Twitter war with Rutger Bregman

On June 14 2020, my article in the NRC (Dutch newspaper) critiqued Rutger Bregman, the historian and author celebrity on his "new" story in The Guardian 'The real lord of the Flies' that got much attention in these recent weeks and has resulted in a movie deal.

What really provoked me to write this article was that Bregman touts himself as the architect for a more humane, more kind and more compassionate future for society. Instead, in his visions for a more hopeful Humankind which rests on "friendship and loyalty," he perpetuates the white savior narrative. His story comes with an alarming myopic worldview of race relations, decontextualized from the colonial past. Sadly, with him at the helm of scripting this narrative for the New Regency film company, we have on hand yet another GreenBook movie. 

In a nutshell, he romanticizes a real world incident between some Tongan boys and a rich Australian sailor in the 1960s and frames it as evidence of how people are innately good. While I look at the same story that he celebrates and see astounding levels of naivety on power relations, with an unconscionable criminalizing of boys for petty crime. This comes at a time where the world is experiencing global protests on institutionalized racism. So the stakes are high as leaders are looking to be guided on how to reform these systems. With Bregman at the helm, this worries me tremendously as he continues to demonstrate a complete inability to comprehend the colonial underpinnings of such systems of control, and this coming from a historian unable to process history written not by the victors.

So at this point, it is worth reading my NRC article in dutch or in English to get the context here. When the articles got released, there was much discussion on the NRC website and on twitter. What was interesting is how Bregman engaged me on that platform. He was obsessed with me being careless about the "facts" of the story, that I haven't done my own research and that I did not know the relationship between the Tongan boys and the Australian savior. It is ironic that for a man who is obsessed about getting the "facts" right, he was completely oblivious of the colonial history in this region. For instance, he did not see any connect with the missionaries in Tonga and the power dynamics in the Tongan society. He is baffled that I even link the two as he stated in one of his tweets to me - "so you think the influence of the church caused the Tongan boys to be arrested by Tongan agents for stealing the boat?" 

There is a violent history of missionaries going off to the "savage lands" to civilize the people and this was a moral justification for the highly profitable slave trade and colonial project of empire building in Tonga. I myself am a product of missionary schooling in India which was deeply traumatizing; so imagine what it was like then for these Tongan boys in the 1960s. Bregman further remarked in another tweet that the Tongan boys were put under lock and key by the Tongan police and not by white police, arguing that clearly then its not about race. And moreover, he argues, there were few white people there at that time,implying that surely its not a race-relation story. I responded with the following tweets:

Please stop simplifying institutionalized racism. If you read the colonial history, the role of the missionary, the common framing of the times of non-white people as animals, sub-humans, barbarians & more, its a composite that make a resilient racist system

This is exactly the argument about colonialism. The Wesleyan Mission (very much an extension of the colonial ideology and indoctrination) was well established in Tonga. I am from India & it was ruled by a small lot of British folk over 2 centuries in spite of our vast population. 

I'm not talking about the persons but the systems. When a black cop arrests a black person it still is about a racially biased system.

Bregman's other tirades on twitter was rather bizarre as he defended himself by saying how he had signed a movie deal where he, the Tongan survivors, and the rich Australian sailor share the profits equally (so celebrate him for treating the Tongans equally?) or that he acknowledged and shared the critique by the Tongans of him with me (so thereby again celebrate him for being able to acknowledge his mistakes?) Him overlooking the entire Tongan history, culture and politics is not a "mistake" but rather the default practice and approach that gets reproduced. Institutionalized racism persists because we are unable to move from mistakes to reform. 

Anyway, this has been a learning moment for me as I realize the kind of uphill battle we have in reforming institutions by questioning the very logic that structures them. If our utopian man Bregman can be so tone deaf to the long standing power dynamics that have shaped such systems of control in society, it is no wonder that people have taken to the streets, refusing to be filtered through the likes of Bregman.