empire

The Outrage Olympics

Whenever a news story contains words “sparked outrage on social media” I know with about 98% certainty that it will turn out to be absolute bullshit.

Over the past decade or two, our society has elevated taking offence to an inalienable right, way ahead of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The advent of the social media then merely gave everyone a megaphone. No longer do the legions of the offended and the outraged have to stew in their own angry juices and bend the ears of their long-suffering families and neighbours; now the whole world can be made to share their offence and outrage with them. And yes, I know that as a blogger I’m perhaps one of the guilty ones here.

Today’s outrage de jour comes courtesy of a meme twitted by a British Conservative MP Heather Wheeler as a post-Olympic summary:

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I saw it popping up on my Facebook last night already, sans outrage, as I have normal friends, and thought nothing about it except that it was an intriguing way of looking at the medal tally. I don’t know but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in part a tongue-in-cheek response to a minor controversy during the Olympics when the European Union was trying to big note itself by claiming to have topped the medal table – by still including Great Britain in its medal haul. This might be technically true, since Brexit has not been implemented yet, but as one observer noted, they won’t get away with it in Tokyo in 2020. In any case, the European Union is still claiming this morning it has won the Olympic games despite the fact that there was no Union team and the European sportspeople would probably find the claim that they were doing it all for the greater glory of the EU to be at best amusing.

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So Heather Wheeler has “sparked outrage on social media”, because the British Empire is so last season, so old fashioned, and so offensive. Perhaps she should have said “the Commonwealth” (as she indeed did in the body of her tweet) and no one would have batted an eyelid.

But so what anyway?

I’m not a John Bull-style British patriot – not the least because I’m not British – but I, for one, am very happy that Australia was a British colony. It is the great country it is today in large part because it was a British colony. Looking around the world it doesn’t take too much historical or political insight to realise that had Australia the misfortune to have been colonised by any other power, she would most likely be a busted-ass shithole instead today. I make no apologies whatsoever for this view.

Imperialism, like it or not (and most people, understandably, don’t), has been a part of human history since time immemorial. Every significant and dynamic peoples in history have tried and often succeeded in building one, whether it lasted for decades or centuries. It’s certainly not a white or European thing, although European states in the early modern history have been, through a confluence of various political, economic, institutional and technological factors, more successful at it in some ways than the Chinese, the Incas or the Turks. But everyone did it. If there was no British empire, there would be somebody else taking its place; if there were no European empires, expansionist non-European states would have eventually filled the imperial power vacuum.

For whatever its sins, and there were many, the British Empire has left a global legacy of democracy, rule of law, constitutionalism, liberty, free (or at least freer) market, human rights, and good governance. This is a legacy that Australia benefits from, as do, to various extents, other members of the Commonwealth. It’s not a bad legacy, and it’s heck of a lot better than other empires in history had left in their wake.

And while as the Soviet, Chinese and East German Olympic experiences show, you cannot simply equate sports excellence with a decent society, I’m of a mind that the great showing in Rio of the British Empire or the Commonwealth or whatever you want to call it has something to do with the freedom and vitality these countries enjoy today.

So, if like one Twitter user you feel compelled to write about the Wheeler controversy “A billion plus apologies from every decent person in Britain…”, apologies not accepted, mate (or matette). Save your outrage for something that actually matters.

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