Divide and conquer: that was the principle behind Britain’s old imperial adventures, nowhere more apparent than in the parting fuck-you gesture given to a newly-created Pakistan and an anciently decimated India. Bangladesh used to be East Pakistan (and before that it was East Bengal) – a nation in two pieces separated by hundreds of miles has a great future ahead of it, doesn’t it? While virtually all non-Muslims left Pakistan – and those that remained, mostly Christians, lived to regret it – most Indian Muslims remained in India, feeling fairly certain that whatever Pakistan became it wouldn’t be good for business. It was also obvious that the new Islamic state and the old, nominally Hindu state would not coexist in harmony – which indeed they did not and have not ever since, waging both hot war and cold for the past seventy years. Such was Britain’s obvious intention. Generations of Raj officers, officials and exploiters had seen the mounting hostility between Hindus and Muslims directly caused by the overt British tendency to favour Muslims for positions in the Indian Civil Service. Such communal strife had not been especially evident before, not even during the centuries of Moghul rule in Delhi. Indeed India has a unique history of religious tolerance, and remains the only nation never to have persecuted the Jews, who have been there for over three thousand years. Britain’s first concern was in creating a buffer state between Soviet Russia and the once-Marxist-leaning India, where, when I lived there in the nineteen-seventies, Soviet propaganda was for sale in all the sidewalk bookstalls (fortunately along with all the magisterial Russian novels). Presumably, London’s fading imperial warriors surmised that a faintly theocratic state would repel the godless Ruskies? When Pakistan proved less tractable and more inclined to accept Moscow’s entreaties, along with its weaponry, the Brits evidently decided that another buffer state was required in the subcontinent. Although the ham-fisted cartographers assigned the task of delineating Pakistan gave no mind to inhabitants of the Punjab, through whose state and villages the inexorable line was drawn (some even awoke the next day to find that their parlour or bedroom was now in another country), the new and vastly reduced, predominantly Sikh state was suddenly viewed with great interest. A Sikh-separatist movement was encouraged and sponsored by London, which trained Sikh fighters in British Columbia, and was behind such outrages as both the siege of the Golden Temple and the assassination of Indira Ghandi (since both assaults on Sikhs and on Hindus served the same nefarious purpose). It is why the appalling Air India bombing is still shrouded in so many layers of obscurity and mystery). But Pakistan bent under pressure, turned its gaze westward (and to the munificent Saudis), and suddenly an independent Sikh buffer state was no longer desirable, dropped as if it burnt the hands. Those Sikhs aware of the plan have never forgiven London for this betrayal, joining those other disaffected hordes who are only all too aware that post-imperialism can be as nasty and ruthless as its earlier form – if not more so in its relative invisibility. Divide and rule.
If one wanted to be conspiracy-minded, one could view the recent trend towards greater and greater divisions in western societies as a contemporary refinement of the old divide and rule principle – except that there is nothing secretive about it. We are thus forced to accept the fact that human beings have a natural tendency towards tribalism and factionalism, now encouraged by governments, groups and individuals too stupid, uneducated or blind to the fact that all fragmentation in any society is deleterious to the continued health and prosperity of that society. It pits one faction against another, usually the ones most vociferous in their demands of the whole society – which of course is also so factionalized that it effectively doesn’t exist as a whole of any kind. Think of the clearly defined interest-groups currently well-established: the Indigenous; the LGBTQ community; the black, white, brown, yellow communities; the Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Fundamentalists of all stripes demanding a voice; the white-separatists (less popularly but equally stridently demanding a say); the Feminists of many kinds; the Vegans, insisting we only eat what they eat; and all the various other less prominent groupings, most of whom do not agree or partially disagree with what the others want. To the media – which have not given this matter any serious thought – they all have a case, and a right to express their discontent, even though this right in fact obviates the rights of many other factions. Governments themselves have become maquettes of the larger malaise, with the left attacking the right over every issue as a matter of principle, regardless of whether one side truly and fundamentally disagrees with the other’s position or not. The result is a Babel of futile arguments that in the end achieve nothing whatsoever except confusion, doubt and chaos. In Canada, for example, we have the so-called Commission of Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women. Such is the pressure exerted by a Liberal Government intent on expunging four or more centuries of guilt in four years that this Commission’s hearings have become an agora of grief and tragedy-porn, with family after family pouring out their sorrow in essentially the same terms: they loved their daughter, whose smile was magical, whose life was precious, and whose unsolved disappearance now squats like a black mountain over their days and years. The loss and sorrow are tangible – and so they should be. But the Commission is supposed to be about discovering why the police were so appallingly lax or incompetent in investigating these disappearances. Statements by the families belong in the dossier, of course they do; but the media attention is so irresistible that these relatives demand to be part of the inquiry itself – and no one dares point out that this public grieving is inappropriate, unnecessary and is costing taxpayers millions in fees for the commissioners who have to sit listening to a story they’ve already heard a thousand times. The whole point of this inquiry – which is NOT a truth and reconciliation hearing – is to discover why and how the police were so negligent, and to recommend ways of preventing such negligence from ever occurring again. This purpose threatens to become lost in hearings that the media – ever-hungry for tragedy-porn – report for their grief-value, seemingly forgetting what the actual purpose of them is supposed to be. I despair that, after spending many, many millions, the Commission will fail to achieve the only goal it was set. Long and unjustly deprived of a voice, the Indigenous are now in danger of undermining themselves by insisting that the Commission be what they want it to be – which will assuredly defeat its own purpose. We see the same thing happening on a smaller scale with the imagined rights proclaimed by every other interest-group, no matter how minor, no matter how irrational.
As someone who is legally blind, and a card-carrying member of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, I could easily trumpet the many violations of my rights, and those of all the 200,000-odd blind Canadians, encountered in everyday life, from opportunities for employment to accessibility issues. But I recognize the severe limitations I face in terms of any employment, and the immense problems and massive expense involved in making the world blind-friendly, just as I recognize the easily-understandable lack of organizational skills that prevent the blind from forming advocacy-groups as effective as those formed by the disabled in other ways. I also don’t think of myself as a blind Canadian, but rather as a Canadian who happens to be blind. I am, however, well aware of the uncomfortable deference my condition elicits, particularly in areas of government with which I need to deal and to whom I also happen to mention it. My calls are returned with unnerving alacrity, and I know my gripes – why don’t all traffic lights have an audible signal? – will be taken most seriously and respectfully, even if nothing whatsoever can practically be done about them. But I have no desire to be considered as among a disadvantaged minority, and especially not among one whose unrealistic demands cause yet another commission of inquiry based upon the principle that society is somehow to blame for my inability to function in it. In today’s climate of opinion, no one would dare refute such a charge, as erroneous as it is or would be. The politics of division may seem to empower all, but in reality they disempower those who imagine their empowerment, relegating them to a fragment of the whole, a fragment in which their genuine rights can just as easily be dismissed as their claimed rights – after of course a commission has exhaustively and expensively looked into them for so long that the media and thence the public loses all interest in the issue. Just as war memorials dispense with the need to question all wars, so commissions of inquiry remove the urgency of examining real causes for grievance.
Perhaps the most dangerous division yet to have emerged is that currently reaching new heights of intensity between men and women. It is a fact that the empowerment of women – ensuring their rights to contraception and abortion, freeing them from compulsory reproduction like farm animals – is possibly the sole way to ameliorate poverty in the less-developed areas of the world. Only men in those areas, some of them, oppose this provable assertion. Our problem in the west is not that. It is the contention that men and women are in some way the same. We accept that all human beings are in a sense to be regarded as equal under the law. They’re not of course, and the classless society is an impossible fantasy dangled like the carrot you can never catch to inspire the masses in their enslavement. But while equal under the law, men and women are different in many ways, if not in every way. It is also true that all preceding eras to our own did not claim or aspire to the enlightenment that some of us imagine we have now attained. Over the past decade I have listened to all of the arguments patiently, especially the one that says all of history should have been as liberally enlightened as we think we are now – and, what’s more, in not being so enlightened they are all culpable and ought to be punished in some way (in what way, though?). Artists and writers, not just legislators, need to be pilloried – which now means ignored or obliterated – for their sexist sins. Naturally enough, it is usually those whose ignorance is radiant who condemn, say, Shakespeare for his rampant male chauvinism – when in fact no playwright before him wrote so many and such powerful roles for female characters (even if young boys had to act them – which is open to dispute). Yet it is not just ages half a millennium ago where social mores and opinions were vastly different to our own. The ever-burgeoning container of sexual grievances, many dating from decades ago, ought to be forcing us to concede that ideas of sexual propriety have been transformed almost overnight (but certainly within a remarkably brief decade). No one has ever disputed the fact that Harvey Weinstein is not a very nice or likeable man, one whose power in the entertainment business allowed him to treat people like shit. David Lynch’s brilliant film, Mulholland Drive, contains a parodic portrait of him as the bastard obsessed with his espresso. But, as inadmissible to the human race as Weinstein may well be, this witch hunt treating him as guilty when, so far, he has not been charged with any crime is shameful and a violation of those unalienable rights he supposedly still possesses. When he said in his feeble defense that he grew up in times when attitudes were substantially different from our own, he was telling the truth. For people to come forward after forty years trembles the credibility of a law that places no statute of limitations on sexual offenses. Kevin Spacey, and many others are now falling prey to a law that accords the victims with undisputed veracity, while denying the alleged perpetrators their right to be innocent until proven guilty. Why? It happened here with Jian Gomeshoi, and it continued happening even after the court found him not guilty as charged. Like most people, I don’t know if he was guilty or not – and I don’t pretend to know, forced therefore to accept the court’s verdict, whether or not I wish it were otherwise. I had my share of sexual predators in the past – when I was young and pretty – but I wouldn’t dream of dredging this up now. When I was sixteen, the Financial Times drama critic (now long dead), B.A. (Freddie) Young invited me to attend the Royal Shakespeare Company’s preview of their new season in Stratford. Naive as I ten was, I still knew it wasn’t my delightful company he wanted in the hotel with him, so I politely declined the offer. Had I accepted it, I can honestly say that I would have deserved any sexual predations on his part, and I certainly wouldn’t have harboured a grievance for over fifty years, choosing to give vent to it now. You go to someone’s hotel room, you know what’s likely to happen, and it’s as much your fault as it is that of the powerful person from whom you were hoping to get some kind of favour. Even back in the distant days of the casting couch, it was conventional wisdom that you couldn’t fuck your way to success. The abuse of power works both ways too. When I was a television producer and advertising in the papers for interns, I received a number of applications that included, besides the requested resume, an 8 x 10 glamour photograph (from females, I should add), an addition that presumed enticing good looks would succeed where experience failed. It is good indeed that we are leaving such debased times behind us, yet it is not at all good that we are indulging in retrospective outrage, shame or whatever it is up to half a century later and from the safety of a different era – one that may not be as morally flawless as it imagines itself to be. It is not good for the world that women are perceived as history’s victims, no matter how recent the history. And it is far from good or healthy for the law to be so bended that it breaks, branding the innocent as guilty for crimes more imagined than defined by any court or body of law enforcement. Those men who claim to agree with this persecution are also denying the truth of urges most or all males experience, even if they are rarely acted upon. The denial of reality is a most pernicious trend, one that augurs the disintegration of society. Unless we are one in our ideals and goals we can never achieve them, and our society will be risibly easy for those who richly deserve to be identified and condemned to rule with the most velvety of iron fists, pitting faction against faction and destroying the real conversation, which needs to continue forever in the vain hope that it might elicit those changes we truly need to come. We do not need to be politically correct; we need to be morally and ethically correct.
Paul William Roberts