As hosts to the Winter Olympics in February, China became the target of the West griping about that communist country’s human rights records. This is not the first that such an incident occurred. Sporting spectacles, including the summer Olympics, have every now and then been subjected to politicisation since very long.
In 1980, the US-inspired boycott of the Moscow Olympics was an embarrassment for the Soviet Union, world’s first communist state engaged in ideological warfare and competition for maintaining dominance in the international arena. Four years later, the Soviets led a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics, clearly to avenge the American negation of the Moscow Games.
For a full decade in the 1990s and to a large degree in the opening years of the new millennium, the world was described as “unipolar” by Western analysts and their ilk, who saw the US as the sole superpower. But the manner in which China is inching toward conditions that outshine the West highly unsettling for the powers that had a lion’s share in setting the global agenda as the “best” for the whole world.
Changed outlook In countries that were masters of foreign colonies, the traditional outlook is undergoing a sea change. They are no longer as proud as their forefathers were of the colonial “glory”, the riches it fetched and the manner in which the “barbarians” were “civilised” by the white men. Recent reports indicate that dozens of schools in Britain replaced the names of personalities earlier held in high esteem but later found to have unduly benefited from slave trade, opium sales and the numerous ills of colonialism.
Serious debates are on in a number of university campuses in Britain and the United States over suggestions that statues of large-scale contributors to their institutions be removed because of their “immoral” views and no less abominable practices.
People from the cross-section of society and in increasing numbers are pressing for correcting the course they find inappropriate. They strive for shunning individuals linked with “slave trade, colonisation and exploitation”, failing which would tantamount to upholding something atrocious.
Individuals who stand against the new awakening are marked for rejection. Thus, the campaign axe has fallen on, for instance, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the Harry Potter’s author JK Rowling. This has made some leaders rue that schools had become frontline troops for the woke agenda that risks eroding national identity.
The same folks in large numbers are nostalgically positive about their country’s colonial past as a glorious legacy and hence to be proud of. In Britain, according to a recent survey, more than 43 per cent of the people think colonial undertaking was a welcome development, as it enabled barbarians to be civilised and embrace Western values.
Survey reports suggest that more Britons than other former colonial powers like the French, Germans and Japanese would still prefer to lord over an empire. They try comforting their conscience by continuing with their centuries-old stand on self-declared global responsibility. In the overall global spectrum, however, much water has flowed under the millions of bridges. Unlike previously, millions of intellectuals across the world today condemn colonialism as exploitative, suppressive and frequently violent.
A new generation is getting outspoken about correcting the language terms and honouring system in order to address new, but legitimate, sensitivities. Last summer, a movement for skipping the use of the word “empire” from the British honours system received a major impetus. Its proponents do not wish to glorify imperialism that was the cause of gross exploitation and subjugation of the subject colonised territories and their indigenous populations.
Terming the colonial records as “shameful”, various organisations are active in a campaign aimed at replacing the word empire by “excellence”. Among the supporters are some 100 honours-holders who want others to understand the true nature and functioning of colonial rule that basically went against the populations in the colonies.
Correction course A source of glory to racists and minuscule beneficiaries but shocking to the vast exploited and disgusted millions, the colonial centuries are dismissed as going against the basic grain. Yet, not reconciled to the free thinking many and knowledgeable scholars who do not hesitate in calling a spade a spade, the British government formed a commission that submitted its report recommending that colonial history should be interpreted looking into “the good and the evil of empire”.
The former colonial “masters” hardly ever give such considerations—or the benefit of the doubt—to regimes and policies they disagree with. Such discrepancy in approach and attitude gradually erodes a nation’s international credibility. Acknowledging errors committed in the past is a step in the right direction for setting things in their rightful course instead of celebrating unflattering events and action under unedifying banners of myths and lies.
It is not merely a question of avenging the wrong done but an approach to come to terms with the past instead of concealing it for deliberate ambiguity. Contributing to setting things right is a primary task of societies keen on confronting an embarrassing past just as they celebrate the deserving and heroic deeds with great eclat.
The situation of big powers engaged in scoring propaganda points by any means continues to be a matter of consternation, especially when the political elite and scholars sing in praise of the ideals of an open society that strives for nothing but the truth. If nations cannot admit the facts rooted in the past, they cannot be expected to honour the facts today, too.
(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)