honours – empire – shitstem

Who from Britain’s former colonies or those whose ancestors felt the brunt of British Empire (including the ongoing legacies of empire) would want to have ‘empire behind their name (as an honour)? I am referring to the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours. It would seem many would, though there is quite a long list from all walks of life who have refused. The list, though, is strikingly filled with writers, actors, and filmmakers, with a scattering of a few minority ethnic voices.

Ken Loach (film maker), turned down his OBE because “it’s not a club you want to join when you look at the villains who’ve got it.” Over the top generalisation, I suppose, but I understand his sentiments. More to the point, however, is a comment from one former TV Presenter (Lynn Faulds Wood). “I would love to have an honour if it didn’t have the word ’empire’ on the end of it. We don’t have an empire, in my opinion”. True, though the history is hard to throw off: “Rule, Britannia! Britannia rule the waves! Britons never, never, never shall be slaves”. Tacitus, who never thought much of Britons, may have underestimated the reach of his thoughts:  “To ravage, to slaughter, to steal, this they give the false name of empire; and where they create a desert, they call it peace.” [Tacitus]

Jon Snow, who refused his OBE (2000) investigated and presented a Channel 4 documentary, Secrets of the Honours System. He wrote: “We were never able to talk to anyone involved in the process, and got only some of the way to understanding the opaque and murky honours process, by talking to people who’d intersected with it in the past.” Among the persons whom he spoke with then was Prof Gus John who had this to say: “I regard [the title] Commander of the British Empire as part of the iconography of British imperialism”. Gus John (reported by Snow) said that “it would have been a pretty serious dishonour to have to wander the planet as a commander of the very institution whose legacy he had tried so hard to mitigate.” Other Black activists are of a similar view. Howard Gayle (1st Black Footballer of Liverpool FC) refused his honour because to accept would be a betrayal to Africans who suffered at the hands of British Empire. Likewise, an even stronger sentiment is expressed by poet Benjamin Zephaniah who also refused to accept an OBE: “I get angry when I hear the word ’empire’; it reminds me of slavery, it reminds me of thousands of years of brutality, it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised.”

I am with John, Gayle, and Zephaniah on their reasons for refusing to accept honours with these empire shackles. Yet many who wish for change, especially the oppressive ‘shitstem’ (systemic) that continue to benefit the elites continue to accept these honours while little is changing around them. Marcus Garvey (popularised by Bob Marley) was spot on in noting that minds are in desperate need for liberation. As Frantz Fanon observed: “imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove not only from our land but from our minds as well.” When the Status Quo boasts that it is the most diverse list of 2020 awardees (including 13% BAME), it may be time to ask what their agenda is.

Now, ‘empire’ and its agents only have one agenda with multiple tactics to ensure that agenda thrives: it is to maintain power, privilege, and control as long as possible. And the multiple tactics may take on a variety of incarnations, but that end goal is the same. The system and its elite group of beneficiaries need agents, stooges, and unwitting collaborators to be in place; they will make gestures to acts of community spirit (beyond the call of duty) to detract from systemic fault lines (the growing disparities in society); they will make every effort to neutralise solidarity that threatens their power and privileges; they buy off protest for systemic change with awards such as the honours list.

Some may wish to contend that change will not happen by refusing to accept ‘empire’s gesture’ to co-opt. Change will happen by getting inside the master’s house. I say good luck to such wishful thinking.  The Master’s tool may change who will live in that house, but to dismantle it will be a lost cause. Empire’s insatiable desire is not just to hold us in its grip and empty our heads of its contents. Its perverted logic is to turn us against our own ‘cultural capital’ and elevate us to mimic their own cultural archive with a clear hierarchy: white-male-straight-abled body on top and the rest of us fighting like crabs in a barrel for the ‘lower’ pecking spaces. The cynic in me sees the honours list as a dangling carrot as a reward for the degree to which the awardees are successfully able to mimic/embody/perpetuate the ‘cultural archive’ of Britain’s empire superiority.

jagessar October 11, 2020

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