THE LEGACY of colonialism still casts a long shadow over the world. In the United States, the right-wing Tea Party takes its name from an anticolonial revolt against British taxation on a chilly December day in Boston in 1773. Beginning in 2001, American soldiers occupied Afghanistan, and two years later Iraq, using “hearts and minds” and counterinsurgency strategies adapted from those tried by imperial powers in colonies like Kenya and Algeria. In Kenya, citizens went to the ballot box in August to demand a new constitution, rejecting a political system handed down by the British that strangled democracy and nurtured ethnic violence.
Nations like America and Kenya share the scars of colonialism. They also share a man named Barack Obama—president to one, distant kinsmen to the other. Since Obama became president, a lot of noise has been made regarding his global connections. We all know the story by now: born to a white American from Kansas and a black Luo from Kenya, raised in Hawaii, traveled to Indonesia for four years at the age of six, and schooled at Columbia and Harvard. It is an exceptional biography, but one used by critics to label him a secret Muslim, an unabashed socialist, and worst of all, a global citizen. But recently, it’s Obama’s heritage in Kenya, a place he has only visited three times, that has provided fodder for disgraceful distortions about his colonial past and present politics.
In September, Newt Gingrich wondered aloud to the National Review Online whether Obama might be “so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” His comments ignited a mini media firestorm. The Los Angeles Times op-ed staff described his comments as “factually insane.” Conservative David Frum was less subtle, calling it “a brazen outburst of race-baiting in the service of partisan politics.” The ensuing hullaballoo certainly gave Gingrich some street-cred among the far Right of the Republican Party and its appendage, the Tea Party. But his comments were part of a broader effort to paint the president as exotic, non-American, and Other. In fact, Gingrich’s comments were drawn from and in hearty support of an article written days earlier by Dinesh D’Souza for Forbes.
D’SOUZA CLAIMS that “anticolonialism” defines the president and guides his decisions like a divining rod. Anticolonialism is a specialty of D’Souza’s. “I know a great deal about anticolonialism,” he tells us, “because I am a native of Mumbai, India. I am part of the first generation to be born after my country’s independence from the British.” Born fourteen years after Indian independence, he certainly never had any first-hand experience overthrowing colonial rule. But having lived in India for his first seventeen years, D’Souza certainly witnessed his nation struggle as the seeds of conflict sown over the course of British colonial rule came to fruition. Members of his family even spoke to him of their efforts to “resist and overthrow the oppressors.” Rather than embrace this heritage, D’Souza has rejected it outright and transformed it into a partisan political weapon.
So what does a man who claims to have experienced anticolonialism think it looks like? D’Souza offers us a definition: “Anticolonialism is the doctrine that rich countries of the West got rich by invading, occupying and looting poor countries of Asia, Africa and South America.” And even when former colonies “secure political independence,” anticolonialists believe, according to D’Souza, that “they remain economically dependent on their former captors.” It is not a totally inaccurate definition, but it is a rather gross, racialized oversimplification. D’Souza divides the world into two warring factions: the greedy white West and the exploited nonwhite Rest. It is a racist formula, drawing a line in the minds of his audience, and asking them to pick a side: us versus them.
D’Souza’s thesis on Obama falters, mainly because he does not actually have any evidence to support his claims. According to D’Souza, examples of Obama’s anticolonialist mindset abound: seeking the expiration of the Bush tax cuts for those earning $250,000 or more a year, supporting the religious freedom of a Muslim group to build a cultural center near Ground Zero, and attempting to end America’s dependence on foreign oil. D’Souza supports the claim that these are “anticolonial” policies with amateurishly associative arguments, lining up two things and imagining a connection. The same is true of D’Souza’s explanation for why anticolonialism guides Obama: because the father was an anticolonialist, so too must be the son. Apparently, an aversion to colonialism is genetic. It makes you wonder: if our worldviews were all drawn from stuff our dads say, then what would people think of us? If someone asked D’Souza’s family members for their views on British colonial rule in India, would we learn that D’Souza is in fact a closet anticolonialist?
D’Souza claims that the proof of Obama Senior’s, and therefore Obama Junior’s, anticolonialism lies in an article by the former written for the East Africa Journal in July 1965, entitled “Problems Facing Our Socialism.” The article is not particularly exciting, at least from the perspective of a historian studying Kenya. Obama’s father was not a major player in the politics of a newly independent Kenya. Rather the Harvard educated, absentee-father of our president is a straw man, stuffed with all manner of odious attributes that men like Gingrich and D’Souza associate with the son. But maybe we can excuse D’Souza. He is not a serious student of history, whether of Kenya, Africa, European imperialism, or colonialism. Newt Gingrich, however, cannot be excused so easily.
WHEN NEWT GINGRICH, a serious contender for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, whole-heatedly endorsed such a bizarre and erroneous characterization of his would-be opponent, it took some inside the beltway by surprise. Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic lamented how an “intensely smart man” could wallow so thoroughly in such muckraking. Gingrich is certainly an intelligent man; he earned a PhD in history at Tulane University. So how are we to understand Gingrich’s endorsement of D’Souza’s characterization? It is not simply the case of a canny politician looking to secure his base or appeal to the baser instincts of a lunatic fringe. Ideas about colonialism and Africa are central to Gingrich’s own intellectual past and present political vision. He was, at one time, well-versed in the history of Africa and European colonial rule—an expert by academic standards. While we might dismiss D’Souza as a conservative rabble-rouser talking about race, without using the word “race,” we cannot do the same for Gingrich.
In the waning years of the 1960s, a young Newton Leroy Gingrich began conducting research for his doctoral dissertation at Tulane. His topic: a history of Belgian colonial rule and education policy in the Congo. In the introduction to his dissertation, Gingrich explains that he wants to explore the effects of European colonialism on Africa: “what kind of exploitation, for what reasons, and at what price.” Yet PhD Gingrich is not interested in the form, function, or cost of exploitation; rather he seeks to unearth the purposefully buried benefits of Belgian colonial rule in the Congo. He feels that the Congolese need to know their own past, especially the good aspects of colonialism, not just the bad. He worries that the racial, radical politics of the 1960s have distorted the role of colonialism in Africa and its impact.
Indeed, PhD Gingrich believes that Africans cannot know their history because “black xenophobia” (one can only assume he means black suspicion of the West) blinds them to the truth. Africa’s first generation of independent leaders is too focused on stoking “white man’s guilt” and shaming the West for decades of inequality, violence, and oppression. Here Gingrich’s “black xenophobia” might well be synonymous for D’Souza’s “anticolonialism.” What young Gingrich calls “black xenophobia” was actually a growing realization in Africa that in spite of hard fought independence from European rule, Africans remained beholden to the economic thirst and geopolitical machinations of former masters and new superpowers. While Gingrich worries about Africans forgetting to be fair and balanced about the colonial past, Africans were more worried about getting by in the neocolonial present.
The 1960s witnessed a domino effect of decolonization in Africa. Beginning with Ghana in 1957, colony after colony in sub-Saharan Africa began to fall. By the time young Gingrich submitted his dissertation, nearly the entire continent was free from colonial rule, with the exception of Portuguese colonies like Angola and Mozambique and black South Africans living under the yoke of apartheid. While French, British, and Belgian colonial administrators may have left, newly elected African leaders found that the influence of Europe had not dissipated. Take, for example, PhD Gingrich’s Congo. Less than six months after independence, in January 1961, Belgian and loyal Congolese forces kidnapped the democratically elected prime minister, Patrice Lumumba. They executed him, with the blessing of the American government. Belgium and the United States feared that Lumumba might restrict their access to Congolese natural resources such as copper and uranium. He might even ally his country with the Soviet Union.
The twenty-eight-year-old Gingrich bristles under the uncomfortable sensation that Europeans and the United States continued to be a destructive force in Africa. It was the late 1960s; peoples of color the world over struggled, often violently, to overthrow racial inequalities like colonialism and Jim Crow. America responded to its own internal inequalities with Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It had been a tumultuous and uncertain period of change in American history, but one that, in hindsight, helped advance notions of equality and a color-blind, gender-blind society.
What PhD Gingrich thinks of the change brought by American liberalism at home is unclear, but he certainly believes that American anticolonialism judged European colonialism too harshly. “Within the beliefs of twentieth century American liberalism, European colonialism is an unacceptable political policy,” but he wonders, “what did it mean to the natives?” He further asks, “Did colonial powers perform a painful but positive function in disrupting traditional society and so paving the way for more rapid modernization?” This is graduate student Gingrich’s guiding thesis: though it violently exploited the labor of Africans to extract natural resources for use in Europe, colonialism had the potential to bring modernity to a backward world. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
NEWT GINGRICH, meet Karl Marx. Marx also argued that European colonialism, despite its horrors, rapidly developed parts of the world like Africa. In an article for the New York Daily Tribune in 1853, Marx wrote that while British colonial rule in India “was actuated only by the vilest interests….The question is, can mankind fulfill its destiny without a fundamental revolution in the social state of Asia? If not, whatever may have been the crimes of England she was the unconscious tool of history in bringing about that revolution.” Marx had little doubt that colonialism was a system of racism, greed, and exploitation. Modernization was merely a byproduct of capitalism’s hunger for new markets, but one that inadvertently sped up the process of class formation and antagonism that would eventually bring equality. Educating Asian and African villagers, drawing them out of fields and into factories, and integrating them into the wage labor market would create the working and elite classes necessary for revolution. Temporary colonial means justified more permanent revolutionary ends.
Gingrich and Marx part ways over the issue of imperial intent. Gingrich wrote of Belgian colonialism: “The Belgians consciously sought to solve one of the great problems of our age—how to modernize a hitherto traditional society.” Unlike Marx, Gingrich claims to look beyond “white exploitation” and instead sees Belgian colonialism as a well-intentioned, “conscious” effort to improve the lives of Congolese Africans through education. This is a misinterpretation of the colonial project. Each European power had its own civilizing mission, which had an impact on the forms colonial rule took across the continent. Yet British talk of native paramountcy and French offers of assimilation hung but the thinnest veil over the true face of colonial rule—a veil that made the ugly business of empire appealing to the public at home. Gingrich takes the Belgians at their word, that their civilizing mission in Congo, their white man’s burden, was a driving force behind their efforts.
Recently, scholars have written, as Laura Seay did for the Christian Science Monitor, that “Gingrich liked colonialism.” Not exactly. PhD Gingrich did not like some of what he saw in the Belgian Congo, especially inept Belgian politicians and domineering Catholic missionaries. He also recounts the gruesome consequences of unfettered corporate interests and disinterested government at the turn of the century, when rubber companies coerced Congolese Africans to produce rubber through murder, mutilation, and enslavement. He concludes by acknowledging that the Belgian colonial project in Congo was a “nightmare.”
Graduate student Gingrich does not like colonialism. But he dislikes it because it failed; he still has faith in the promise of paternalist colonialism, if only it could be seen to completion. He believes in its modernizing power, the productive potential of a foreign government escorting a “traditional” people into the bright dawn of civilization and capitalism. And so young Gingrich sets out in search of ways that Belgian colonialism had a “painful but positive function” in the Congo. Along the way, he finds Belgian vocational education.
Since the colony was, as Gingrich calls it, a “profit-making venture,” the Belgian government, Catholic missions, and corporations trained Congolese Africans to be semi-skilled laborers. Young men became interpreters, telegraphists, road builders, mechanics, police, and postmen (Lumumba had been a postman prior to becoming prime minister). African laborers were, in a sense, the very building blocks of everyday colonial rule. The trouble with this sort of education was that young men were trained for jobs in sectors desperately needed by the colonial government and Belgian companies, then paid wages below the cost of living. The Belgian colonial classroom and the type of African labor it produced served colonial needs and corporate profits. Vocational education operated on the racist premise that peoples of color could only comprehend manual labor and strict work-time discipline; therefore, they were suited only for semi-skilled jobs. African laborers obtained a partial education, garnered low wages, and carried out backbreaking labor so Belgians could extract natural resources like uranium ore (which was sold to the United States and used in the bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) It was development for the sake of exploitation.
Gingrich sees success in this policy. To him, the trouble with Belgian colonial rule is that it did not go far enough. The Congo “had been virtually a planner’s dream,” but planners had failed to produce a highly educated class of Congolese African elites who could one day serve as politicians and bureaucrats. Gingrich naively and inexplicably complains that the Belgians never prepared Africans for the politics of self-rule. Of course, that would defeat the purpose of colonialism in the first place—unless he believes the Belgians truly intended to liberate Congolese Africans one day. Undaunted by this unlikelihood, the Tulane graduate concludes that compared to the rest of Africa, the Belgians did not do so badly, committing one of the twentieth century’s “lesser sins.”
Gingrich’s interest in “positive” Belgian policies is not just historical inquiry; he is looking to revive them to accelerate the development of independent Congo. PhD Gingrich is anxious that the new nations of the 1960s like the Congo had not developed fast enough in the handful of years since independence. Like some of his contemporaries, he worries developing nations might one day demand a share of the world’s wealth, resulting in a global conflict between Haves and Have-Nots. “American society,” he argues, “is far more threatened by the development gap than by the Chinese nuclear capability.” An answer, he believes, lies in Belgian vocational education. By resurrecting it, Congolese Africans could pull themselves out of “native backwardness” without jeopardizing the West’s continued exploitation of Congolese natural resources.
It is not too hard to reconcile PhD Gingrich of 1971 and Politico Gingrich of 2010. His younger self was aware of the limitations and failures of colonialism but was enamored of its possibilities—if only the Belgian colonial government had done more, if only it had developed more advanced educational facilities, if only they had more time. Of course, the clock ran out on colonialism because Africans fought for freedom. Maybe Politico Gingrich has his dissertation in mind when he chastises President Obama for being anticolonial. Perhaps he fears Obama might try to heal the legacies of colonial rule, address global inequalities, or worse, rethink the white man’s modernizing burden. At the very least, the dissertation shows that while we have no proof of Obama’s Kenyan, anticolonialist mindset, there is in fact evidence of Gingrich’s rather Belgian, colonialist worldview.
IF OBAMA is an anticolonialist, then what does that make Gingrich and D’Souza—colonialists? Moreover, what kind of government and foreign presence do Gingrich and D’Souza espouse—American brand imperialism? It is certainly a slippery slope for a politician like Gingrich, who has flirted with the grand designs of paternalist colonialism. As for historians like myself, there is little debate that European colonialism was engineered on principles of virulent racism, everyday coercion, political oppression, and economic exploitation. In colonial Kenya, the British prohibited African Kenyans from political participation, took their land to make way for European settlement, and isolated them in shantytowns on the outskirts of racially segregated cities. With the exception of those who benefited from such exploitation, who would not have been anticolonial in Kenya during British rule?
Come to think of it, who today is not anticolonial? D’Souza may assert that “to most Americans anticolonialism is an unfamiliar idea,” but in fact, anticolonialism is a sentiment deeply ingrained in American politics and culture.
Americans are steeped in anticolonial myth. We are a people who bristled under foreign rule and bloodied our hands for the right to govern ourselves. Every American knows the story of the American Revolution. They also know that we have often battled forms of colonialism beyond our borders. After the First World War, in part a war of competing empires, it was President Woodrow Wilson who outlined the principle of self-determination, the idea that all peoples had the same right that America had once exercised: freedom. In many ways, the Second World War was the struggle against Nazi colonization of Europe, the tenets of racialized imperialism turned on the very countries that had employed them. Some Americans might also remember the Suez Crisis in 1956, when the British, French, and Israelis invaded parts of an independent Egypt to secure the canal connecting Europe to commerce and colonies in the East. A furious President Eisenhower pressured them to withdraw. Americans most certainly have not forgotten Ronald Reagan’s 1983 speech in which he labeled the Soviet Union an “evil empire,” linking the fight against communism to Americans’ self-perception as an anticolonial people.
But as historians will tell you, for every example of American anticolonialism there are an equal number in which we, as a nation, have dabbled in empire building. As Americans battled the British for freedom along the east coast, they wiped out Native American communities to make room for settlement out West. It was a prolonged conquest lasting well into the nineteenth century. At the end of that century, the Spanish-American War granted the United States possession of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Guam, and Cuba. The acquisition of colonies sparked fears that the United States had begun to resemble an empire. Moreover, the United States has rarely had trouble overthrowing democratically elected leaders who did not share their worldview—Lumumba and Mohammed Mosaddegh of Iran come to mind. Today, the United States might not colonize far off territories as Europeans did in the early twentieth century, but it wields considerable political and military might to sustain a global economy that perpetuates many of the inequalities left unresolved after the collapse of colonialism.
It would seem Gingrich and D’Souza wish us to embrace the darker, imperial side to our history, rather than our anticolonialist spirit. We might ask: had Newt Gingrich been alive at the time of the American Revolution, where would his sympathies have lain? Would he have been a militiaman or redcoat? Likewise, had Dinesh D’Souza lived in Mumbai in 1942, would he have joined Mahatma Gandhi’s civil disobedience at Gowalia Tank?
PERHAPS THEY think we’ll fear Obama’s anticolonialism because it is of the Kenyan variety. In Kenya’s history there have been numerous occasions when African communities opposed British colonial rule. Colonialism came to Kenya in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and resistance erupted almost immediately. The Nandi people fought furiously between 1895 and 1905, angered to learn the British railway would cut through the lands on which they grazed their cattle. By the First World War, the British had subdued most Kenyan African communities, but anticolonialism did not disappear.
In the 1920s, African political organizations began protesting colonial exploitation. These groups condemned colonial practices such as forcing Africans to labor without pay, confiscating their land to give to European farmers, and requiring them to hang registration cards around their necks. The British banned political parties, arrested organizers, and handled strikes and protests with deadly force. The most famous anticolonial movement in Kenya was the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s. Young men and women took up arms against the British, demanding the return of land taken from their families for European settlement and freedom from foreign rule. In response, the British military killed tens of thousands fighters and imprisoned 150,000 men, women, and children in detention camps where many experienced hunger, disease, and torture. It was a brutal suppression of the simple desire for freedom.
It would be hard for any American to remain unsympathetic to such anticolonial resistance. Today Americans rise up in protest of eminent domain, when corporations and government try to brush us aside to build mega-malls or expand airports. Many of us vigorously oppose unfair taxation, unequal labor practices, poor working conditions, and corporate exploitation. Is this not the very inspiration of the current Tea Party movement? As Americans, we are generally wary of external forces that meddle in our lives, threaten our wellbeing, and promote inequality.
In the end, contrary to Newt Gingrich and Dinesh D’Souza’s worldviews, there is nothing foreign or exotic about the struggle to be free. Anticolonialism is something Americans and Africans have in common: a potent desire for a level playing field, a fierce sense of personal freedom, and a resolute belief that when given a chance to toil with their own two, unshackled hands, they can achieve anything. Our mutual experiences under foreign rule, though nearly two centuries apart, taught us that protecting our rights sometimes requires sacrifice. Perhaps we are really anticolonialists after all.
Paul Ocobock has a PhD in history from Princeton University. He has worked in Kenya for several years and conducts research on anticolonial movements in Africa. Special thanks to Christine Stansell and Sebastian Karchar.
Homepage Image: A mission school in Bolobo, Congo (Harry Hamilton Johnston/New York Public Library)