We live in an age of empire. While rarely acknowledged as such, the term is making a comeback (John Pilger’s latest work discusses this subject in detail). Rhetoric surrounding the Iraq war reflected the growing sense that the Iraqis needed the civilising and liberating West to be free, when in reality the occupation has brought death and destruction on a grand scale.
Australian conservatives are equally fond of romanticising the past. Not content with minimising Aboriginal deaths due to colonialism, some prefer highlighting the positive aspects of the White Australia policy. After all, surely Australians didn’t want too much cultural diversity?
A similar debate is currently occurring in the UK. The Independent columnist Johann Hari recently slammed court historians for defending and supporting the most brutal aspects of the British Empire. He was met with predictable scorn. Perhaps the most perverse came from author Lawrence James:
The rulers of India were humane men and, although hampered by inadequate administrative machinery and limited resources, they made a determined effort to feed the hungry.
For many embedded in the establishment, there is a pathological inability to acknowledge or understand the crimes of their ancestors. As Andrew Murray explains:
His [Hari’s] central theme, that those who defend the British Empire are defending some of the worst crimes against humanity, is a vital argument, which he makes well.
As the age of the US empire comes to a close and the Bush administration and its sycophantic supporters proudly stand for invasion and occupation, 21st century empire is getting a radical face-lift. High-minded rhetoric may attempt to defend the indefensible as noble and benign, but the reality remains the same.