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The following is an excerpt from The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations, by Mark Milke, published by Thomas & Black, 2019. Milke, PhD., is an independent policy analyst, author of six books, and dozens of studies published in Canada and the United States.
Appropriating the British in Hong Kong
When I first visited Hong Kong in 2013, almost every politician, civil servant, and business leader I met emphasized three priorities they wanted the territory to retain vis-à-vis the regime in Beijing: 1) capitalism; 2) the rule of law, including the British legal code; and 3) Hong Kong’s strong anti- corruption stance that dated from reforms in the 1970s.
I was in the territory on business for a think tank, to check on how Hong Kong planned to retain its lead in providing economic freedom to its citizens. For decades, the territory, whether under the British who left in 1997 or even under the Chinese government, was the premiere economic dynamo of East Asia. Hong Kong had prospered through a combination of good policy and benign neglect when the British were in charge. Successive governors and civil servants under the British chose the framework for capitalism; it was in contrast to the socialist drudge imposed in Great Britain in the post-war world until the government of Margaret Thatcher arrived in 1979. Luckily for those living in the territory, while the United Kingdom was enduring self-inflicted poverty, London seemed to neither notice nor interfere in the experiment in East Asia.
Hong Kong’s prosperous rise is now legendary; but what struck me about the three priorities was how, in interactions with politicians and civil servants over two decades of policy work, their equivalents in Canada never mentioned those as priorities, much less articulated them as critical. Yet here was a Confucian-based culture, composed mostly of non-British and non-Europeans, who understood and valued the most consequential, positive aspects of the British legacy. Relevant to debates in the West over colonialism and ongoing allegations of imperial guilt, Hong Kong’s leaders were uninterested in such sensitivities but the opposite: They wanted critical vestiges of past British colonialism and ideas strengthened, not abandoned. To wit, in 2019, when Hong Kong protesters rallied against even more interference from Beijing, protesters in Hong Kong raised a British flag.
In the West, to understate it, pro- “appropriation,” pro-British, and pro- colonial sentiment is not popular among the chattering classes. From some college students to many in academia and a plethora of those in journalism, politics, and business and more than a few leaders in Canada’s aboriginal community, Western civilization writ large is assumed to be the cause of multiple ills. Complaints range from American college students who rage about institutional racism (long outlawed) to the faulty cause-and-effect links for why remote reserves are poor and beset by tragic pathologies and from those who, along with the others, mistakenly see established Western norms and ideas as inimical to human flourishing.
In Canada, the authors of the 2015 truth and reconciliation report and the 2019 report into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls are in anti-Western civilizational sync with the anti-Western college protest-culture. Both reports were clear that for any poor statistic and tragedy spotted among aboriginal peoples today, Western civilization and those who represent it, alive or dead, are to blame. In assigning responsibility for various enunciated ills, the truth and reconciliation report cited Europeans 65 times; “white” in 86 places; culture or cultural 403 times; education (as in examples of past harm or the need to re-educate Canadians) 498 times; and church, churches or Christianity in 633 instances. Genocide was also referenced 31 times. The commissioners also demanded that the Pope apologize. Similarly, in the 2019 report, “Christian” was mentioned in 52 spots, “European” in 82 references, “genocide” in 509 instances, and “colonization” or “colonial” 678 times. “Aboriginal men” or “indigenous men” were mentioned just 35 times, and then most often to argue they too were modern-day victims of colonialists.
The 2015 report was blunt that its central conclusion could be “summarized simply: The main policy direction, pursued for more than 150 years, first by colonial then by Canadian governments, has been wrong.” Note that the argument was not that selected policies were wrong and racist but the “main policy direction” was—i.e., everything up to and including the present day. The various authors instead were convinced that Western civilization—ill-defined to conceivably include every variance from the British to the French, German, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch empires, which the British themselves would oppose—were all lumped together in one anti-Western narrative of blame.
The totality of anti-Western grievances is now obvious in our public squares. In Canada, statues of British historical figures have been removed with increasing regularity: The city of Halifax removed its founder’s statue, of Edward Cornwallis in 2018, after demands by local First Nations because Cornwallis, as was the brutal practice at the time by all sides, offered rewards for scalps. This was horrific, but as Peter Shawn Taylor wrote at the time of the statue’s removal in 2017, “Recent academic research shows both French and British colonial governments paid for scalps long before Cornwallis landed in Halifax. And many Indigenous peoples were ‘lifting the hairs’ of their enemies for centuries before that.”
In Victoria, in 2019, a statue of Canada’s first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, near City Hall was removed, given his 19th-century views on race and for the promotion of residential schools (though 70% of Canadians opposed the removal). Five years earlier, Mayor-Elect Lisa Helps (the mayor who would later preside over Macdonald’s removal) refused to swear allegiance to Queen Elizabeth II in a city itself named after another monarch in a province where the flag contains elements of the British flag.
In the United States, on the Columbus Day long weekend in 2017, New York City’s finest were assigned to guard not the president, a visiting dignitary, nor a Hollywood celebrity but a statue—a seventy-six-foot-tall figure at the Manhattan traffic circle, named after the 15th-century Italian explorer, Christopher Columbus. The reason for the on-guard order: vandalism of other Columbus statues in recent years. Those included one in Central Park with its hands painted red, symbolic of the assumed blood-guilt asserted by activists; in Baltimore, where a Columbus statue was attacked with a sledgehammer; in Detroit, where a hatchet was sunk into Columbus’s head.
The attacks on MacDonald and Columbus and what they represent—the arrival of the British and Europeans—are surface examples of a now-familiar trend: the claim of victimhood due to a real or assumed historical wrong. Any nuance about clashing civilizations and not only the harm but useful, positive ideas and cultural transfers that can result—the Hong Kong example as a real-time exhibit—are lost in what is now a simplistic black-and-white, good-versus-evil caricature of human history.
From The Victim Cult: How the culture of blame hurts everyone and wrecks civilizations. Published by Thomas & Black. Copyright 2019 by Mark Milke. Foreword by Ellis Ross.