Irish President Michael D. Higgins—also known as "Miggledy" by the children—is perhaps best known for having an awesome dog. But he's also a renowned poet, sociologist, and human rights activist. In a recent piece for The Guardian, Higgins wrote quite eloquently about the legacy of British colonialism:
It may be fruitful to consider the relationship of what has been titled – and not without dissent – the "European Enlightenment" within the project of imperial expansion for an understanding of how the mask of modernity has been used for cultural suppression, economic exploitation, dispossession and domination.
Such consideration also helps explain a reluctance in former imperial powers to engage now with their imperialist past and to examine that past with descendants of those previously colonised, many of whom still live with the complex legacies of that colonialism.
As I reflect on the instincts of those who have defended imperialism, I can see how the tool of an alleged "progressive modernity" could be so effective. Those on the receiving end of imperialist adventurism were denied cultural agency, assumed to be incapable of it, and responsible for violence towards the "modernising" forces directed at them.
But anti-imperialist struggles weren't free of the traits of empire either. They also at times lacked a consciousness of class exploitation.
At its core, imperialism involves the making of a number of claims that are invoked to justify its assumptions and practices – including its inherent violence. One of those claims is the assumption of superiority of culture and it is always present in the imperialising project. Forcing an acceptance on those subjugated of the inferiority of their culture as a dominated Other is the reverse side of the coin.
Injustices perpetrated in the name of imperialism, and in resistance to it, often had a brutalising effect, leaving a bitter residue of pain and resentment, sometimes passed down through generations and left available to those willing to reignite inherited grievances.
While Higgins is writing specifically about the post-Brexit future as it relates to the Ireland (both the Republic, and the island), his comments can just as easily apply to any colonized country or culture. It's refreshing to see a world leader speaking so bluntly about these atrocities, while also embracing the potential for healing and reconciliation. Hopefully, people actually listen.
Empire shaped Ireland's past. A century after partition, it still shapes our present [Michael D. Higgins / The Guardian]
Image: Conor Ó Mearáin / Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)