What is there to say about the “Princess of North Sudan” that isn’t already so incredibly soul-killingly obvious that it feels embarrassingly superfluous to say it? That it’s racist and stupid? Yes, obviously. I mean, are you kidding me? You cannot not be kidding me. You have to be kidding me.
It’s like condemning blackface. If you even have to say it, if you have to articulate the actual words, then are we even having the same conversation? Are we even a “we”? What are we even talking about? It feels insane to even have the conversation. We should be better than this. “We” should recognize that massively encouraging and indulging a child’s childish desire to be a princess by trying to invent a country in Africa is not only terrible, weird parenting—and seriously, good luck to that kid in growing up—but it also represents an absolutely bizarre and oblivious repetition of literally centuries of violent oppression. Man going to great lengths to make his daughter happy is sort of a good look, I guess; white guy showing up in an “unclaimed” part of Africa, with a flag, to start a country and make himself King of it? LESS SO.
So what do you say about such a person? What the hell do you say? Where do you even start?
The only thing more useless than calling it racist and terrible is not calling it racist and terrible, I suppose, which is my way of explaining why I needed to barf up this blog post. And yet the toxic sickness of the cultural imaginary that feeds these fantasies—that makes us hungry for them—is not something you can name and shame, precisely because it’s so normal. We are not better than this, first and foremost, if only because there is no “we.” There is only a repertoire of texts and stories and fantasies that help us imagine who it is that “we” might be, and so many of the white ones, so many of the white senses of the first person plural, are predicated on the exclusion of other senses of we. If whiteness is the desire to produce an us by excluding a them, then of course a white guy with a weakness for arrogant self-delusion is going to set up his daughter as a princess in Africa. It is and he will. But it’s an equally self-congratulatory delusion to imagine that “we” are actually better than this, that “we” are post-racial, that imperialism was a thing that “they” used to believe in, but which “we’ve” put behind us. We have seen the enemy and it’s still us.
As a normative claim, in other words, “we should be better than this” is actually part of the problem, because it only demonstrates the extent to which we aren’t a “we” at all. “We” know that colonialism is over, and “we” understand that a white guy indulging monarchical fantasies on a putatively “blank slate” that he found in Africa is, at best, sort of like planning a safari-themed or plantation-themed wedding and then being defensively pleased with yourself for not actually requiring the waiters to wear blackface. Which happens, constantly, predictably. At best, it represents a level of oblivious self-assertion that reminds you why parent-age white men have been such a problem population for centuries: the amount of arrogant entitlement required to show up in Africa with a flag and declare yourself to be both the new King and also the savior because of Western science or something—on the basis of the fact that no one else has “called it” already, no take-backs—is a toxic brain sickness that has historically correlated with white skin, even if it isn’t a causative genetic link.
Beneath the astounding madness of this guy’s project is the fact that these kinds of imperialist fantasies are so easy to indulge, and that they find such a quick and easy purchase in white minds (which is to say, minds that insist on being white by taking something like this seriously). It tells you something that Disney is not only not better than this, but hired a screenwriter to write the movie who insists that the movie is not about what it is obviously about. But underneath the craziness of this project—a craziness produced by our insistence that it’s SO crazy, that normal people like us would never think this was remotely okay—there is the fact that none of this is actually surprising or crazy. This guy is trying to do what his culture has programmed him to do: he is performing patriarchal whiteness using the convenient props provided by “Africa” as a space of negation. If your heroes are George Washington and Winston Churchill, then this is the sort of thing you are likely to do.
As crazy-making as the existence of this guy and his Indigogo campaign are, Jeremiah Heaton has done us the marvelous favor of demonstrating how crazy-making the history of the last few centuries still is. Jeremy Heaton didn’t set up the borders of Sudan and Egypt so that both countries specifically un-claim the patch of land called Bir Tawil; Jeremy Heaton didn’t draw the borders of these nation-states in schizophrenic contradictions. That was Great Britain that did that, and the United Nations that has, for sixty-odd years (very odd years), insisted on pretending that those arbitrary lines in the sand are somehow sacred. In a world where nearly every African nation is stuck with the absolutely arbitrary and nonsensical fantasy-borders imposed on them, by white men a century ago, normality is already thoroughly defined by the leftover remnants of Jeremy Heaton’s predecessors. And it’s crazy-making!
In such a world, nothing is so unsurprising and unremarkable as a white man playing King of Africa through his daughter, nor the fact that Disney would take a look at this story and see their kind of story being told. Where do you think this seven-year old girl got the idea that she should want to be a princess? Americans love saying that we are an anti-monarchical country almost as much as we love pretending to be kings and princesses. We just don’t do it here. After all, where, in a Democracy, can you be a princess? Where can real patriarchal power be indulged? Only in pantomime and play. Only in pretend. Only in the past. Only out there. Space solves the problem of time: outside of our Democracy, “out there” in mythical places like Africa and the Orient, you can pretend to be doing it for real, because and to the extent that you can pretend those places are not actually real places, or are lodged in a time before modernity. They can become blank slates for white imagination, white fantasy, because and to the extent that you can imagine that no one lives there, or if they do, that they’re not like us (and need help becoming like us). Because and if they are imaginary—mere images—you can imagine that you are real, that you are really living up to your image of what you really are. This is what Jeremy Heaton has been programmed by his toxic culture to imagine he and his daughter should do.
Put simply, what makes a story like this so unsurprising—and how inevitable it is that the old imperial geographies will get used, in the present, to project fantasies of domination that might otherwise be awkward for American white people to indulge in America“Awkward” in a sort of do it but don’t talk about it way.—are the expectations for personhood that are baked into normative whiteness, a rancid calzone of aristocratic desires that children are fed from the moment they’re old enough to understand. After all, why wouldn’t a (white) child want to be a princess? Why wouldn’t she expect that this is a thing to aspire to be? And why wouldn’t a (white) father feel the need to give this to her? “This” being an aristocratic privilege of command and a bloodline-based superiority; “this” being the expectation that patriarchal love be expressed by leaving a despotism to your child. If these are things we teach children to want, things we have taught ourselves to expect, it’s because we never really reconstructed this racist country; a Georgia-born Virginian like Jeremy Heaton can unashamedly parade his desire to own an Africa, so that his daughter can inherit an Africa, because we live in a crazy-making racist country that insists Democracy and Chattel slavery were ever, in some sense, compatible. That’s what happens when your Declaration of Independence was written by a slave owner, and that’s what happened when we pretended the whole thing wasn’t therefore totally delegitmized.
That was tragedy, though; this is farce. For centuries, the global economy was built on the violently expropriated labor, land, and lives of non-white people, in very clear and direct and brutal and vicious ways. It was not subtle. White people owned black people and Africa, not because it made any sense, but because those white people would shoot you if you disagreed with them, and they did, a lot. The human tragedy produced by this violence for centuries is vastly beyond human comprehension. But then, we also try really hard not to comprehend it, we white people who think white is an okay thing to be; we close the book on it and insist on moving on, looking forward, not back. Mistakes were made by those white people, but we white people are different white people. That’s why Jeremy Heaton can come along with a hilariously literal-mindedness and imagine that repeating the past is a thing that’s not crazy. Because what is he doing but playing out the childish fantasies that his honored predecessors played out, and are still honored for playing? If you refuse to acknowledge the tragedy, you will make yourself a farce. White people who think that “white people” is an identity you can inhabit without being defined by centuries of violence—who bristle at words like “privilege” because it makes whiteness tangible and visible—are a joke without a punch line, just a punch in the mouth if you laugh.
And yet: Jeremy Heaton is more a scandal than a threat. He’s just a guy with delusions and enough money to play them out. Disney is another story, but for different reasons; they have a lot more money, but they confie themselves to the cultural realm, which is a different category of damage. But ultimately, there’s a limited amount of damage that this buffoon can do. Historically, when a white guy with a flag showed up somewhere at a place and called it “terra nullius,” the problem was that he tended, thereafter, to systematically kill everybody who lived there. Terra Nullius was a euphemism for genocide, historically, because calling the land “uninhabited” was a way to pretend you hadn’t just murdered that lie into coming true. But Jeremy Heaton came along at the wrong time to become a genocidaire; like so many clueless white buffoons, he’s much more likely to get used by Egypt and Sudan than he is to cause any real damage. His project is a clusterfuck, but he’s just a tourist with a case of bad nostalgia. He’s not going to shoot people.
Other people are, however. Farce follows tragedy because violence does not leave the world unchanged. There is no more slavery and no more colonialism; today’s rapaciously exploitative capitalism takes different forms. But while those who insist on mindlessly repeating the past make themselves into a spectacle, unconscious self-parody—and Jeremy Heaton has been almost uniformly mocked because this is not the sort of thing we do anymore—the fact that he is a spectacle is also because the capitalist world has found much more efficient and boring ways of expropriating labor, land, and lives. His are unfashionable, like blackface: the modern world has new and improved methods of dehumanizing and exploiting black people.
Put simply, Jeremy Heaton is an anachronism because if you want to make a lot of money by throwing Africans off their land or exploiting their very cheap labor, all you have to do is cut a deal with their governments, who do the hard work of murder and discipline themselves. This point needs to be underscored, because it’s not unrelated to global white supremacy, but it’s not the same, either: Africans being pushed off their land by agro-business (or being put to work on land which is no longer theirs) is as likely to be done at the behest of Saudi capital or Chinese, and the hand holding the gun and giving the order is likely to be black (though there’s always a white man in there somewhere, getting his cut). But Bir Tawil is a sideshow compared to the land expropriations and violent exploitation of routine global capitalism. The big land-grabs that have been accelerating, since about 2008, are utterly normal, utterly unspectacular, business as usual, and they’re so enormous that something like Heaton’s little project is just a hilarious little joke. Millions of hectares being sold are today’s economic tragedy (or one of them, rather), but the mismatch in scale is staggering. I won’t summarize this Oxfam report, because you can pick a page and see for yourself; or click a few of these links, taken from the Stop Africa Land Grab website:
- Ethiopia: Thousands driven out in land grab
- The New Land Grab in Africa – An Alarming Scramble for the Continent Is On
- Ethiopia: Govt Forcing Thousands Off Land
- Understanding Land Investment Deals in Africa
- African Farms In Corporate Cross Hairs
- Land Grabs Threaten African Food Security Says World Watch
- Ethiopia forces thousands off land – Human Rights Watch
- Hedge funds ‘grabbing land’ in Africa
- US Investors and Universities Join the Land Rush in Africa
- US Universities in Africa Land Grab
- Land Grab or Development Opportunity?
- Land grab in Africa – Emerging land system drivers in a teleconnected world. GLP Report
- What is wrong with renting out
- Africa Succumbs to Colonial Style Land Grab
- World Bank Policies “enabling” African Land Grab
- Madagascar Future Entreprises
- Millions of dollars due to be invested in rice production and processing in Mozambique’s Zambézia province
- The Zambezi Valley: China’s first agricultural colony?” Fiction or fact?
- Pigs and protection money: German farmers seek their fortunes in Russia
- Liberia among top 5 countries giving farmland to foreigners
We white people can and should be humiliated by the fact that Jeremy Heaton is able to get as much play out of this lunacy as he is, because he’s reminding us of what it means to be white, wtill. He’s playing by the rules of a game we haven’t repudiated, even if we might sometimes flatter ourselves that we have. But white-guy-with-a-flag-and-a-dream is an old game, one that might occasionally experience a revival, but one which isn’t coming back. Jeremy Heaton is toxic backwash from a cultural imaginary that hasn’t purged itself of the poison. But he’s only as dangerous as a Disney movie, not armed with a gun. And other people are, people who don’t need to crowd-source their dreams of empire.