The UN's American obsession

1 July 2021

9:00 AM

1 July 2021

9:00 AM

Under other circumstances I wouldn’t mind living in the American empire here in Britain. The tithes are reasonable and the legal structures hardly onerous. If Washington were content to simply dispatch its governors, collect its money, and crush the occasional revolt in the Celtic provinces I don’t think I’d have any complaints to make. The missionaries, though, I could do without.

It says something about the pace of change that I barely raised an eyebrow at Sadiq Khan’s Pride tweet choosing to reference the Stonewall riots – a series of demonstrations in New York – rather than select an episode from British history. How assimilated by another country are you when its history is better known to you than your own?

This conversion is sped by the internet – where Americans form the largest contingent of first-language English speaking users, and accordingly set many norms and topics of discourse – but does not happen entirely organically. There is a large and active infrastructure that exists solely to spread the new gospel.

The UN’s latest human rights report on the treatment of Africans and people of African descent by law enforcement provides an example of this network in action. Launched to a flurry of sympathetic articlesin the UK press, it is an explicit attempt to capitalise on the spread of protests last summer in order to provoke cultural change. Under some circumstances this might be welcome; if it looked carefully at each country to see what it did well and poorly and provided concrete recommendations then there would be little to object to.

Instead, as is usually the case, this is an exercise in policy-based evidence-making, and a document about America. While it claims to be global in perspective, its evidence base is a grab-bag of submissions from states and ‘stakeholders’, online focus groups, and an analysis of 190 incidents where law enforcement officials were involved in the deaths of ‘Africans and people of African descent’, most of which were in the USA.

The recommendations are as vague as you’d expect for a global report based largely around seven ‘emblematic incidents’, featuring the sort of language commonplace in content-free diversity seminars. We need to ‘reverse cultures of denial, dismantle systemic racism and accelerate the pace of action… ensure that the voices of people of African descent… are heard… confront legacies, including through accountability and redress.

How do we do that? Through ‘national dialogues’. Through a ‘long-delayed reckoning with racism’, as though the whole world were Minnesota. States should ‘reimagine policing’, provide ‘continuous training and education’ on unconscious bias, and ‘end impunity’ for police, provide support to ‘civil society’, welcoming its use of ‘strategic litigation’, and make ‘reparations’ both financial and emotional, with the former presumably overseen by the sort of activists feeding into the report.

For anything more specific than that, though, you must consult your local branch of activists. The point of the report is not to provide a guide towards specific changes than to provide a spur to headlines and cover and support for whatever agendas Americanised political movements were pushing on the ground anyway. It has often been observed that the airplane made the world small, but within the bounds of the Anglosphere the internet has reduced it for many to a singularity, a reverse parochialism where everyone simply believes their country to be a suburb of an American city.

Nigeria’s’ #EndSARS movement (which protested against the brutality of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad) does not feature in the report because it would be entirely outside the focus of the empire proper, the capital in Washington and the periphery in Europe. America’s embrace of its new race-based purpose resembles a religious convert obsessed with rescuing others from the darkness they believe they have risen from. The idea that they really were in a position very different to that of Britain, or France, or Sweden can’t be conceived of within their national worldview, in which the free world looks to America for moral leadership. Instead of focusing on its own flaws, the neurotic American state sees them all around it, a world of sin that it must purify.

The UK is clearly not perfect, and the report highlights cases in which the British state badly let down its black population. Memetic values spreading from America can clearly include racism and prejudice, in addition to our own homegrown forms. But to act as though conclusions drawn based on one country are applicable to another without considering the different historical paths, population origins, culture, and indeed circumstances is foolish. As the UK’s rather terse submission to the review pointed out, there is little evidence that bias in law enforcement drives deaths of the sort examined by the review.

The problem is that disregarding these inconveniences in favour of focusing on America is increasingly normal. Because we are all perpetually online, we now have a generation marinated in American political thought, who view themselves as sharing an identity with their political counterparts in the United States, and a tendency to reach for American dialogue when addressing political issues no matter the differences in context.

As social distancing online to contain the spread of the virus seems unlikely, if we must live in the American empire, let’s do it properly. If we are going to keep importing American cultural anxiety to the point of considering dropping the use of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ out of deference to some half-understood argument between their political parties, we might as well give up on the idea of maintaining the fiction of separation, become a state, and get a say in the process, alongside those sweet federal subsidies.

I would rather instead that we separated ourselves from the empire and rejected its innovations, defining ourselves in reference to our own history and continent rather than through our relationship with America, cultivating a Dark Ages mindset and clinging onto the Atlantic fringes of Europe until the Americans, finally, turn their attention to a new obsession.<//>

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments