“You weren’t born in a country - you were born in a getaway car.”
"Don’t drink the water. There’s blood in the water."
The Dave Matthews Band
I’m not indigenous to where I live in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. I was born and raised in Essex, England, and plan to return there one day. My late father’s ancestry goes back to 17th Century farmers around Chester, near the Welsh border. My mother’s to an adopted great-great grandfather somewhere in the British Midlands.
By any global or historical measure, I am extraordinarily wealthy. My ethnic group acquired this wealth through centuries of environmental vandalism and colonial armed robbery. The victims were and still are indigenous cultures like the one I don’t really mix with here in my day to day life.
For centuries the British have marauded out of our overcrowded and polluted island. We have set upon exotic, beautiful places all over the world. They had their indigenous names and identities, entwined with their own rich poetry, history and culture. We slapped the names of the places we just left over them, with the word ‘new’ at the front.
English colonists behave like a lunatic who, after battering and abandoning a wife called Shirley, force every woman they meet to call themselves New Shirley.
One of the most abiding, fundamental and dangerous parts of what passes for my culture is the myth that this is history. We kid ourselves that it requires careful assessment, argument or research to be understood, or that this unfortunate business was cast aside with the powdered wigs and calling people Negroes. It is of course as current as the device you are reading this on. It is inherent in many of the processes by which it was made and delivered to you.
Industrialisation is still a process of extorting resources from indigenous people. We just change the name over time. We used to call it manifest destiny, empire and civilisation. It’s now called globalisation, capitalism, or progress.
We have even stolen people, enslaving them to do our dirty work. We have transformed entire countries. Much of what we celebrate as ‘development’ today is just exploited people joining the ranks of the exploiters. It’s like cheering on some kind of global Stockholm Syndrome. Evil is okay, we say, as long as enough people join in. We can then tell ourselves that everybody is doing it, they’re just not as good at it as we are.
And so the pillaging and terrorising continues. And we continue to collect our share, even those of us who pretend to disagree.
In New Zealand the property owning classes are surfing into the 21st century on a tidal wave of colonial appropriation. Aotearoa is a lovely place to live. That is why we stole, defrauded or short changed its previous owners into handing it over to us.
I own a slightly shabby four bedroom house made of planks in the 1950s near a polluted sea. It earns me more every year than my work as a sustainability professional. This is the engine that drives middle class wealth in this country. Add in the inflated prices of holiday homes and rental property, which continue to disenfranchise the less well off, including descendants of the indigenous people whose land it all sits on.
I even owned a rental property for a while myself. The house was in the town of Meremere, next to the Waikato River, south of Auckland. The town sits on what was once a Maori stronghold. In 1863 local people resisted the invaders with a captured cannon full of cutlery, because they didn’t have cannonballs. The “Crown” (i.e. The UK) overran them, then confiscated the land.
The Tainui people eventually got most of the town back in 1995. This was after 40 years of living under the pall of a coal fired power station. It was, pointedly, four years after it had closed, taking most of the town’s jobs with it. What they got back was a load of state housing in the middle of fields they no longer owned, next to a motorway, surrounded by prisons, a motor racing circuit and a drag strip. Some of the houses were then broken up and sold. A lot of the rest were sold to a private company. Ironically, it was called James Cook Limited. James Cook eventually on-sold, mostly to middle class whiteys like me. So the people got disenfranchised all over again.
You see, colonialism goes on because it works quite well for the colonisers. If you survive long enough to appropriate some half decent land your descendants can get rich for generations. Is it really surprising the people who perpetrate these grand thefts either justify them, ignore them or say it’s all in the past?
One side of my Kiwi in-laws originated from a shepherding clan from the Northern Isles of Scotland. They were colonised by the English, then joined their colonial adventures overseas. My lot landed at Wairoa South. The colonists renamed it Clevedon, after a small town in Somerset. They grabbed some land for next to nothing. Six generations later most of them are millionaires. They've had to stick their necks out and work hard. But had they stayed where they were they might have worked just as hard, and got cleared by the English into the factories and addictions of the city.
Of course, the spoils are not shared equitably from one exploiting nation to another. And they're not shared equally within the exploiting countries either. But the kind of poverty you might experience is still largely defined by whether your people are in on the blag, or victims of it.
“Calling people out” for racism in our culture is like handing out speeding tickets at the Indie 500.
We’re not really punishing poor behaviour, since everyone we know is guilty. We're punishing poor etiquette. We attack those unable or unwilling to mask their inherent racism as effectively as the rest of us. In a way we’re just punishing honesty.
This, uncomfortably, also implicates rich western industrialised people who trace their ancestry back to other cultures. They also turn a blind eye to the carnage their wealth is now secured by. To suggest this is entirely about skin colour is to oversimplify. It is mostly about power and opportunity.
In fact, perhaps the most coherent views are held by those who still believe in the idea of some kind of blood soaked manifest destiny, survival of the fittest or just plain old genocidal greed. They have the benefit of consistency, if nothing else. And we should not underestimate their number.
This doesn’t for a second negate people’s right to protest, just as driving to a climate demo doesn’t negate its message. But it does call for that unfashionable thing, a nuanced assessment of our part in things, and how to truly change them.
In the meantime, ‘clean, green, kind’ New Zealand is careful to side with the bullies. We make sure to send troops to places like Afghanistan and Iraq. This is so they can practise killing, and keep our snout in the trough for our share of the spoils, with the emphasis on oils.
My life is a walking, hollering sandwich board for all this. I have spent a lot of the last 20 years as a hypocritical jet-setting environmentalist. I have been flown into places like India, Vietnam, Peru, Colombia and Borneo. I have made a good first-world living while hugely enjoying the drama of it all. I have rushed around the globe, ostensibly to slow the destruction of the photogenic landscapes and exotic animals middle class people like in their documentaries. But, like the rest of the voyeurs, I never had the slightest intention of joining the locals on their side of the poverty line. Two weeks of hand sanitiser and SUVs, a stop over in a luxury hotel, and I’m gone - on a freedom bird back to luxury land.
This is the truth behind the speech made by the fictional Col. Nathan R. Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, at the end of the movie A Few Good Men.
“We live in a world that has walls and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s going to do it? You?...You don’t want the truth because in places you don’t talk about at parties you want me on that wall. You need me on that wall. [You] rise and sleep under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, and then question the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said ‘thank you’ and went on your way.”
If you replace the word “freedom” with “affluence” or “convenience” then you get the full picture. The Colonel Jessep’s of this world fend off our victims. It’s like:
imagine you stole your neighbours' lawn mower and burned down his house. Maybe you killed his children, or other members of their family. Then they come round to ask if they can mow your lawn for minimum wage. So you set your dogs on them.
The question must be, when do we abandon those walls? How do we deal with the consequences of doing so?
But war is another aspect to our culture that is surrounded by lies. The only people who lose in war are those who are injured and die in them, their families and those whose lives are disrupted. It’s impossible, for example, for the US and its allies (including clean green kind New Zealand) to ‘lose’ the war in Afghanistan. That is, unless Afghanistan somehow invades Texas. All the recent wars prosecuted by the US and allies like us are in effect just armed robberies on foreign soil. As long as we can set up enough ‘inside men’ in the target countries, we’re content to just rob all the oil concessions and other resources and get out of there. It doesn't matter that it looks like retreating.
The idea that these actions are ‘humanitarian’ is completely and obviously ridiculous. We all know that. These are just the comforting lies we tell ourselves. Consider the first day of the invasion of Iraq in 1991, during Operation 'Price at the Pump'. The US-led coalition of 35 nations mobilised at least one million highly trained personnel. They used trillions of dollars worth of equipment. All in a matter of weeks. Did you see that happen for a famine in sub-Saharan Africa, or the Rwandan genocide?
The soldiers on ‘our side’ may in coming years include at least three of my English nephews. They may lose something, or several somethings, up to and including their lives. Their job will be to keep the local people’s heads down while the corporations rip off whatever resources the slaughter was for in the first place, so that we can all buy budget toasters. Those of us with the privilege to stay behind might celebrate their ‘bravery and sacrifice’. largely out of guilt. Deep down we know we swindle them as much as they help us swindle the foreigners, to keep us in comfort and convenience.
A particular robbery might not work out entirely as planned. We might even lose control of some resources for a while. But the people who control the wars don’t lose. At best they get promoted and get richer. At worst they don’t get promoted, but remain rich. If they’re deluded enough to drink their own Kool-Aid they might send their children to the wars. They might even be proud to get them killed. Meanwhile,
the owners of the war machines rent armies and sell arms to almost anyone and everyone. To suggest these people ever lose a war is like saying Cadbury’s loses Easter.
So here’s my new idea for campaigners. Why don’t we just go ahead and admit that the people in power, the ones doing all this hideous stuff on our behalf, know pretty much exactly what they are doing, and why. And we do too. That’s the horrible ball bag that is poking out of our sweat shop sports shorts. Let’s just own it. Bullying and killing poorer people is what makes us rich and keeps us that way. It’s all that ever has.
This would seem a far more honest and realistic position. It is the real position of those in control. They are those most rewarded in our entire civilisation. They are by our society’s assessment the most successful people in human history.
Hysterically pointing out the ‘failings’ of this system is simply play-acting at best, or collusion at worst. It’s not going to stop these people from behaving in this way, any more than the Krays would have been stopped by the revelation that stabbing people through the eye is not particularly nice.
People like me benefit hugely and continuously from this gigantic game of pretend. We pretend not to know what we do know. We pretend to believe what we do not believe. Then, when someone tells us something different enough times we eventually pretend to ‘realise’ what we already knew. Then we pretend that we don’t know what we can do about it. Or we pretend we are doing it, when we’re not. Or just forget all about it. And we get to stay rich, in our pretend little world defended by real people with real guns pretending to be freeing the people they are actually shooting in the face.
Which all makes me wonder: is it really a good idea for the bad guys to be operating closer to the truth than the rest of us?
And it makes me feel sorry for the ‘whistleblowers’. Because until ordinary people get with reality, the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden will always be blowing their little whistles into a hurricane. They simply tell people in detail what they already know in general.
Before the leaked Collateral Murder video who didn't know that members of the US military sometimes gleefully gun down innocent people? Before Snowden, who didn't know that our government spies on us with whatever technology is available? How could we not know this? This sort of information is constantly being pumped out by a parade of books, films and websites. It’s not a hidden agenda, it’s just the agenda. It’s our agenda. And it will remain so until we do something to change it.
Our society silences and convicts whistleblowers not because they tell us things we don’t already know. It’s because they insist on telling us things we already know but are trying very hard to ignore. The relative silence outside of Assange’s courtroom and prison right now? It's the sound of ordinary people all over the industrialised world rolling over and gratefully going back to sleep.
So that’s my suggestion. The NGOs and journalists in the industrialised world should immediately and finally abandon the self-righteous charade of ‘exposing’ ecological and social inequities, ‘bearing witness’ or ‘raising awareness’ about them. It’s like shouting fire in a tone of feigned surprise when we reek of petrol, with our pockets jammed full of matches and the keys to all the doors.
While we’re at it, here’s something to think about for those of us who prefer to think of ourselves as “lucky”, and teach our children to do the same. We might want to check whether we are somehow just suggesting to ourselves that the poor and disenfranchised of the world are simply victims of “bad luck”, instead of our victims. Picture yourself leaning out of the windows of an SUV as you pass by the shanty towns, calling out “Oh, shame, terribly bad luck you fellows...”
And those who pray to their God or gods for all the many ‘blessings’ might want to ponder a couple of questions too. Are you sure the beings you believe you’re communicating with would really approve of how you came by those ‘blessings’? Is it possible that praying this way might simply be perpetuating the myth that creates it - that this slaughter and mayhem is ordained by a higher spiritual power, rather than simply the greater power of our available weaponry?