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Western impressions, African perceptions

By Andrew M. Mwenda

How our admiration of Western systems has more do with how it perceives itself than the reality of its being

I still cannot explain what got into my head recently to re-read William Shirer’s, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a 1,200 pages tour de force. I had first read the book in 1999. It left a lasting impression on me for the details on the Third Reich and the elegance of its prose.

But what intrigued me this time is Shirer’s adjectives in reference to Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin on the one hand and Frederick Roosevelt and Winston Churchill on the other.


Throughout the book, Shirer, an American journalist, condemns Hitler and Stalin without reservations. He continually refers to them as “fascists,” “dictators,” “thieves”, “warlords”, “megalomaniacs,” and worse. Their every bad act is evidence of their personal evil nature buttressed by the barbaric laws and institutions over which they presided.

On the other hand, he refers to Roosevelt and Churchill in positive light presenting them as good-natured men presiding over democratic nations and civilized cultures. Where they do something wrong, it was out of necessity or was a mistake.

Yet what struck me was that to justify his claims against Hitler, Shirer produces evidence of the laws, institutions and practices the Nazi leader put in place against Jews. For example, laws prohibiting Jews from voting, public service and the professions, making it criminal for them to marry or even have sex with Germans and segregating them from neighborhoods and schools used by Germans.

Yet almost every Nazi draconian law that Shirer condemns actually existed in America (against black people) and in the British Empire (against natives). Indeed, it was as if Hitler was directly copying American and British policies and institutions for Germany.

The difference between Hitler on the one hand and Churchill and Roosevelt on the other was that the German ruler applied these laws on the European mainland and against white people.

The British had pursued a genocidal policy against the Boers in South Africa and other native peoples who resisted them while European Americans had practically committed genocide against Native Americans. Shirer is simply blind to this. Here lies the strength of the West – the tendency to see itself in noble terms while seeing “The Rest” as culturally inferior and inherently evil.

Re-reading Shirer’s book and its adjectives in 2013, I was struck by the similarities in the practices, institutions, policies and laws over which Hitler, Churchill and Roosevelt presided in regard to minorities in their countries.

Perhaps this is because I have since read and reflected on Douglas Blackmon’s book, Slavery by Another Name, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s study, American Apartheid; Michele Alexander’s majestic work, The New Jim Crow; Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost; David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged and Sven Lindquist’s Exterminate all the Brutes and many more. Or perhaps it is just that in 1999 I was young and intelligent and now I have grown old and stupid.

Yet I intuitively feel that Roosevelt and Churchill were good men. Question: how could they have presided over such brutal institutions, policies and practices? In Jim Crow America, with its democratic institutions of a free press, multi party politics, myriad civic associations, legislatures and courts, even with “free, fair” and regular elections, black people were treated with a brutality of exceptional proportions – lynched by day, raped by night, imprisoned, tortured and forced to labour – as if they were animals. Things have not improved much even with the election of Barak Obama as president given the mass incarceration of black people.

Yet in spite of all this, Americans see their country as a force for good – even as it sponsors terrorism against regimes it disapproves of and props dictators where they serve its interests. May be this shows the power of narratives and self-perception. For example, soldiers from Syria or Iran may arrest and torture prisoners.

In the Western presentation, that is evidence of who they are – anti-democratic human rights abusers. If America did the same thing, it is presented in Western media and popular culture as evidence of what America is not – that this is a mere aberration, a failure to live up to its high moral standards of human decency.

Well, something is an aberration when it happens once in a while. When a nation arrests people without trial, tortures them and denies them their humanity for more than a decade, as is happening at Guantanamo and as it did at Abu Greb in Iraq and other American detention facilities worldwide; that is not an aberration.

When the president of that country orders drones to mercilessly massacre innocent civilians in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan for five years: that cannot be evidence of a mistake or bad judgment but a statement of who you really are.

America’s “war on terror” now in its 12th year is one of the worst tragedies of the last 200 years. It has been perpetrated by both Republican and Democratic administrations.  This is a war without a clearly defined enemy or target – which can be a country or an army. It is a war against a concept – “terrorism”.

Terrorism is a method of fighting not an enemy against whom you can declare a war. It is like America saying it is declaring a war on “conventional” or “guerrilla” warfare. Such a broad, vague and even absurd definition of the enemy makes it possible for the US to summarily kill anyone it wishes.

The lesson from these narratives of “us” as noble and “them” as barbaric is that a society is what it sees itself to be. We African elites have shouted ourselves hoarse in condemnation – and may be rightly so – of our governments for their corruption, tyranny and incompetence. Or may be we have been subconsciously taught to hate ourselves if only to admire others.

If all our renowned past leaders – Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Patrice Lumumba of Congo, Thomas Sankara etc. were tyrants, it makes sense for us to be inspired by Bill Clinton, Tonny Blair and Obama. So we are so quick to see our weaknesses but blind to our strength. Equally, we are blind to the faults of those who constantly tell us how bad we are; so we only see the good in them. With this attitude, where do we draw inspiration for improving our lot?

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