Marc Fennell on Colonialism and the Contradictions of Patriotism

In an interview with Roman Mars, the journalist Marc Fennell talks about his podcast Stuff The British Stole and the complexities of our interwoven historical legacies.

A big part of why I like this medium, it allows you to take the audience down the pathway that respects their intelligence, that you can hold more than one idea at once. When we look at the past, there is a tendency to either focus on the good things or only on the bad things, and my attitude particularly to colonialism is you will encounter these arguments and people will say “well, you know, if it weren’t for colonialism you wouldn’t have laws and you wouldn’t have railroads” but then at the other end of the spectrum … because of colonialism there was genocide, and there were children taken away from families, horrendous stuff.” And my attuitude to history and the thing this series taught me is that those two things don’t ever balance each other out. And they definitely don’t cancel each other out. All they do is they co-exist. And I think we as a species are smart enough to hold both those ideas at the same time. And not try to force them to balance each other out in some sort of historical weighing match. Its doesn’t work that way. And I think what’s good about stories like this is you can actually guide the audience through those things. And we emerge out the other end with a more complex understanding. Like I say to people, “I want you to stand in the mess.”

Marc Fennell, ‘Stuff thhe British Stole’ episode of the 99% Invisible podcast, 13 July 2021.

This idea of complexity and the holding of contradictory, competing ideas, is one that we encounter a lot in discussions of politics, history and culture. Fennell’s insight is not new, but it is a timely repetition of something that does, unfortunately, need repeating.

In recent months, there had been a renewed discussion of what it means to be patriotic, and who/what are the appropriate symbols of the nation. The recent Euro 2020 tournament, and the forthcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo, has caused many to suggest that our socially progressive sportsmen and women are a better reflection of the nation that the politicians and the Royal Family.

On the other hand, those who seek to draw attention to the historic abuses and atrocities of the British state, such as the Cambridge academic Priyamvada Gopal, are met with vilification.

I’ve always thought — and this is not a new insight, either — that patriotism is simply about being discerning. It is about both taking pride in the good thing’s that one’s country does or what it creates; while lamenting the bad. Acknowledging colonial atrocities of (say) Cecil Rhodes does not make me any less proud of Gareth Southgate and his team!

This feels trite to write. But it also feels like it needs to be said.

Patriotic Pride in Britsh Creativity

Along with 99% Invisible (see above) staple of my podcast diet is Song Exploder, hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway. Musicians deconstruct their songs, and explain how they were made. It’s an endlessly fascinating, ongoing statement about creativity and collaboration.

The show is American, as are most of the interviewees. But I always feel a pang of pride whenever a British voice materialises on an episode: Dua Lipa, Cat Stevens, Glass Animals, Lianne La Havas, And most recently, Arlo Parks.

This week I’ve been trying to stick a pin in just why I’m so pleased to hear my compatriots on these kinds of shows. Music is not like sport, where a replaceable, rotating roster of players compete under a national banner. Artistic achievement is sui generis and the success of a musician cannot be claimed as a success for the country. So just why is it gratifying to hear them honoured on a popular podcast?

I think it’s because I am pleased to be part of the country that has enabled them. There is plenty that’s wrong with this country, but at least we have created the conditions for this kind of human flourishing. Its possible to take pride in that whilst simultaneously acknowledging that our country could do more to help more people flourish too.

Individual success stories — be they in the realm of sport or culture — are not the pinnacle of the national journey. But they are lodestones, signalling to us that we are travelling in the right direction. It is right that we celebrate them.

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