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The British Nostalgia Complex


I haven’t seen The Crown. My wife likes it but then she likes all of what I derisively call “That British shit,” by which I mean the boring, middlebrow movies probably starring Judi Dench that dominate the showings at what attempts to pass for the art cinemas of Providence, Downton Abbey, etc. This is a good essay by a historian working in Britain about the show and what he called “Britain’s nostalgia complex.” After all, that British shit isn’t being made for an American audience, even if it has a market here. This I thought was really fascinating:

Those of us teaching British history in the United States, or even in Britain, often find ourselves acting as a countervailing force. Our students arrive expecting juicy details about the affective lives of royals and aristocrats. Violence is not Amritsar but Jack the Ripper, the Industrial Revolution is not Manchester but the Hogwarts Express, and the empire is not the Mau Mau but a princess and her husband watching hippos graze at night from their tree house. I am teaching an undergraduate course at a British university that analyzes the history of decolonization and the migration of former colonial subjects to Britain as an interconnected story. My students, all freshmen, freely admit that they are far more familiar with the story of the American Civil Rights Movement or the Vietnam War than they are with the history of British nonwhite migration or decolonization. These aspects of British history, integral as they are to understanding contemporary life, aren’t incorporated into the heritage economy.

There are, of course, a number of movements led by historians inside and outside the academy to push back against Britain’s nostalgia complex. Perhaps the most compelling is the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project led by Catherine Hall, a professor at University College London. Hall and her team have traced the money the British state paid to slaveowners to compensate them after emancipation for the loss of their “property.” In doing so, she has built a vast database of those who owned slaves and traced the path of their fortune through time.

I have never been to Britain and the four times I have been to Europe have all been relatively short, three of which were for conferences. So I claim no expertise. But allow me to make two observations.

First, what has struck me hard on my European trips is how what we in the U.S. would call social history is nearly completely absent from discussions of public history, whether museums, signs, or anything really. It’s all monarchy, colonialism, imperialism. Vienna was completely over the top with this. And while I loved all the Hapsburg stuff in Vienna too, the fact that despite my really trying to find to find any sort of history from below I completely failed was telling. In Lisbon, it’s all about the olden times of Portuguese glory. Ireland is different because of the recent revolutionary heritage. That’s the one exception I have seen. Plus Ireland flat out doesn’t have the same sort of history as most of the rest of Europe. Maybe Poland can share a similar history of domination by larger powers.

Second, the thing that is most clear to me about Brexit, the rise of fascism and authoritarianism in Hungary and Poland, the near miss in France, etc., is that the core to the whole European social welfare state and it’s purported tolerance and liberalism is a homogeneous population. Of course, Europe did not always have such national homogeneity, but as Tony Judt explored in such detail in Postwar, the massive ethnic cleansing that occurred in Europe between 1945 and 1950 has probably done more than anything to ensure the lack of a general war. And one place that did not go through such an experience–Yugoslavia–is where you saw a genocidal war in recent decades. Traveling around Asia a few times between 1996 and 2006 (and hopefully again in the very near future as it has been way too long), what drove me nuts was this European condescension to American social problems at the same time that a lot of these people I met were fairly openly racist to the people of Thailand and Indonesia. Lo and behold, once European nations have the same sort of ethnic and racial diversity that defines the United States, they become right-wing racists too!

That the British can’t face their own ethnic history to the point that their young people know a lot more about the American civil rights movement than their own colonial history and its impact on migration to their own nation, at the same time that they are engaging in Brexit and electing Theresa May and taking Nigel Farage seriously (don’t give me any crap about Trump Brits! Look in the mirror!) is pretty disturbing. And despite the occasional great film such as Dirty Pretty Things, there’s a lot more major British cultural productions about Churchill or the monarchy than about the Pakistanis and Nigerians in their own slums.

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