web analytics
Deranged altruism Dominion (book) Tom Holland

Dominion, 36


How the Woke monster originated

Seven months before Live Aid, its organisers had recruited many of the biggest acts in Britain and Ireland to a super-group: Band Aid. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’, a one-off charity record, succeeded in raising so much money for famine relief that it would end up the best-selling single in the history of the UK charts. For all the peroxide, all the cross-dressing, all the bags of cocaine smuggled into the recording studio, the project was one born of the Christian past.

Reporting on the sheer scale of the suffering in Ethiopia, a BBC correspondent had described the scenes he was witnessing as ‘biblical’; stirred into action, the organisers of Band Aid had embarked on a course of action that reached for its ultimate inspiration to the examples of Paul and Basil. That charity should be offered to the needy, and that a stranger in a foreign land was no less a brother or sister than was a next-door neighbour, were principles that had always been fundamental to the Christian message.

Concern for the victims of distant disasters—famines, earthquakes, floods—was disproportionately strong in what had once been Christendom. The overwhelming concentration of international aid agencies there was no coincidence. Band Aid were hardly the first to ask whether Africans knew that it was Christmastime. In the nineteenth century, the same anxiety had weighed heavily on Evangelicals. Missionaries had duly hacked their way through uncharted jungles, campaigned against the slave trade, and laboured with all their might to bring the Dark Continent into the light of Christ. ‘A diffusive philanthropy is Christianity itself. It requires perpetual propagation to attest its genuineness.’ Such was the mission statement of the era’s most famous explorer, David Livingstone. Band Aid—in their ambition to do good, if not in their use of hair dye—were recognisably his heirs.

This was not, though, how their single was marketed. Anything that smacked of white people telling Africans what to do had become, by the 1980s, an embarrassment. Admiration even for a missionary such as Livingstone, whose crusade against the Arab slave trade had been unstintingly heroic, had come to pall. His efforts to map the continent—far from serving the interests of Africans, as he had trusted they would—had instead only opened up its interior to conquest and exploitation.

A decade after his death from malaria in 1873, British adventurers had begun to expand deep into the heart of Africa. Other European powers had embarked on a similar scramble. France had annexed much of north Africa, Belgium the Congo, Germany Namibia. By the outbreak of the First World War, almost the entire continent was under foreign rule. Only the Ethiopians had succeeded in maintaining their independence. Missionaries, struggling to continue with their great labour of conversion, had found themselves stymied by the brute nature of European power. How were Africans to believe talk of a god who cared for the oppressed and the poor when the whites, the very people who worshipped him, had seized their lands and plundered them for diamonds, and ivory, and rubber? A colonial hierarchy in which blacks were deemed inferior had seemed a peculiar and bitter mockery of the missionaries’ insistence that Christ had died for all of humanity.

By the 1950s, when the tide of imperialism in Africa had begun to ebb as fast it had originally flowed, it might have seemed that Christianity was doomed to retreat as well, with churches crumbling before the hunger of termites, and Bibles melting into mildewed pulp. But that—in the event—was not what had happened at all! [pages 497-499]

A few pages further on Tom Holland discusses the case of South Africa:

The ending of apartheid and the election in 1994 of Mandela as South Africa’s first black president was one of the great dramas of Christian history: a drama woven through with deliberate echoes of the Gospels… The same faith that had inspired Afrikaners to imagine themselves a chosen people was also, in the long run, what had doomed their supremacy.

The pattern was a familiar one. Repeatedly, whether crashing along the canals of Tenochtitlan, or settling the estuaries of Massachusetts, or trekking deep into the Transvaal, the confidence that had enabled Europeans to believe themselves superior to those they were displacing was derived from Christianity. Repeatedly, though, in the struggle to hold this arrogance to account, it was Christianity that had provided the colonised and the enslaved with their surest voice. The paradox was profound.

No other conquerors, carving out empires for themselves, had done so as the servants of a man tortured to death on the orders of a colonial official. No other conquerors, dismissing with contempt the gods of other peoples, had installed in their place an emblem of power so deeply ambivalent as to render problematic the very notion of power. No other conquerors, exporting an understanding of the divine peculiar to themselves, had so successfully persuaded peoples around the globe that it possessed a universal import. [pages 503-504]

London bus in 1989 carrying the
‘Boycott Apartheid’ message.

The collapse of apartheid had been merely the aftershock of a far more convulsive earthquake. In 1989, even as de Klerk was resolving to set Mandela free, the Soviet empire had imploded. Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary: all had cast off the chains of foreign rule. East Germany, a rump hived off by the Soviets in the wake of the Second World War, had been absorbed into a reunified—and thoroughly capitalist—Germany. The Soviet Union itself had ceased to exist. Communism, weighed in the scales of history, had been found wanting… That the paradise on earth foretold by Marx had turned out instead to be closer to a hell only emphasised the degree to which the true fulfilment of progress was to be found elsewhere.

With the rout of communism, it appeared to many in the victorious West that it was their own political and social order that constituted the ultimate, the unimprovable form of government. Secularism; liberal democracy; the concept of human rights: these were fit for the whole world to embrace. The inheritance of the Enlightenment was for everyone: a possession for all of mankind. It was promoted by the West, not because it was Western, but because it was universal. The entire world could enjoy its fruits. It was no more Christian than it was Hindu, or Confucian, or Muslim. There was neither Asian nor European. Humanity was embarked as one upon a common road.

The end of history had arrived. [pages 504-505]