Whatever the manifold talents of the Obama administration, there’s now general agreement that gift-giving isn’t one of them.
Hillary’s presentation of a red button to the Russian president was a corker. The legend on it was meant to say “reset” (to symbolise a fresh start in US-Russia relations) but in fact said “overload” — a glitch which only made even more unsettling the vision of a grinning Kremlin heavy pushing a big red button that someone had just pulled out of a suitcase.
But this was grace and favour itself compared to the One’s presentation to UK PM Gordon Brown, of a DVD box set of 25 classic Hollywood films, perhaps the first official diplomatic gift in history to be grabbed from a service station clearance bin during a limo refuel. As bewildered UK commentators pointed out, most of the films were available in a 100-film box set available on Amazon for £17.00. Several of them have been available as free giveaways with Sunday newspapers so Brown, being Scottish, will already have them. It could have been worse — as Jeremy Clarkson reminded us, Brown has only one working eye, so it could have been a set of 3D classics, which he would be physically unable to decipher.
The general consensus is that this latter effort was less a deliberate snub, than wonkish ineptitude at the subtle art of gift-giving, and a lack of thought as to how important symbolic exchanges are at building or reinforcing connections. Can anyone do worse? Well, yes. Step forward UK PM Gordon Brown.
Brown’s team gave Obama a pen-holder from the HMS Gannet, the first Royal Navy ship to be turned over to full-time pursuit of slave ships, after Britain outlawed the trade in 1807. That strikes me as a little odd, focusing on a relationship of dependency — slaves unable to liberate themselves, freed by the good old white man — related to the President’s colour. But it is judicious compared to that other gift, a first edition of the seven-volume official biography of Winston Churchill, by his son Randolph, and Martin Gilbert.
The gift is a bit of bloody cheek — three weeks earlier, the White House had returned to the British embassy a bust of Sir Winston that had been on loan since the 9/11 attacks, a contribution to the neocons’ cult of Churchill — an obsession made somewhat ironic by Dubya’s failure to exhibit a single one of Winne’s virtues. Why would Barack Obama return a memento of the man who saved Western Civ?
The fact that this question needs to be asked is a measure of how persistently racist our understanding of the twentieth century is — for good old Winnie a thorough-going racist (he once compared machine-gunning Sudanese natives to going out on a luncheon party) brought more death and destruction to Obama’s paternal land of Kenya than just about anyone.
In 1951, with Churchill once again prime minister, African Kenyans demanding decolonialisation were presented with a take-it-or-leave-it transition deal for a local assembly which would represent white and mixed-race Kenyans, but not full Africans — a move which made armed struggle pretty much unavoidable. The British response was to imprison more than 300,000 Kenyans in concentration camps, and unleash a campaign of brutal repression which left between 30-50,000 dead.
One of those detained during this period was one Hussein Onyango Obama, the President’s grandfather, who was tortured for information. Churchill’s addled policy of clinging to the maps pink bits also caused pointless death and delay in Guyana and Malaya. What better gift to give the western world’s first black-white, north-south leader than a life of the last great racialist imperialist?
Couldn’t Brown have found a better gift, one neither patronising nor offensive? And one from the progressive, rather than conservative tradition? What about a framed copy of the 1860s declaration by Manchester trade unions that they wouldn’t process any raw materials originating from the Confederate South? That move — solidarity not patronage — helped destroy any chance the Confederates had of winning the Civil War, and prompted a letter of thanks from President Lincoln, which celebrated the moral backbone of the labour movement.
Trouble is, such industrial action today would be illegal under laws introduced by Margaret Thatcher and maintained by Blair and Brown. And in any case, the Churchill gift may speak truer than anyone knows. For Obama’s grandfather was first imprisoned not in 1951, but in 1949 when the Attlee Labour government were in power — and they weren’t much more committed to African decolonialisation than the Tories. Maybe the Churchill volumes were a subtle reminder that we are all imperialists now — after all Iraq and Afghanistan were the places where colonial control through aerial bombing and chemical warfare were first experimented with in the 1920s by … Winston Churchill.
It’s a funny old world … unless you’re a fuzzy-wuzzy.