This week, the very peculiar “branding” statement of a restaurant was shared widely by internet. British Colonial Co had claimed on its website that it was inspired by the UK’s “empirical push”. People were incredulous, as they should have been. Not only had this place set up shop in Brisbane, a city founded on colonial massacre, but it had mauled the language of empire.
It’s not “empirical” but “imperial”! “Empirical” means “coming to a conclusion by observing things”. And, if you’d done that, you wouldn’t have made a website that was always gonna pith people off.
Anyhow. It is not our work today to talk about word usage or racism. These are enormous topics, discussed marvellously by others on this site. Instead, we are going to take a brief tour of the history of doing dumb stuff. British Colonial Co’s misuse of other people’s oppression for the purposes of leisure is not the first.
We can’t say how far back in time the practice of “celebrating” hard times goes. Probably for as long as some people have had more than others. But, let’s start with that notable moment in 1783 when Marie Antoinette commanded the construction of the Hameau de la Reine. It was here in this “rustic” “hamlet” that old big hair spent hours pretending she was Just A Simple Milkmaid. The queen, so famously ignorant of the poverty of her subjects, ponced about like a peasant, pretending that such a life was pleasure. Later, her head was chopped off. Which should serve as historical warning to anyone who wears “distressed” denim: don’t pretend to revel in the life of the impoverished.
It was in nineteenth century Britain that the practice of “slumming” became popular among the leisure class. The well-to-do, who had been visiting the brothels of Whitechapel in any case, formalised their fascination for people who were living in a sewer. For a fee, a toff could spend a night in an “authentically” terrible boarding house. This practice, which was a mix of Charles Dickens-style compassion with pure rubber-necking, soon reached the Americas. In 1884, a headline in the New York Times ran “Slumming in this town: a fashionable London mania”. The tenements that housed Jews, blacks and Chinese immigrants became thrilling entertainment for the elites.
The queen, so famously ignorant of the poverty of her subjects, ponced about like a peasant, pretending that such a life was pleasure. Later, her head was chopped off.
At around this time, the “Bohemian” aesthetic became popular and the practice of using “ethnic” fabrics in a white home would not quit. Shabby chic decorating that paired “something I picked up for a bob” with fine crockery was a bourgeois mid-century practice we can see reflected in the IKEA catalogues of the present. Today, the fauxhemian hipster takes his meal at an “authentic” food truck, of the sort his mother had him avoid until his later teens. Street food. It’s so “colourful”.
Actually, when I was a kid, we used to call rich people who seized the culture of the poor and dispossessed “trustafarian”. The nineties was a really big decade for theft from those who already had nothing, and I remember being particularly annoyed by the success of the musical Rent. It was like: we are not going to give you the therapy you need to survive, but we will give you an inspiring musical that you cannot attend about love in the time of virus.
When people take pain and turn it into pleasure, they don’t always mean badly. When a compassionate dame from Knightsbridge crossed town to see the poverty of her sisters, she probably had pure intentions. When the One Per Cent vacations in a “shanty town” experience in South Africa, it probably does so in queenly innocence. When a fashion-crazed kid buys pre-ruined sneakers for $600, they are probably not thinking through the implications of “celebrating” the actually shoeless.
But, even if you’re a decent person to whom the thought of actually disrespecting others does not occur, the thrill that you are seeking is still determined by a world of disadvantage. Your own life might feel like it needs an injection of “danger”, and you seek it in a safe and distant form. You buy a song from Macklemore.
Having nothing is not a thrill. Actually, it is, like Macklemore, pretty boring. The only thrilling thing is the sense of theft you have when you steal an item produced in the bosom of nothing.
This is not to say that you should stop dressing like a drug addict, eating food in “authentic” Chinese containers or decorating your home with items from factories and ghettoes of the past. Even if you did, the world would still be largely dressed in a pile of authentic rags. It is, however, to say that if you do these things, and put them on your website, someone might be provoked into thinking about guillotines. This is just, ahem, a “heads up”.