Friday, July 14, 2006

On Empire and Football Flag Waving

Britain is 'a country that has not come to terms with its imperial past. The days of empire are long gone, yet the jingoism that arises at time of war or, more often, international sporting events shows that the empire mentality remains.'

Comment is free: A nation of amnesiacs

Andrew Murray in Support

More rebuttal of the 'empire-was-a-good-thing' thesis

Comment is free: In the realm of the senseless

Another response to Priyamvada Gopal's Article

The whole 'colonialism was a good thing - even the colonised liked it' routine continues:

Guardian Unlimited Books News In the balance

John Game responds:

Its completely unclear why sailors enjoying London should be taken as
evidence that Empire was a popular project or that polemics against the
same are 'simplistic'. Perhaps the Irish Famine was not such a bad thing
because, after all, it led to cosmopolitan movements of Irish people all
round the world, many of whom very much enjoyed their experiances from
London to Chicago. This recalls one of the stranger features of this
debate. Apparently colonialism was such a large historical entity that it
is simplistic to make judgements about it. Hidden here, are the
judgements that were made about colonialism both at the time (by one of
the largest anti-colonial movements in world history) and in its
immediate aftermath by historians and thinkers round the world. Are these
judgements about colonialism (which involved global networks of ideas,
associations, and literature) to be regarded as the product of a bunch of
nationalist silly-billies, to be dismissed with a few references to
selections from the Cambridge historical series, in earlier incarnations
official imperial historiography, and in later incarnations rather
notorious for treating the vast archive of Indian nationalist thought
from the 1880's onwards, as irrelevent? If Colonialism helped make our
world so to did anti-colonial nationalism (equally representing a vast
historical experiance which cannot be simplistically reduced to a few
simplistic polemics). Why the extraordinary asymmetry in these accounts,
and why the attempt to roll history backwards to an era when the
conquering and occupation of large parts of the world was held to be a
process beyond historical judgement?

Perhaps some of this has to do with an attempt to transform world history
into an adjunct of the British heritage industry and current crisis of
national identity in this rather small country seeking to find to
re-assert its relevence in the era of globalisation. One should take care
with such parochial agenda's as we have recently seen where such
re-assertions might lead us in both Iraq and Afghanistan. We need a more
engaged and critical account of the colonial experiance not the kind of
white wash of history increasingly being encouraged by both politicians
and some of our academic colleagues...


Thursday, July 13, 2006

Nicholas Dirks in Support / Home UK / UK - What the scandal of empire could teach the colonisers

Empire wasn't Evil Apparently

Nailing the lie of the evil Empire - Sunday Times - Times Online

Andrew Marr does it Again

On this week's Start the Week,

Marr employed the same tactic he tried in the episode
Priyamvada Gopal appeared on,promoting neo-imperialism by claiming
the ideological superiority of the West. Her experience
was not an isolated incident; the show seems to have
become nothing more than a mouthpiece for Marr's racist
imperialist ideology.

Marr brought on an African Muslim female politician who
unlike Priyamvada Gopal did not stand up for the integrity of
non-Western cultures. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is known for her
condemnation of Islamic practices, which although often
justified,is undermined by her argument that Muslims need
Western societies to spread their liberal 'Western'values
of rationality and enlightenment (Muslims'
problems will be solved by reading Voltaire, she claims.)
Marr then combines this argument with the promotion of 'The
British Moment,'published this week by the Henry Jackson
Society, represented on the show by Alan Mendoza. This is
another right wing publication which claims that the promotion
of democracy and human rights was justification enough for
the invasion of Iraq,even if 9/11 had never happened. British
foreign policy, in other words, has the responsibility to 'actively
promote liberal values across the world.'

This becomes more worrying because in today's 'Comment is Free,'
the same column in which Gopal denounced these tendencies (see first post), the
Guardian published an article by John Lloyd:

He mentions the show and uses Hirsi Ali's example to claim that
Islamic terrorism has nothing to do with British foreign policy;
according to him Islam and by extension Muslims are inherently violent,
primitive and dangerous. Such a conflation of elements of Islam which
are violent in origin and practice, with the beliefs of all Muslims who
in different cultural contexts vary in their convictions, easily leads
to the promotion of imperialist and racist agendas.

Niall Ferguson's Pathetic Attempt to Defend Himself

Guardian Unlimited | Guardian daily comment | We must understand why racist belief systems persist

Please read the comments underneath. Some are very informed and reveal the ludicrousness of his ideas.

For example:

Unfortunately, the usual tendentious nonsense from Ferguson. Certainly, human beings tend to coalesce in groups of various kinds, and may be some of this can be explained by evolutionary biology and anthropology. But the question that Feguson does not address (deliberately?) is: why do these differences have to coalesce around race, and not some other (biological) difference. The example he gives of different tribes is completely unconvincing. After all, different tribes are not (or don't have to be) different races. And surely not all differences of biology are "racial" differences. (This is of course leaving aside for the moment the other idea that race is wholly a social category that has little if anything to do with biology to begin with.)

Incidentally, it is somewhat amusing that a professor at Harvard can make an argument so deviod of basic logic and reasoning. But then Harvard also employs Dershowitz - oh well.

The post-colonial theorists are helpful because they show that organizing human differences around race (i.e. racism) was a political choice that was made at a certain point in history to justify imperialism of a certain kind. By historicizing the various uses of the concept of race, broadly defined, throughout human history, post-colonial theorists show how in the 19th century Western European empires were quite unique in employing scientific racism to organize self-other differences as a dominant political and social ideology. (To be perfectly clear, what I am suggesting is that for instance the Roman Empire too had certain ideas about who was included and who was excluded and to what degree, but these ideas were not informed by an "idea of race" with anywhere the same intensity as British imperialism for example. The Romans used other categories.)

This is obviously a problem for Ferguson who wants to celebrate these 19th century European empires and wants to reintroduce them as a viable option for organizing 21st century global politics. As such, empire as a form of political organization should certainly not be dismissed out of hand. The problem that Ferguson faces is that he does not want to celebrate just any empire - he certainly does not want a revival of the various Chinese, Indian, or Islamic empires. He is strangely only fond of empires with the palest hue. How then to convince the world (or is it just the American plutocracy) that these Western European empires are a great inspiration for our future given the central role that race played in their constitution and perpetuation. Hence, the completely convoluted argument he makes above - who is he trying to kid? He is a racist - he's just in denial or being disingenuous. One can't push the British empire as a model and brush its racism aside by arguing that race can be neutrally deployed concept.


Ferguson is playing with an extremely dangerous pseudo-logic. He says the "reality" is that race is insignificant to fundamental human capacities. Yet, he goes on to directly undo this by claiming that we naturally attach importance to these differences which can provoke conflict: we are "designed" to "fight "the Other"".

Where do go from here?? "Sorry you dirty Arab it's my nature", says the US soldier in Iraq as he fires. "Sorry you white yankee *&^*" says the insurgent as he pulls the pin "it's my nature". If we accept that tribalism based on physical characteristics is "designed" then we are pulled into a world in which we have either a justified endless conflict between "civilisations" or we live in a state of "tolerance" in which we say "I could fight you, but no, I choose to tolerate you" > the kind of logic the fuels apartheid.

Forget concepts like class and nation, Ferguson's logic tells us, they are only the side effects of biological mechanisms.

Here's an idea: why not go back to the reality of the insignifiance of race and think of humanity, therefore, as one group > why the need to ponder this splinter.

Ferguson has only confirmed the accusations that Dr Gopal made.

Responses to Priyamvada Gopal's Article

Guardian Unlimited | The Guardian | Tackling the remnants of empire

The Phenomenon of Andrew Marr

On the BBC Radio 4 show 'Start the Week,' Andrew Marr promoted Niall Ferguson's racist neo-imperialist book 'War of the World.' You can listen to the show here:

The show was followed by a phone-in which selectively chose callers who supported empire. This was not put online for obvious reasons.

You can read the BBC Radio4 Phone-in conversations here

Priyamvada Gopal who appeared on the show followed up such imperialist propaganda with an open letter to the BBC which was ignored:

Open Letter to Andrew Marr, Presenter, Start the Week on Radio 4, the BBC

Dear Andrew,

This is an open letter that I am going to ask the people--many of whom are
prominent academics-- I have copied in to circulate as widely as possible,
to draw the attention of people to the egregious manner in which you dealt
with the follow-up this morning's show on 'The Legacy of Empire'. I am
appalled and shocked at your biased introduction to the evening phone-in.
You use dismissive words like 'blarney', 'aggressive', and 'too much heat'
to describe an impassioned discussion of a painful and traumatic legacy
that didn't fit the genteel upper-class British converation over 'tea and
cucumber sandwiches'model. This then set the tenor for the phone-in that

But worst of all is the patent attempt to bring in a 'positively disposed
to Empire' Indian woman to neutralise what you saw as the 'aggression' of
the Indian woman you had invited to be on your morning programme. It is
obvious what that is trying to accomplish and completely unworthy of
someone in your position. It is, after all, an old colonial strategy: pick
the good native to neutralise the bad one quickly 'The British empire was
good on the whole,' she announces, to Andrew Marr's relief. What this
person's credentials are to opine on Empire and
India other than 'being' of
Indian descent and 'married to a white man' are completely unclear. Is
everyone of British descent qualified to discuss the Norman Conquest, the
Magna Carta or even the
Normandy landing? She tells us that the Empire
means a lot to Indians because her grandfather salutes her white husband
(!). Empire is 'anachronistic' for young Indians, apparently. Each of her
questions/comments to callers betrayed, I'm sorry to say, as a teacher,
ignorance and little other than a desire to smooth over any rough edges
from the morning. As though there were no connection between sectarian
violence and the Partition! And as though a critique of Empire precludes a
critique of the Indian state which often works with what it inherited from
the colonial state: please see the work of most people copied in on this
letter. We find it possible to do both self-criticism and a critique of
colonialism, and what is more, to see the connections in a complex
historical and political frame. Next time, at least find a scholar of/on
India--rather than a young woman from the office next dorr- if you want
some damage control done. That is, if you are bothered about being serious
at all rather than getting an agenda through.

I realised from your mode of operating today and how you handled the
programme (including the nervousness about real debate as opposed to some
facile smorgasbord 'point of view' dance) that your own pro-colonial biases
are pretty apparent. Nevertheless, I would have expected a more general
*show* of fairness (and that favourite BBC buzzword 'balance') from someone
in your position. Apparently not. Several have written to me condemning the
shameless plugging of
Ferguson's racist text and the way in which the whole
programme was not about the legacy of empire, but that text and its release
this week. People will be interested in the following nuggets from the text the
BBC wishes to launch as the definitive account of Empire:

'Like attracted and continues to attract like; those who are drawn to 'the
Other' may in fact be atypical in their sexual predilections'

'When a Chinse woman marries a European man, the chances are relatively
high that their blood groups may be incompatible, so that only the first
child they conceive will be viable'

'Human beings do seem predisposed to trust members of their own race as
traditionally defined'

We are supposed to react to this kind of thing with a lack of forcefulness
or passion, and just to the whole Oxbridge boys back-slapping tally-ho
routine. And if we don't, a nice native will be found and then wheeled on
to say 'No, no, guys, it was all great really!.

I regret coming on at the last minute. As an academic with serious
interests in the matter, I thought I'd be participating in a real
discussion, not a book plug, a sham and an apologia for the past. (Those of
you who are simpy copied in to this letter should know that the original
programme had three white scholars, two of whom are pretty openly
pro-empire, and one token black man, until the BBC were told at the last
minute that they should ferry in an Indian woman so they could look
'balanced' and 'fair'. Then they didn't like what they heard: the pliant
Oriental woman they had hoped for didn't turn up, so they quickly ferried
one in for the evening to recover lost ground.

Nevertheless, I shall take some heart from the scores of emails that have
flooded in to me thanking me for challenging
Ferguson's biases and
egregious theory. You really think that we should take two centuries of
exploitation, war, famines and immiseration and do some sort of clinical
'balance sheet'? Well, we did. And as Robert said, it came out negative.
Doing another 20 pro-empire programmes with a gaggle of Indian women
willing to echo what you want them to say aren't going to change that, but
do go ahead and give it your best.

I told Victoria I would be happy to come on again. Allow me to withdraw
that offer firmly and unconditionally. I'm an academic, not a paid monkey.

Shame on you!

Dr Priyamvada Gopal
University Senior Lecturer
Faculty of English

and an article in the Guardian:

Guardian Unlimited Special reports The story peddled by imperial apologists is a poisonous fairytale

What the whole episode brought to light was the continuing need of informed academics to correct racist and neo-imperialist notions among the general public at a time when such feelings are on the rise.

Priyamvada Gopal also followed up her article with a site aiming to do precisely that: