The specific perspective that he discusses is the universal silence of the British intelligentsia during the 1800s on the genocidal policies of their empire. (As an aside, the British have done a marvelous job of covering up the brutality of their empire, at the cost of well over 100 million dead though both violence and indifference.*
What, you thought you were safe? You’d get through the big “Cancel Culture” war without me popping off?
No such luck.
Public morality should be pretty simple. When an oppressed group gets enough power to make its oppressors behave, they will do so — and they should.
The real problem, the kind of thing that would make De Niro in Casino groan, “Amateur night!”, starts when people imagine that they can stop immoral behavior by policing immoral characters, phrases, or scenes in literature.
They’re looking for the wrong thing. They’re sniffing for depictions of immorality, when they should be scanning the silences, the evasions.
There’s a very naïve theory of language at work here, roughly: “if people speak nicely, they’ll act nicely” — with the fatuous corollary, “If people mention bad things, they must like bad things.”
The simplest refutation of that is two words: Victorian Britain.
Victorian Britain carried out several of the biggest genocides in human history. It was also a high point of virtuous literature.
Because they were smart about language. They didn’t rant about the evil of their victims or gloat about massacring them, at least not in their public writings. They wrote virtuous novels, virtuous poems. And left a body count which may well end up the biggest in world history.
Open genocidal ranting is small-time stuff compared to the rhetorical nuke perfected by Victoria’s genocidaires: silence. The Victorian Empire was the high point of this technology, which is why it still gets a pass most of the time. Even when someone takes it on and scores a direct hit, as Mike Davis did in his book Late Victorian Holocausts, the cone of Anglosphere silence contains and muffles the explosion. Which is why Late Victorian Holocausts is Davis’s only book that didn’t become a best-seller.
But that didn’t happen. There was no wave of conscience among historians of the British Empire in the 1920s (or 30s or 40s or, to end the suspense, ever.)
Davis puts it bluntly: “[T]he famine children of 1876 and 1899 have disappeared.”
They’re very grim lessons, as it happens. While grad students comb texts for improper remarks, they miss the real point: the vast silence, and the paint-job of virtue that helps distract us.
Ideology doesn’t seem to do any good at clearing away the bigotry of Imperial history. Charles Kingsley, prominent novelist of mid-nineteenth-century Britain, was honored as promoter of socialist causes — while he wrote in letters to his wife about his loathing for the “white chimpanzees” whose corpses were littering the roadside when he visited Sligo [Ireland] during the Famine in the 1840s.
Visiting County Sligo, Ireland, he wrote a letter to his wife from Markree Castle in 1860: “I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country [Ireland] … to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black one would not see it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours.”
There are no excuses for this. There are reasons, but as the song says, “It doesn’t make it all right.” Still, once the rage passes and you stop clenching your jaw ’til it aches, there are reasons. Most of all, there’s a deep Imperial skill in the trope of silence. The stupid Nazis ranted and raved and lasted 13 years, then got completely destroyed. The Empire kept its rants for private letters, passed on to a guild of coopted historians, pundits, and publishers—and has never been called to account.
Maybe it never will be. That poor optimist radical Davis mentions thought the exposé would be big news by 1925. Well, it’s 2020, and the Empire is still remembered fondly. Victoria herself is a beloved figure all over again.
Silence is the only really effective PR for a genocide, and the nature of artificial famines, as opposed to mass executions, makes silence particularly effective. Famines, most people still believe, are acts of God, or matters of chance, or perhaps (under their breath) the result of the sheer fecklessness of the victims, for being Papists as in Ireland, or Hindus as in India, or Muslims as in contemporary Somalia. After all, the Empire wasn’t standing people up against a wall and shooting them (except sometimes, as in Kenya, and the Empire handled that by putting the records on ships and dropping them into the Indian Ocean.)
Silence, not Nazi-style boasting. That’s the key. We should be looking for omissions, not gaffes. Gaffes are for hicks like Hitler. Silence is the grown-up way to hide vast genocides.
That, folks, is how you cover up a genocide. It’s leaked a little in the 170 years since it was successfully carried out. But it lasted longer than any other cursed tomb in history. Nowhere — not in Dublin, not in London — was there any commemoration of the Famine on its 50th anniversary in 1897, or its hundredth in 1947. In 1998 Blair gave a very carefully-worded quasi-apology, and I still remember Jeremy Clarkson’s response: “I see Blair has apologized to the Irish for poisoning their potatoes.”
In short, this method works. We are its products; we live in the delusion it created, and like it or not, Hobsbawm and a host of other Igors have that blood on their hands along with the outright vampires. Sometimes you end up angrier at the Igors than the Nosferatus.
“The Central Government [of British India] under the leadership of Queen Victoria’s leading poet, Lord Lytton, vehemently opposed efforts…to stockpile grain or otherwise interfere with market forces. All through the Autumn of 1876, while the kharif crop was withering in the fields… Lytton had been absorbed in organizing the immense Imperial Assemblage in Delhi to proclaim Victoria Empress of India (Kaiser-e-Hind). As The Times [of London]’s special correspondent described it, ‘The Viceroy seemed to have made the tales of Arabian fiction come true…nothing was too rich, nothing too costly.’ [This feast] ‘achieved the two criteria [set for Lytton], of being ‘gaudy enough to impress the orientals’ and…a pageant which hid the nakedness of the sword on which we really rely.’ An English journalist later estimated that 100,000 of the Queen-Empress’s subjects starved to death…in the course of Lytton’s spectacular durbar.”
You won’t find gloating, you won’t see death’s heads on every officer’s cap. That stuff was for the Nazis, who were hicks themselves. The pro’s, like Lord Lytton, wrote virtuous, vapory blather like this. Reams of it. Best smoke-screen a genocidaire could want.
If I could distill this article into one sentence, and you should read the whole thing, it is, “Words can hurt, but silence kills.”
*Just ask the Irish, or the Bengalis, or the Kenyans, or the Boers, the Cypriots, the Yemenis, the Kashmiris, the Indians generally, the Chinese [opium does not sell itself], the Malayans, the Tibetans, etc.)