All posts filed under: History

Did British Merchants Cause the Opium War?

A review of Song-Chuan Chen’s Merchants of War and Peace: British Knowledge of China in the Making of the Opium War, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press (January 12, 2017) 240 pages. The war had a name even before its first shot. The first recorded use of the moniker, the ‘Opium War,’ was in an 1839 piece in the London Morning Herald; within months it would be echoed across the benches of Parliament and across the carronades of the fleet sent to punish the Chinese crackdown on British trade. The war’s nomenclature revealed from the beginning the multivalent views the British public held towards the war: it was at once the “unjust and iniquitous” Opium War — to use Gladstone’s well-known phrase — as well as the patriotic ‘China War,’ as its proponents wanted it to be called. The historiography of the war is similarly divided among varied lines. Some see the war as reflective of China’s failure to catch up to Western technologies; others emphasize the British desire to avenge their slighted national honour as the …

Norms of Good Governance: Where Do They Come From?

Some countries exhibit good governance while others do not. Even wealthy countries, with strong cultural norms of industriousness and excellence in education, can flounder when it comes to maintaining liberal democracy. For personality psychologists, such as myself, this presents an intriguing question: what is it about humans that makes democratic norms stick? What are the traits that facilitate honesty and transparency in administration at the highest levels? Whatever the answer turns out to be, new insights from personality psychology can help shed some light on how good governance can be both developed and maintained. Those of us who live in the Anglosphere (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK) might be forgiven for thinking that our societal norms such as individualism, freedom of expression and public service are standard issue for humanity. They aren’t, they are WEIRD. That acronym stands for Western Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic. And the name fits – WEIRD countries are rare, comprising only about 12% of the global population. This observation is usually viewed in the scientific literature as …

The Furore Over a Quebec Theatre Production Has Missed the Point

Quebec is a bastion of North American progressivism. Canada’s only majority-Francophone province is a place where postsecondary education is heavily subsidized, unions remain powerful, the social safety net is thick, and the power grid is fuelled by green hydroelectric energy. Given all this, it might have surprised some outside observers to learn that Quebec briefly played host this summer to a theatrical production described by one prominent artist as “reminiscent of blackface minstrel shows.” The controversy sprang to popular attention when Montreal’s Jazz Festival canceled the remaining performances of SLAV, in which a white star (surrounding by a largely white cast) performed songs composed by black slaves. Director Robert Lepage, a giant of the Quebec stage, denounced the decision as “a direct blow” to his artistic freedom. But activists within Quebec’s black community described the cancelation as necessary. “I am not the type to scream about cultural appropriation, but this project left me with an acrid aftertaste,” Québécois rapper Webster wrote in Le Devoir. “How many will benefit from black cultural heritage set to stage …

Moral Panic, Then and Now

When my very Christian parents tried to throw away my 14-year-old sister’s heavy metal records, she ran away to her friend’s house. I cried for days. It felt like the end of everything. My sister would be gone forever. I would now live in what was referred to at the time as a “broken home.” I imagined that I’d be reunited with my sister in a few years—on the mean city streets after I’d been forced into a life of crime. Both my parents and sister seemed to make good arguments. My mother and father tried to trash the records because they loved my sister, while my sister ran away because of her love for Dee Snyder. My parents wanted my sister to be safe. My sister wanted to express her individuality through music. My parents claimed that heavy metal was the cause of my sister’s rebellious behavior. My sister said that Judas Priest rocked, and elevated Ozzy Osbourne to secular sainthood. My parents thought my sister had fallen victim to satanic messages encoded in …

Britain’s Populist Revolt

More than two years have passed since Britain voted for Brexit. Ever since that moment, the vote to leave the European Union has routinely been framed as an aberration; a radical departure from ‘normal’ life. Countless journalists, scholars, and celebrities have lined up to offer their diagnosis of what caused this apparent moment of madness among the electorate. Russia-backed social media accounts. Shady big tech firms like Cambridge Analytica. Austerity. The malign influence of populist ‘Brexiteers’ like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. The Brexit campaign exceeding its legal spending limit. Or a much-debated claim, written on the side of a bus, that Brexit would allow Britain to redirect its millions of pounds worth of contributions to the EU into its own creaking health service. Typical is a recent piece by a (British) columnist in the New York Times who argues: “Britain is in this mess principally because the Brexiteers—led largely by Mr. Johnson—sold the country a series of lies in the lead up to the June 2016 referendum.” Britain has produced a Brexit debate that is …

Who Is to Blame for Haiti’s Problems?

On July 9, the Root published an article by Michael Harriot entitled “As Haiti Burns, Never Forget: White People Did That.” Obviously, Harriot is not claiming that a mob of white arsonists and rioters descended on Haiti. Although he is never entirely explicit about what he means by “did that,” a fair-minded summary of his hypothesis would read: “The historical actions of France (and the US) are the cause of modern Haitian poverty and thus riots in 2018.” As riots erupt in Haiti, never forget that the country's extreme poverty and problems were caused by white people: https://t.co/M8PUTNHjPj pic.twitter.com/wHI5c8qRtE — The Root (@TheRoot) July 9, 2018 Specifically, Harriot attributes this poverty to an odious agreement foisted upon Haiti in 1825 by the French, which required Haiti to pay ‘reparations’ to France for lost property after Haitian slaves heroically won their independence in 1804—the lost ‘property’ in question was the Haitian slaves themselves. His complaints about the United States are less clear, but they essentially involve the US turning a blind eye to French abuse. Harriot is not …

Reclaiming Work as a Virtue

My father taught me a simple lesson: when the alarm clock goes off, you get out of bed, have a shave, wash yourself, put your clothes on and go to work. You’ve got to be resilient and you’ve got to be focused on what you want to achieve. Dad believed the measure of a person was whether or not they were a worker. He believed that working was a virtue. So do I. My father was Bundjalung and my mother Gumbaynggirr, two of the hundreds of first nations that existed across Australia before British colonisation. My Bundjalung ancestors had their first contact with white settlers in the early 1800s who came looking for grazing land. Like so many indigenous peoples across the world, this early contact included killings. But the initial hostilities gave way to a compromise with both sides showing a marked level of pragmatism. The settlers set up their sheep, later cattle, station and my ancestors lived and worked there, maintaining a good relationship with the station owners to this day. My grandfather …

Inducing People’s Employers to Fire Them Should Be a Civil Wrong

If you aren’t from Australia or New Zealand you may be tempted to think of Anzac (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day as simply a variation of Veteran’s Day or Remembrance Day—but for many Aussies (and Kiwis), it’s a little bit like Veteran’s Day combined with the Fourth of July or St. Patrick’s Day. It is a deeply patriotic holiday that many regard as a semi-sacred, particularly because we celebrate it on April 25 to mark the anniversary of the day in 1915 when Anzacs arrived on the shores of Gallipoli, Turkey to fight in a battle that would result in over ten thousand soldiers losing their lives. Like it or not, Anzac Day has become patriotic mythology. To mark Anzac Day in 2015, Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) reporter Scott McIntyre took to Twitter and wrote: “Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan.” To make matters worse, he also asked “if the poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers pause today to consider the horror …

Burying a Child

But looking back, always the spirit of joyousness rises before me as her emblem and characteristic: she seemed formed to live a life of happiness: her spirits were always held in check by her sensitiveness lest she should displease those she loved, & her tender love was never weary of displaying itself by fondling & all the other little acts of affection.— We have lost the joy of the Household, and the solace of our old age:—she must have known how we loved her; oh that she could now know how deeply, how tenderly we do still & shall ever love her dear joyous face. Blessings on her. ~Charles Darwin’s memorial of his daughter Anne, who died at the age of 10. April 30, 1851. In her 2004 book The Afterlife Is Where We Come From detailing her fieldwork among the Beng farmers of West Africa, anthropologist Alma Gottlieb recounts the story of an elderly woman named Afwe Zi. Afwe first came to Gottlieb seeking treatment for a persistent cut she had on her leg. …

Devastation and Denial: Cambodia and the Academic Left

Looking out across the yellow-washed angular buildings that clutter the inner city of Phnom Penh in 2016, hindsight fills me with anxiety. Imagining myself here in 1975, I recall the jubilant and cheering crowds in the spring of that year who weren’t privy to that hindsight as they welcomed Khmer Rouge communists into Cambodia’s capital city after months of siege. On the morning of 17 April, word had arrived that the Khmer Rouge had captured the government’s last beleaguered military stronghold on the outskirts of the city. Prime Minister Long Boret could hardly believe the news. He demanded to be driven to the riverside to see it with his own eyes. By the time he arrived, order had already collapsed in the streets and men wearing the black shirts of the Khmer Rouge surrounded his small entourage and demanded his guards put down their guns. Managing to slip away in the chaos, Boret reported back to his cabinet at the Defence Ministry that the enemy was already in the streets. The rush then began to …