Saturday, October 22, 2016

Keally McBride's "Mr. Mothercountry"

Keally McBride is Professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco. Her books include Collective Dreams: Political Imagination and Community, Punishment and Political Order, and with Margaret Kohn, Political Theories of Decolonization: Postcolonialism and the Problem of Foundations.

Here McBride dreamcasts an adaptation of her new book, Mr. Mothercountry: The Man Who Made the Rule of Law:
I envision Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role of Mr. Mothercountry, playing James Stephen, who was given that name because he ran the British Empire from 1813-1847. Running the British Empire sounds like a big job, but back then it was considered dull, pesky detail work. No one had ever heard of those places now that the North American colonies had declared independence! Stephen worked in a building that was literally falling down and regularly had raw sewage seep into its floors from London. Day-Lewis would be sitting in a basement usually alone, surrounded by maps, pouring over documents that determined the fates of thousands of people. The surprising thing is that Stephen really cared about all of these people, and worked himself into nervous exhaustion trying to use his position to be a force for good in what he saw as the evils of the British Empire. He was educated, devout, and hypersensitive. His wife said he was “a man with no skin”. He hated looking in mirrors, loved playing with the babies of his family, and led a life of complete rectitude and self-renunciation. His children said: “He was a walking categorical imperative.” His granddaughter, Virginia Woolf, recounted that he smoked a cigar once, and liked it so much that he never allowed himself to do it again.

Day-Lewis would be perfectly cast to display the existential torments Stephen felt every day in his office--helpless to stop the abuses of British colonialism. Why did he go to work every day? His greatest triumph was writing the bill to abolish slavery in the Empire. There were many other decisions he would rail against, but was unable to change. The film would move back and forth, as the book does, between scenes of turmoil and confusion in the colonies, to the office in London staffed by Stephen. Day-Lewis/Stephen would slowly unravel over the course of the film, defeated by the enormities of trying to tame the British Empire with the rule of law.

Over the course of his career, more and more people begin to take notice of the commercial opportunities available in the colonies, and they slowly start to encroach upon Mr. Mothercountry’s regime. He keeps fighting for a noble version of the law, but ultimately he realizes that he has completely lost his battle and has a nervous breakdown and is forced to leave his life’s work and his position.

His son, ascends to power and influence in the colonial legal regime, and undoes much of his father’s lifework. This character, James Fitzjames Stephen, would be played by Benedict Cumberbatch. He rejects his father’s deistic vision of bringing grace and justice to the earth through law. He embraces law as a science of control, dispassionate, and precise. He categorized people, actions, and terms to make colonial law an often inhumane system. Naturally, it is his legacy that remains intact around the globe…..
Learn more about Mr. Mothercountry at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: Mr. Mothercountry.

--Marshal Zeringue