An Indian politician drew robust applause from the Q&A audience when comparing Winston Churchill to “some of the worst genocidal dictators of the 20th century” because of his role in a catastrophic famine in Bengal.
Shashi Tharoor’s emphatic critique of British rule in India resonated during a discussion in which global thinkers and authors debated the moral status of the west and responses to racial, gender and economic inequality in the era of Donald Trump.
The Indian diplomat-turned author and opposition MP also told the ABC show, broadcast from the Melbourne Writers Festival, that the world might have to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea, and that the non-proliferation treaty of superpowers was “the last existence of apartheid in international law”.
Tharoor said while Kim Jong-un was a “Stalinist dictator putting his people in great misery and poverty”, his bellicose pursuit of a nuclear arsenal in defiance of Trump’s threats appeared a “rational” form of “insurance against regime change” given what happened to Saddam Hussein.
The American founder of the Muslim Girl website, Amani Al-Khatahbeh, said portrayals of the oppression of Muslim women, including “honour killings”, were a “byproduct of our own exceptionalism” in countries such as the US and Australia, where domestic violence was a leading killer of women.
Michael Fullilove, the executive director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, disagreed with the idea that “because we have frailties as a society, therefore we shouldn’t be calling out human rights abuses abroad”.
The British writer Laurie Penny said progressives should not moderate their voices to accommodate the populist right backlash that gave rise to Trump’s successful campaign for the US presidency.
“I think this is when we go harder, because ultimately you can’t do feminism, you can’t do anti-racism, you can’t do any kind of progressive politics if your first objective is to make the other side feel comfortable,” she said.
When an audience member said she began to question her own “hardline progressive view” out of concerns about “ignoring or alienating” those on the right after Trump won, Penny replied: “Donald Trump is not your fault … Donald Trump is the fault of racists and sexists.”
Penny rejected host Tony Jones’s suggestion that Trump had a kernel of an argument that antifa protestors were not blameless by being armed and violent in clashes with neo-Nazi demonstrators in the US city of Charlottesville last month.
She said white nationalists in the US had killed four people this year, while “antifa smashed windows and tore down statues: there is a moral difference”.
Fullilove said it was a “tragedy” that Trump’s failure to promptly condemn the neo-Nazis at Charlottesville was now linked to “moral blindness”, where the city had once been linked to “moral clarity” through Franklin D. Roosevelt’s denunciation of fascism.
Tharoor said Churchill’s veneration as a heroic British wartime leader and defender of freedom was miscast in light of his complicity in diverting food stocks from India amid widespread starvation. He noted Churchill’s orders applied to Australian ships bearing wheat at Indian docks.
“This is a man the British would have us hail as an apostle of freedom and democracy, when he has as much blood on his hands as some of the worst genocidal dictators of the 20th century,” Tharoor said to applause.
His expansive account of British colonial exploitation and destruction of time-honoured Indian industries such as textiles, reducing it to “a poster child of third world poverty” by the time the British left in 1947 was also well-received.
Tharoor said the “excuse that apologists [of British empire] like to make is, it’s not our fault, you just missed the bus for the industrial revolution”.
“Well, we missed the bus because you threw us under its wheels,” he said, again to applause.
Penny said that “young Britons of every class have no idea about our colonial past” as the “graphic facts of what the British did around the world, including to the people of this country” had been deliberately concealed from them.
“The crimes of the British over 400 years of pillage and conquest is something that we don’t like to think about and yet it is everywhere in modern British history,” she said.
Penny said it was “stunning to me” that the major fear among Brexit supporters seemed to be that “people will come to our country and take our things”.
“It doesn’t compute. We don’t know this history,” she said.
Al-Khatahbeh said there was a tendency to look at women in Muslim countries through “an inferior lens, [by which] we in our countries disempower [them] even further”.
“We speak about them like we know what’s best for them. You know, yeah, we just had Pauline in the parliament wearing a burqa and really just hijacking an entire conversation about what that means,” she said.
“It’s really funny to me about how even in countries where we pride ourselves on individual liberties, on knowing what liberation means, what freedom means, we still get hung up on the way women choose to dress. Why does the conversation … stop there?”
Al-Khatahbeh said that “when you look at countries like Australia, like the United States, the top killer of women is domestic violence … but we choose to speak about it like it’s a social issue and of course often really disregard it.”
“But then when it happens in other countries, it’s an honour killing, it’s disgusting, it’s backwards, it’s inhumane – right?
“Really what I’m speaking to is that this is all symptomatic of patriarchy, which is a global phenomenon.”
The Dutch historian Rutger Bregman said he worried that the left was sometimes preoccupied with “debates about symbols” with less time spent tackling “structural” problems of inequality.
Bregman, a noted proponent of a universal basic income (UBI), an unconditional “monthly grant to pay for food, shelter and clothing”, said the idea was an example of how the left could rethink its strategy.
The UBI, which Bregman argued was cheaper for government to bankroll than to allow poverty to flourish, showed how you could “use right-wing business language to defend progressive ideals”.
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