“I endorse James’s space”: HM The Queen

…OK, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Well, to be honest, it’s more of a downright lie. The Queen doesn’t know me from Adam and has in no way ever endorsed, or even read, any of my tl;dr internet outpourings. However, what she has done in the last couple of days is complain about Chinese officials having been “very rude” when the President of China made a state visit to the UK last year – Link – which I suppose at least means she might go along with the views on rudeness I expressed a couple of posts back.

There’s not a lot to be said about exactly what the Chinese officials did or didn’t do, since the Queen was recorded saying this by accident and no-one on either side wants to pour more petrol on the fire by explaining further. However, it creates as good an excuse as any for me to comment on the inconsistent way nice, liberal people (or at any rate, the ones in the media) tend to approach the bad behaviour of governments. To sum it up, when a European or North American country does something bad, you’ll never hear the end of it; when any other state does, it tends to get rather swept under the carpet.

I’ll give you an example; as a British citizen (and an Englishman) I am fully aware that England, Great Britain and then the UK basically spent large parts of the period from the late sixteenth to the mid-twentieth century behaving like utter dicks to all and sundry. It was called British imperialism and it was pretty successful while it lasted. However, read any history book or go to any museum nowadays, and you’ll find plenty of denunciations of the evils of the slave trade, the oppression of the Australian Aborigines, carving up southern Africa like a giant cake and grabbing the land out from under assorted Native Americans without so much as asking.

And I have no problem with that, but China, whatever its political regime, has been behaving like that to its neighbours and its own people for over two millennia with a lot less denunciation from Western liberals. The only times China has stopped acting like an oppressive imperialist bully has been when it was being successfully bullied by other oppressive imperialists (or was mired in internal conflict, or both). Really, having officiously rude bureaucrats is the least of it.

It’s the same across the board. Spain is never going to live down what it did in Central and South America. Germany is certainly never going to live down the Holocaust. Some citizens of the US seem to spend most of their time and energy denouncing their own country for pursuing the fine old British traditions of slavery, grabbing land from Indians and fighting morally questionable wars against weaker countries.

All of these things deserve denouncing, but none of the denouncers are as vocal when the imperialism, slavery and war-mongering come courtesy of Africans or Arabs or Asians. And sometimes they do. In the seventh century AD, the Arabs, newly converted to Islam, more or less set out to conquer the world as they knew it for their religion. They, like the British, succeeded, but what makes imposing your religion on others an acceptable goal for an early mediaeval Arab, but not an eighteenth-century Englishman?

Some of the inconsistency is down to fear of being considered racist, which is getting close to being the only unforgiveable sin in the modern world. It’s not racist, however, unless you’re implying that the actions in question were (a) somehow the responsibility of all members of whatever nationality or ethnic group is being criticised and (b) somehow inevitably derived from their genetic make-up. Some of it results from moral relativism, the idea that “as long as your culture approves of a behaviour, it’s OK for you to do it, ” which always seemed to me like just another phrase for moral cowardice. Some is plain old laziness and ignorance of what’s going on outside your part of the world, which is not quite as bad but still no excuse.

If it’s wrong for Western countries to behave badly, it’s as wrong for anyone else to. The denunciation should be equal.

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