities and brings in wealthy ‘expats’ who in turn contribute to the local economy. The problem with foreign direct investment, much like colonialism before it, is that it further weaves states who are at a structural disadvantage (because their exports are mainly raw materials and their currencies are weaker) into a global system of capital, built on inequality and exploitation, which will always benefit already wealthy states.

Whilst ‘expats’ who work for multinational companies may be spending money in local economies, they are making much more for themselves and whichever company sent them. Indeed, plantation owners in Guyana two hundred years ago were providing work to Indian indentured labourers, in the same way that most of your favourite high street shops are doing so across China and Bangledesh today. They’re hardly the heroes of history though, are they?

The delusional self-importance of ‘expats’ abroad has never failed to astound me on my travels, and the ignorance around the structures of inequality merely perpetuate it. No matter how poor the wages you pay or how little tax you contribute, the message is clear: the world needs western investment, western values and westerners and you are therefore helping.

The ideology of western cultural superiority reigns supreme, undoubtedly connected to the failure to teach the real and murky history of British travel and exactly what the UK would look like were it not for the empire. Until Brits confront the reality of how enriched this country has become off the very same places that some claim “need westerners” and begin to understand who needs who, empire syndrome will continue to reign and replicate the colonialism of the past.


On Terrorism: Overcoming Your Fear of Words

Words are powerful. Sticks and stones may well break bones but words sow the seeds of doubt, fear, anger and every other emotion that makes people behave in strange and unpleasant ways.

Words with fuzzy meanings that often stay hidden when they shouldn’t and crop up where they are not needed are powerful. These words that no one really knows the meaning of, but that everyone is afraid of are also dangerous. They are the words who grant authority to those who use them and instil fear in those who hear them. There is an unspoken assumption that whoever is brave enough to use them is best suited to confront their consequences and so often we fail to remark when the repercussions of these words are as brutal as the words themselves.

One of these words is terrorism. Few of us really know what terrorism is but we are sure that its gravity is unparalleled. Terrorists are dangerous, evil, soulless monsters. We take no risks with terrorists because they are crazy, their ideology is incomprehensible and they will do anything to anyone with no remorse.

Terrorism, according to google, is the use of unofficial or unauthorised violence for political aims. This is not exactly the apocalyptic description of the clash of civilisations we now associate with the word, but a very accurate description nonetheless. Historically, terrorists have had very little in common in terms of their ideology, their stature during their era or their remaining legacy. Take Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Mussolini or King Leopold II of Belgium as examples. International heroes, cult heroes or brutal dictators according to history, but all terrorists according to their contemporaries. They all used violence, or the threat of violence, to achieve their political aims as many freedom fighters and/or dictators do.

The words terrorist and terrorism have become so mutated in the media today that we no longer have any idea of when it is appropriate to apply them. A while ago Russell Brand pointed out that if he killed a bunch of people and said it was in the name of Christianity he’d be accused of insanity, not terrorism. Yet Lee Rigby’s murder, the “Sydney Siege” and #Leytonstone have all been blindly considered cases of terrorism which have inevitably propelled a climate of fear, the real victims of which will always be any and everyone who follows Islam.

We are quick to pick up on how crazy these terrorist monsters are but we are slow to have a real conversation about mental health and its effects on these cases. The fact that the family of the perpetrator of the attack in Leytonstone last week had tried to have him sectioned because he was so unwell was a lot slower to catch people’s attention than the relationship he had with his religion. Which of those two elements was more of a driving force in this event?

If you voted for David Cameron in 2010, and I tried to kill you screaming that it was for socialism, would your first thought be that I am a terrorist or that I am insane? A white man in Charleston shoots up a church in the name of white supremacy. Mental health. A white man in Tesco stabs a member of the public in the name of white supremacy. Barely even makes news. Man in a tube station stabs a passenger in the name of Syria, it’s declared a political act within hours and the Prime Minister finds it worthy of saying both the word “ain’t” and “bruv” in one sentence. Sorry, what just happened?

Whether the actions of Sydney’s Man Haron Monis, Lee Rigby’s killer Michael Adebolajo or last week’s perpetrator constitute uses of unofficial/unauthorised violence for political aims is anyone’s guess. Perhaps some were wholly clear in their political aims perhaps others were simply not capable of executing a political agenda due to their mental state. What is truly worrying about the way this situation is being addressed are the actions taken through counter-terrorism with the complicity of the citizens who live in fear of their neighbours because of stories like these being framed as a part of some kind of wider war.

The fear campaign launched by the US media following 9/11 was so intense and so effective that even today 51% of Americans believe that the CIA’s use of torture was justified. The average American is 187 times more likely to starve to death than be killed in a terrorist attack.

The word terrorism has become synonymous with war on ‘our’ soil which invokes a trans-national mesmerising panic. This fear of ‘terrorism’ is so tangible that support for anything being done that ‘keeps people safe’ is seen as a necessity. Fuelling this fear by rushing to place this label on events that may or may not have considered political intention is reckless and manipulative.

This use of a word which at its root is a synonym for horror, alarm, panic, shock or dread is so powerful that governments and intelligence agencies have been using it for years to launch all kinds of agendas from wars to border control. Today, the government program Prevent which civil servants are legally obliged to partake in permits a seriously worrying encroachment on the civil liberties of Muslims in the UK. The fear of something whose actual threat is almost impossible to gauge has led to an aggressive and punitive policy that silences the voices of Muslims all over the country. And all this begins with a word. If we just take this word, analyse it and the context that it’s being used in, we can finally begin to liberate ourselves from the fear that is so often used to acquire our silent compliance.

Please note: this is an edit of an earlier work. The original can be found here.