Blame the Brits

First, RIP, Senator Edward Kennedy. He was a giant of a man in so many ways, with his assets and his faults. As someone said earlier, in lieu of flowers, reform health care.

Given Kennedy’s ethnic heritage, it is perhaps fitting that today’s entry deals with the sins that Great Britain has visited upon the rest of the world. The theme for our topic arrives courtesy of the “Back Story” in last week’s Newsweek. The headline reads, “Did Britain Wreck the World?”  The online version omits one of the best parts of the piece, i.e., the visual of used tea bags leaving stains all over the page. (Anyone who has tried to remove tea stains knows how permanent the color is. We used it as a dye when I did costumes in the theater.) The tags of the bags in “Back Story” are the flags of various nations that Britain controlled and then screwed up over the past few centuries. The list includes Sri Lanka, India and Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, Israel and Palestine, Somalia, and Nigeria. In most of these places the British created artificial boundaries based on no logic.

Much of the legacy was the result of overt meddling and tone-deaf favoritism for certain groups, combined with benign neglect of infrastructure. Now these places are all powder kegs with the potential to ignite into larger conflicts.

The two Stanford University professors who provided the sources for this piece could have added a few more places. Even though it’s quiet now, Northern Ireland should go on the list since resources from both sides of the Atlantic fueled a conflict that still festers. Elsewhere, Australia is just beginning to clean up years of oppression of the Aboriginal people who suffered at the hands of the convicts that Britain sent as far from its shores as possible in the days before space travel.

We here in the Western Hemisphere suffer as well. Canada still deals with the impact of misguided treatment of First Peoples, as they call Native Americans. And the British-settled colonies in this country practiced the worst forms of slavery since they regarded their slaves as chattel on a par with horses and other livestock. That idea was grafted into our law for centuries. The French and the Spanish for all their dreadful treatment believed that the people toiling in their fields were human beings with souls. Of course part of the motive was to increase the population of the Catholic church; nevertheless they baptized their “servants” long before the Brits thought about the benefits of conversion to Christianity. It’s a whole lot easier for me to find information about my slave ancestors in Louisiana than it is in Virginia or New Jersey.

Post-racialism notwithstanding, we continue to see the impact second-class citizenship for the descendants of former slaves in low rates of employment, income, and of course education.

Even our legal system suffers from the remnants of bad British law. The U.S. Supreme Court’s bone-headed decision in Kelo vs. the City of New London was based on the theory of eminent domain, the right of the government to take private property. Until Kelo most people thought that the taking was limited to truly public purposes such as roads and schools. Justice Stevens said nope, people’s houses and land could be taken even if the “public” benefitted were shopping mall and hotel developers, because the overall plan promoted economic development.

Here in New England, Britain left a lesser but no less outrageous legacy: bland food of roast beast with Yorkshire pudding, overcooked vegetables, and such “delights” as steak and kidney pie. That particular sin has been mostly washed away, thank goodness, by frittatas from Spain, gallons of pasta sauce from Italy, gyros from Greece, hummus from the Middle East, and New World cuisine from Mexico and Latin America. I found it funny when I searched “English cuisine,” the sponsor was Tabasco sauce! But still the blandness lingers. If one goes to a chain in the south, the same food has a whole lot more flavor than it does in “New” England.

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