Simon Doubleday July 2, 2016

Sicily / London: thinking about violence and empire  

Earlier this week, I walked through the heart of post-Brexit, pro-Remain, cosmopolitan London to the Sicily: culture and conquest exhibit at the British Museum. I had only an hour to spend there, so I sped through the exhibition rooms devoted to antiquity, fast-forwarding to the Middle Ages. Like other visitors, I admired the artistic brilliance of that world, where Byzantine, Norman, Italian, Muslim and Jewish converged to generate some of the most awe-inspiring works of the medieval Mediterranean. I read with a strange sense of familiarity the claims that Sicily was a place where “the unique mix of peoples gave rise to an extraordinary cultural flowering”. But I also thought about the ‘conquest’ of the exhibition’s title, the violent dimensions of colonialism, and their resonance in London, in the summer of 2016.

The exhibition organizers have done their best to suggest that Sicily was a model of ‘tolerance’, and reviewers of the exhibition have echoed the sentiment. The Guardian, rightly opining that the court of Frederick II witnessed “a Renaissance before the Renaissance”, reports optimistically that Sicily was “the most liberal culture of the middle ages”. But the words ‘tolerance’ and ‘liberal’ are misplaced. The Normans subscribed to a warrior ethos, hierarchical and intensely militarized, in which—in Sicily as elsewhere—cultural diversity was an untheorized byproduct.

Despite the organizers’ insistence on the uniqueness of Sicily, the ‘tolerance’ claim is often made for medieval Spain, too. Neither Spain nor Sicily was unique; both were remarkable arenas for cultural convergence, or ‘hybridity’. This hybridity was born from wave upon wave of aggressive colonialism. In both places, a cultural revitalization was made possible by violent imperial expansion. Scholars of medieval Spain generally distance themselves from the suggestion that this society witnessed a ‘culture of tolerance’. If it was a place of cosmopolitan intermixing, this intermixing took place in the frame of repeated North African conquests of Iberia, and later Castilian and Aragonese military expansion south and east to the Mediterranean. The resulting hybridity would long survive the early modern Spanish obsession—as absurd as it was brutal—with racial purity, taking on new forms in the ‘Golden Age’ of transatlantic empire. This supposed Golden Age–the age of Lazarillo de Tormes, of street children begging on the streets of Toledo–also marked a new apex of class injustice in Spain.

The Sicily exhibition, wrote the Guardian reviewer, “invites you to rethink Britain’s own history and heritage”. It does indeed invite us to think, not only (blandly) about ‘multiculturalism’, but quite specifically about our own violent imperial past, and its legacies. In the modern world, as well as the medieval, hybrid cultures have been a by-product of colonization. The armed and violent colonial settlement of North America brought new forms of culture into being, while dislocating and often erasing indigenous cultures; the principle of religious toleration in the United States has always been accompanied by discrimination against subordinate ethnic groups. Similarly, we have heard a great deal this week about British traditions of tolerance—but racial and class violence have just as long a history there. The hybrid face of the UK today is a legacy of the ebb tide of empire; so are its latent xenophobia and its toxic brands of patriotism, easily whipped up by sectors of the monied British establishment.

Some commentators have seen the Brexit vote as a reflection of imperial nostalgia. More precisely, it seems to reflect the continuing ability of the British elite to exploit patriotic sentiment, in order to disguise the real causes of economic crisis. Class divisions, reflected partly in differing access to university education, continue to shape the bitter divisions on Brexit, informing both the vote itself and reactions to the vote. The violence on which past British ‘greatness’ rested, and the inequalities that always accompanied that greatness, are conveniently forgotten.

Yesterday, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, we were reminded of the violence inherent in empire: violence inflicted on the poor (in the form of a callous indifference to their lives), as well as on imperial rivals and colonized peoples. By all means, let us work for an inclusive Europe, embracing tolerance, hybridity, and cosmopolitanism, inspired by the creative possibilities of the past. But we should also remain aware of how myths of liberal tolerance and exceptionalism (whether in Sicily, Spain, or Britain) can romanticize the past, papering over violent imperial histories and long-lasting class divisions.