What newly released documents from the UK colony in Kenya say about the rise of the great powers that have followed.
Four Kenyans protest British colonial-era abuses outside the High Court in London.
This week, the UK Foreign Office released the first in a series of embarrassing government files from the country's colonial era. The release follows a lawsuit by five Kenyans -- four, once one of the original five died -- claiming they were tortured during the anti-colonial Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the 1950s. The files remind of the relatively recent time when European powers were still relatively free to pursue openly imperial policies, and crimes committed against longstanding colonies barely counted. Some of the papers show, The Guardianreports, that "thousands of documents detailing some of the most shameful acts and crimes committed during the final years of the British empire were systematically destroyed to prevent them falling into the hands of post-independence governments."
The documents release from the British Foreign Office shouldn't just
be an opportunity to point fingers. Though the Kenyans who filed the
suit need to be heard, and there ought to be some sort of accountability
for colonial crimes,
it's a little too easy for those of us in countries with similarly dark pasts to hyperfocus on this one period of British wrongdoing. Colonialism is over, but there are still world powers, and they're still abusing their power. In fact, the exploitations are often similar precisely because the crimes of one superpower often provide the template, or even the impetus, for the abuses of the next powerful state.
A Guardian editor pointed out, "Americans should always resist the easy temptation to take too much moral high ground over the Brits," as "they have their Kenyas" as well, such as slavery or the treatment of Native Americans. It can sometimes seem inevitable that a dominant world power, whether the U.S. or Great Britain or one of the many before and maybe someday after, have some exploitative and even shameful moments in their history. So do most countries, powerful or not.
But it's the exploitative actions of the dominant powers that tend to come back to haunt the wider world. Germany's territorial ambitions, both in the German Empire from 1871 to 1918 and during World War II and its lead-up, were modeled in part on the naked British imperialism of earlier generations. Soviet aggression following World War II had as much to do with watching and experiencing Western European exploitation as it did with Communism and ideology. History sometimes seems to be offered as a justification almost as often as it is offered as an appropriate model.
Part of this phenomenon is that the powerful get to do what they want, and powerful countries tend to want the same things: political, military, or economic control of strategic regions, economic prosperity, etc. But the deeds of onetime powers really do seem to have some effect on the deeds of up-and-coming powers.
Beyond the complex motivations driving, for example, German territorial expansion, there is an overarching pattern. We see it today when developing nations such as India or China protest European and American demands that they make carbon cuts. The "West" industrialized using fossil fuels -- why shouldn't everyone else be able to do the same? To take another example, because the United States developed a nuclear bomb and dropped it on Japan, other countries have used this to reject American demands that they not develop their own nuclear programs.
Right now, we are two years away from the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of World War I -- a great power turning point of sorts, when the German Empire mounted its first serious military challenge to British hegemony, and, though the challenge was unsuccessful and the war ultimately increased the size of the British Empire, the British colonies started to break free. Over the course of the next few decades, maps had to be redrawn quite a few times. By the end of World War II, it was clear neither Britain nor Germany were going to dominate the twentieth century. The Soviet Union and the United States had already been sizing each other up for several years.
This week, there have been two prominent news stories concerning the U.S.-China relationship. The two states, it seems, have been engaging in cyber "war games" through think tanks, the U.S. aware of China's growing power in this area. On Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly accused China of assisting North Korea with its missile program.
You don't need to be worried about China's rise (or the West's maybe-decline) to see a familiar, though probably far less dangerous, re-shifting of power dynamics at work. Maybe China arming North Korea would be, from a world peace standpoint, better or worse than the U.S. arming the mujahideen in Afghanistan or the Contras in Nicaragua. Maybe China's expansion into Tibet has some similarities to the U.S. westward expansion into Native Americans' territory. It's tricky to balance out competing perspectives. But the parallels are tough to miss.
Over the next few decades, however, we may get to watch this pattern play out some more. And colonial Britain, after all, also held Hong Kong. The United States isn't the only world power China has fresh in its memory -- and the U.K. Foreign Office release this week probably won't be the last time imperial pasts suddenly become relevant again.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
Wine snobs, string quartets, and the limits of intuition
Several months ago, this author sat at a classical music concert, trying to convince himself that wine is not bullshit.
That may seem like a strange thought to have while listening to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in A major. But Priceonomics had recently posted an article investigating The Price of Wine, part of which reviewed research that cast doubt on both consumers’ and wine experts’ ability to distinguish between quality wine and table wine or identify different wines and their flavors. It seemed a slippery slope to the conclusion that wine culture is nothing more than actors performing a snobbish play.
Listening to an accomplished musician while lacking any musical experience resulted in a feeling familiar to casual wine drinkers imbibing an expensive bottle: Feeling somewhat ambivalent and wondering whether you are convincing yourself that you enjoy it so as not to appear uncultured.
An African American grandmother’s conservative critique of her community goes viral, picking up where Bill Cosby left off.
Over the weekend, at least 7 million people watched Peggy Hubbard, a black grandmother, excoriate the Black Lives Matter movement in an emotional video posted to her Facebook page. 71,000 people liked the post. 16,000 people left comments. And discussions like this one on Reddit rippled out across the Internet.
Two breaking news events prompted the U.S. Navy veteran, who grew up in Ferguson, Missouri, to speak out and share her feelings. In the first, two white police officers killed Mansur Ball-Bey, a young black man. Police say that he tried to flee out the back door of the house where they were serving a warrant and that he pointed a stolen gun at them before they shot, a narrative that his family disputes. In the second news story, 9-year-old Jamyla Bolden was killed by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting as she lay in her mother’s bed. The perpetrator is unknown.
Nervous Democrats are looking for alternatives as Hillary Clinton falters. But is the VP the right person for the job?
“I think panic is the operative mode for the Democratic Party,” David Axelrod, who has been on the receiving end of panic mode many times over the years, told me this week. I had asked Obama’s political guru how bad the current panic was for Hillary Clinton—bad enough for the party to seek an alternative? Bad enough, perhaps, to create an opening for Joe Biden?
Axelrod didn’t think so. “I think it’s indisputable she’s had a rocky few months,” he said. “But if you look at her support among Democrats, and the resources she brings, she’s still very strong—I think she’s going to be the nominee.”
Not everyone is so sure. Public opinion has turned starkly negative on Clinton in recent months, as she has struggled to put the scandal over her use of email as secretary of state to rest. In a poll released this week, the word most commonly summoned when people were asked about her was “liar.”
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Residents of Newtok, Alaska voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.
NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.
Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.
“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.
Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.
Trying to find clarity in a world muddied by differing opinions and too much information
The deadlock began around week 20 of my pregnancy, when my mom casually asked about when and where our son would be circumcised. I presumptuously told her we weren’t going to do that. Then I saw the surprised look on my husbands face.
“We’re not?” he asked.
Sensing an opportunity to mount an offensive, my mom backed him with the full force of the guilt-inducing tone she’d perfected over the years. “But honey, it’s not natural to leave your son uncircumcised,” she said. “You don’t want to do that to him, do you?”
Quickly realizing that I would never win a drawn-out argument, I decided to end the conversation. To do this, I summoned the petulant teenager lying dormant inside me—something that only a mom can awaken in a 33-year-old woman—and said, “Actually mom, circumcision is the exact opposite of natural. That’s the whole point, to do away with the ‘natural’.” Then I gave my husband the ‘you’d like to have sex with me again, right?’ look and said to him, “We’ll talk about this later.”
The new drama series, which follows the Colombian kingpin’s rise to power, feels more like a well-researched documentary than the gripping saga it wants to be.
Netflix’s new series Narcos is possibly arriving at the wrong time: The doldrums of summer aren’t really the ideal moment for a narratively dense, documentary-like look at the rise and fall of the Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. Narrated in voiceover by DEA Agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), the early hours of Narcos feel like a history lesson, though an visually sumptuous one.
As Netflix continues to expand its streaming empire, it’s making a concerted effort to appeal to worldwide audiences, and Narcos fits neatly into that plan, alongside last year’s expensive critical flop Marco Polo. Narcos was shot on location in Colombia and stars the acclaimed Brazilian actor Wagner Moura as Escobar. It takes full advantage of its setting, loaded with sweeping helicopter shots of the Colombian jungle where Escobar founded his cocaine empire, filling a power vacuum left by various political upheavals in late-’70s South America.