NARRATOR: it wasn't.
September 18, 2017 9:50 PM   Subscribe

What if colonialism.... was good?[PDF] Bruce Gilley makes The Case For Colonialism. A nice timeline at The Daily Nous of some responses, as well as how the original piece failed peer review.

A Quick Reminder Of Why Colonialism Was Bad, Nathan J. Robinson
Gilley’s article takes a very clear stance: not only was colonialism a force for good in the world, but anti-colonial sentiment is “preposterous.” What’s more, Gilley says, we need a new program of colonization, with Western powers taking over the governing functions of less developed countries. Gilley says he intends to overturn or revise three lines of criticism directed against colonialism: “that it was objectively harmful (rather than beneficial),” “that it was subjectively illegitimate (rather than legitimate),” and “that it offends the sensibilities of contemporary society.” Thus he is not just concerned to prove that colonialism was good and should be revived. He also wants to prove that it was “legitimate,” i.e. that there is nothing inherently unjust about invading and dominating a people.

Gilley’s article is a truly extraordinary piece of work. It’s hard to believe, at first, that it isn’t a Sokal-esque satire intended to prove how normalized abhorrent opinions are. But it appears to be sincere. And because it appeared in a mainstream journal, and the sentiments it expresses are somewhat common, it’s worth responding to the case Gilley makes.
A Reply To "The Case For Colonialism", Stanley Mushava

"So we have an appraisal of historical events that gets basic parts of the history wrong, ignores or passes over key events, purports to be a cost-benefit analysis while not actually factoring in costs, is naively credulous as to tyrant's self-affirmation, and advocates a mode of counter-factual reasoning that is both underspecified and from what can be discerned amounts to a non-sequitur. This is not good scholarship." - Liam Kofi Bright

"Perhaps more importantly, I’d like to reflect briefly at the end of this post on what this piece as a textual artifact tells us about political science’s—and particularly IR’s—colonial present. This is certainly, in my view, the most disturbing aspect of the article."
posted by the man of twists and turns (76 comments total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
 
The link texted "The Case For Colonialism" in the post is a response to Gilley from the blog Lawyers Guns And Money. It is not supportive of Gilley's thesis.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:55 PM on September 18, 2017 [4 favorites]


Every day lately feels like a succession of Bruces delivering their monologues...
posted by The Toad at 10:00 PM on September 18, 2017 [4 favorites]


I can't wait for his hot take on debtor's prisons.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 10:08 PM on September 18, 2017 [14 favorites]


Without Colonialism, wouldn't the entire case for White Supremacy collapse?
posted by oneswellfoop at 10:13 PM on September 18, 2017 [9 favorites]


[Bravo for linking to sci-hub.cc]
posted by runcifex at 10:14 PM on September 18, 2017 [4 favorites]


Nathan Robinson's criticism of the article is mostly good, though he does conflate the Belgian Congo (1908-1960) with its predecessor the Congo Free State (1885-1908), which was not a colony of the Belgian state but rather the personal property of King Leopold II of the Belgians.
posted by dhens at 10:23 PM on September 18, 2017 [7 favorites]


What have the Romans ever done for us?
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:26 PM on September 18, 2017 [8 favorites]


Perhaps this explains why post-Cold War interventions have sought to emphasise their participatory
and consensual nature in contrast with an alleged illegitimate and coercively
imposed colonialism.


so close, man, so close
posted by atoxyl at 10:27 PM on September 18, 2017


gee, why are starvation and war good?

capitalism really has run out of ideas, hasn't it
posted by eustatic at 10:28 PM on September 18, 2017 [7 favorites]


I thought that colonialism was about taking the natural resources of another country and using the country as a dumping ground for one's manufactured goods.

In which case Gilley should probably have his work translated into Chinese.
posted by Laotic at 10:32 PM on September 18, 2017 [3 favorites]


What have the Romans ever done for us?

Indeed I've always been a bit uncertain about that scene. Coming from a colonialist country infamous for having a nostalgic streak towards its world-spanning empire and all...
posted by traveler_ at 10:38 PM on September 18, 2017 [14 favorites]


What have the Romans ever done for us?

Recently realized that sketch as played by Oxbridgers takes on another layer.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 10:38 PM on September 18, 2017 [23 favorites]


Tenured trolling ain’t aces
posted by Haere at 10:52 PM on September 18, 2017 [1 favorite]


Wow, I figured this was going to be some blinkered overinterpretation of, like, state building theories, that misunderstood analysis of outcomes as approval of them, but BOY HOWDY this is just wrong on top of wrong all the way down, he has NO idea what he's talking about factually and he appears utterly morally bankrupt and he's writing at the level of a very stupid and arrogant freshman who's never gotten a C before and is about to learn some painful life lessons about hot takes not being academic analysis.

Which leaves me with a couple questions. First, is this dude for real this stupid (in which case whoever gave him a PhD and/or tenure and/or teaching assignments should be answering some questions) or is he straight up trolling? (In which case, also questions for his institution.) But second, WTF is up with this journal, why would they print such complete nonsense? Is the journal trolling with dank memes?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:59 PM on September 18, 2017 [45 favorites]


One of my favourite answers as the white parent from one colonial country to a group of mixed Asian race children from other colonial countries living in a third colonial country is answering children's why questions with "Colonialism". Scratch a little bit and there's empire everywhere. Of course, we are in post-post-colonialism now. Absolutely.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 11:40 PM on September 18, 2017 [5 favorites]


[A couple comments deleted. Please forgo jokey drive-by snarking in serious conversation. If there's something you actually want to express, go ahead and actually explain your point. If it's just a quick dumb joke for no particular reason, you are derailing and confusing the discussion. Please don't do this.]
posted by taz (staff) at 11:46 PM on September 18, 2017 [5 favorites]


I absolutely and with seriousness want to read an in depth Thai historian's take on this as one of the most famous nations for avoiding colonialism and threading the needle between world powers. The first paragraphs alone have mt fingers itching for paper and keen to start listing counter examples.

Honestly, he seems like someone who would not realise the Flashman series is bitter satire.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 11:51 PM on September 18, 2017 [11 favorites]


First, is this dude for real this stupid (in which case whoever gave him a PhD and/or tenure and/or teaching assignments should be answering some questions) or is he straight up trolling? ... But second, WTF is up with this journal, why would they print such complete nonsense? Is the journal trolling with dank memes?

I suspect the guy is half stupid, half trolling. He's probably doing that thing where he thinks that by playing devil's advocate and getting people amped up he has made people think critically. It's not an unreasonable perspective, if you are younger than 20. Unfortunately, some people hold onto it well into tenure, where they deploy their otherwise decent minds in its service.

As for the journal, well, journals print a lot of nonsense. Sure, this nonsense is inflammatory nonsense, so it's making the rounds on the internet, but man, leaf through any but the top tier journals of social thought, and boy is there some low quality thinking. I'm not at all surprised this made it through, especially in a "viewpoints" section.
posted by andrewpcone at 11:56 PM on September 18, 2017 [10 favorites]


So...Colonialism is good because it stopped slave-trading... is such a disingenuous statement, such a twist of logic and filtering of historical fact that I can't even.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 12:01 AM on September 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


especially in a "viewpoints" section

Was this one published as a "viewpoint?"
posted by atoxyl at 12:07 AM on September 19, 2017


Is this, and the law article cited at the end of Robinson's piece, the beginning of a worrying trend of conservative academics feeling empowered to air/publish their racist and wretched views in Trump's USA?
posted by stillmoving at 12:33 AM on September 19, 2017 [11 favorites]


Was this one published as a "viewpoint?"

It was first submitted to standard peer review, rejected, and then published as some sort of a "viewpoint", apparently without the knowledge of at least some of the members of the editorial board.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 12:35 AM on September 19, 2017 [13 favorites]


Is this, and the law article cited at the end of Robinson's piece, the beginning of a worrying trend of conservative academics feeling empowered to air/publish their racist and wretched views in Trump's USA?

I'm inclined to agree with Robinson that it represents a trend of conservative academics fishing for an opportunity to cast themselves as victims.
posted by atoxyl at 2:17 AM on September 19, 2017 [15 favorites]


my social science colleagues poked around and discovered gilleys pouty resignation letter from the american political science association for being too p.c. (silencing him all his life) and only accepting lefty politics in their annual conference.
he is all in. if this is satire it is performance art
posted by spamandkimchi at 3:14 AM on September 19, 2017 [11 favorites]


A view from under the bridge, I think.
posted by Segundus at 3:33 AM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]


I'm currently reading Yuval Noah Harari's Sapiens, which is a bit like slowly descending into neoliberal hell. He devotes an entire chapter to argue a similar case about empires; how sure, empires have done bad things like genocide and cultural erasure, but look, Indians now have a parliament! He's like the Thomas Friedman of anthropology.

So, so tired of these hot takes from trolly academics that basically amount to "What If [Bad Thing] Were Actually A Good Thing?" as if this hasn't been the status quo's completely unreflective line for centuries now.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 5:57 AM on September 19, 2017 [12 favorites]


For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. Colonialism has virtually disappeared from international affairs

fucking what

I mean, I guess it's kind of impressive in a way to start off with two incredibly, stupidly incorrect statements but.

fucking what
posted by solotoro at 5:59 AM on September 19, 2017 [20 favorites]


This is the new normal. Eric Prince, noted war criminal and mercenary with deep ties to the Trump administration, published an op-ed where he demanded Afghanistan be put under the suzerainty of a viceroy - a mercenary ruler unbound by law or scruple - to save the US Government money and embarrassment pacifying the natives.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:03 AM on September 19, 2017 [16 favorites]


What if multiple genocides followed by brutal multi-generational occupations resulting in the ongoing immiseration of billions of people was a good thing?

What if? I'm just asking.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:27 AM on September 19, 2017 [14 favorites]


A schoolmate and I once wrote a paper for class arguing that war not all that bad. We were about 11, and big fans of aviation, and our best example was jet planes because WW2 did speed up the development of the jet engine. Well, yes, WW2 killed millions but... jet planes!!!!! The whole article reminds me of the kind of "logic" excited 11-year olds can come up with.
posted by elgilito at 6:36 AM on September 19, 2017 [12 favorites]


I'm reminded of Marc Andreessen's tweet, "anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people."

This may be just one dude in the back pages of a second-tier journal, but I don't doubt that many powerful white people secretly agree with his views.
posted by perplexion at 6:36 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


I mean, I guess it's kind of impressive in a way to start off with two incredibly, stupidly incorrect statements

Can you explain how "For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name" is "stupidly incorrect"? Has it had a good name? Or for less than 100 years?
posted by thelonius at 6:47 AM on September 19, 2017


Yes? Colonialism has had a positive reputation for a long time and certainly in 1917 (and 1967!) it was considered a very good thing.
posted by saucysault at 6:52 AM on September 19, 2017 [16 favorites]


I haven't read the PDF yet, but assuming it's not being grossly mischaracterized (which seems safe) I thought Robinson's response was good, addressing the core problem with every approach:

“Yes, we may have indiscriminately massacred 500 children, but we also opened a clinic that vaccinated enough children to save 501 lives, therefore ‘the case for colonialism is strong.’” We don’t allow murderers to produce defenses like this, for good reason: you can’t get away with saying “Yes, I killed my wife, but I’m also a fireman.”

Another bit: I think in popular discussion people also underestimate the benefits of a self-determined democratic government, even when it's a bad one. British ruled Ireland was exporting food in the middle of the potato famine where a third of the country died. Or go here, sort the table by region and count up the famine deaths India suffered from routinely during British rule and after they left. (Spoiler: millions and none*, respectively.)

*There was a Bihar drought that killed around 200 in the Republic of India, followed by a more severe drought in Maharashtra and that killed no one.
posted by mark k at 6:52 AM on September 19, 2017 [15 favorites]


It was first submitted to standard peer review, rejected, and then published as some sort of a "viewpoint", apparently without the knowledge of at least some of the members of the editorial board.

Yeah, I'm actually less bothered by "bad thinker has bad thoughts and writes badly about them" than "academic journal receives paper which fails peer review, then decides to publish anyway," which is not how academic publishing is supposed to work. If the work was rigorous, even if it's vile, it can take its place in the ring with the rest of scholarship, it's not like scholars haven't argued terrible things before. If it can't pass muster, though, the dude needs to get his own blog. Rather than demand retraction, authors should pull their papers from the journal, refuse to cite from it, not submit new material, etc until the editorial board is replaced. There's a cost to that, but the disease has to be cut out; the academy can survive error and stupidity, but not dishonesty.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:21 AM on September 19, 2017 [15 favorites]


Yes? Colonialism has had a positive reputation for a long time and certainly in 1917 (and 1967!) it was considered a very good thing.

Well, I can't agree with that entirely. What about the human rights campaign against atrocities by Belgium? While that wasn't a critique of the entire system of colonialism, I don't think it's absurd to think of it as a beginning of awareness that the entire system was wrong.
posted by thelonius at 7:34 AM on September 19, 2017


I don't think it's absurd to think of it as a beginning of awareness that the entire system was wrong.

I don't either, but noting that there were some people talking about the atrocities being committed as far back as a hundred years ago is a far cry from calling it the prevailing viewpoint among the colonizing nations, which is certainly what I read as implicit in saying it "has had a bad name". And while I was not very optimistic that given the paper's premise, the author might be referring rather to the viewpoint of the colonized, I read it to see. He actually argues that they themselves saw Western colonialism as beneficial even as late as post-independence, so that can't be what he meant.
posted by solotoro at 7:38 AM on September 19, 2017 [7 favorites]


A really weaksauce response from the editor at Third World Quarterly claiming that it did go through peer review (not mentioning that apparently, as I've heard, at least one reviewer recommended outright rejection) and basically doing the whole "we welcome debates!" false equivalency bullshit. This is just the most recent and perhaps most egregious academic scandal to roll out this year and it really just confirms to me, once again, the ways in which white male academics, in particular, always seem to slip past any gatekeeping that bars others...
posted by TwoStride at 7:49 AM on September 19, 2017 [8 favorites]


Can you explain how "For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name" is "stupidly incorrect"? Has it had a good name? Or for less than 100 years?

Watching UK media, as a citizen of an ex-British colony, I'm routinely astounded at the way the Empire seems to be regarded. Like on last year's Apprentice when one team came up with something called Colony gin: "At the height of the British Empire, the world was embracing change", blah blah exotic spices, etc.. I sat there all agog, but on the actual programme I think only one potential buyer even mentioned it.

I mean, 59% of respondents to a recent Yougov survey consider the British Empire something to be proud of. They figure we should be grateful; they gave us parliament and railways and English. Which is like me bringing a bag of raw vegetables to your house, torching your kitchen, and saying, hey, I gave you salad.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 7:53 AM on September 19, 2017 [14 favorites]


I think there's mostly complete consensus that this guy is Wrong about Things but I think the idea that Hong Kong and Singapore turned out to be the rare "success" (however it's defined) worth replicating is interesting. On the balance of things, would the people living in those countries say that being colonized was a good or bad thing?

For me being born in Malaysia, with its legacy of problems relating to colonialism, it isn't so clear. The schools I studied in and the hospitals I got treatment in were originally set up by the British, and it's not certain we would have anything resembling that level of infrastructure and training (and global integration) had the British not laid the foundations for it. The British forcefully relocated hundreds of thousands of rural Chinese to what amounted to internment / concentration camps, but they successfully neutralized the communist threat, and again it's not clear we would have been able to do so without their help.

All this was well recognized by the Malay leaders at the time - it was during the turmoil after World War 2 that the British were bankrupt and keen to withdraw from the East - moving to a policy of "self rule" which would end up granting independence to most of their colonies. The Malay ruling class was less concerned about independence than about the British just up and leaving! Fortunately the British did solve the most pressing issues for us and provided an orderly transition into self rule.
posted by xdvesper at 8:03 AM on September 19, 2017


Just for reference, what the Romans really did for Judea was sack and destroy Jerusalem including the holiest site for the native population, and then disperse a significant percent of the indigenous population and take other off as slaves.

But, hey, aqueduct.
posted by maxsparber at 8:18 AM on September 19, 2017 [9 favorites]


HEY AQUEDUCT.
posted by maxsparber at 8:25 AM on September 19, 2017 [5 favorites]


Watching UK media, as a citizen of an ex-British colony, I'm routinely astounded at the way the Empire seems to be regarded.

I've lived in the UK for years (also a citizen of an ex-British colony) and it never ceases to amaze me how the two ideas of 'Britain: master of a glorious empire' and 'Britain: plucky underdog' can co-exist seamlessly in standard idle discourse.

No bad name for colonialism here, not in these ra-ra post-Brexit times and certainly not in the last 100 years. Exhibit A: a Victorian statue of anti-Roman iron age rebel Boudicca, symbol of heroic Britishness standing up to the invader, being set up at the very heart of a British imperial establishment that self-consciously modeled itself (in some elements of ideology and aesthetics) on the Roman empire. One for the cultural historians to untangle but the mind boggles.

Anyway. Robinson's response is brilliant, not just for being a solid takedown of shoddy academic standards, but for its insight in naming the blatant bad faith and bait-dangling on the part of Gilley.

"It’s a predictable pattern: A conservative publishes something that is both factually duplicitous and morally heinous. The liberal reaction focuses on the moral heinousness. The conservative says that the liberal doesn’t care about facts."

It's a useful reference, he's labelled this pattern of behaviour so clearly.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 8:48 AM on September 19, 2017 [20 favorites]


From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The bombings were part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government against the Pathet Lao and to interdict traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The bombings destroyed many villages and displaced hundreds of thousands of Lao civilians during the nine-year period.

But they successfully neutralized the communist threat.

This is a fun game.
posted by Space Coyote at 8:55 AM on September 19, 2017 [7 favorites]


British colonialism in Singapore was about getting maximum money for the Empire. It wasn't for the benefit of the locals. There was occasional philanthropy, but the education system was purposefully designed to produce second-tier English-speaking clerks, to destroy Nanyang-Chinese, indigenous schools and culture.

The agriculture gulag system by the British was better than the Dutch or Portuguese but man, that is like a super low bar to clear, like wow, you wanna die by being bashed to death or boiled alive, hmm.

Oh yes, straight up slave labour to indentured labour, making sure they move around different ethnic groups to destabilise people and keep women and families apart. Deliberately fomenting local ethnic tensions, divide and conquer, yes. And how about those massacres in the 1950s to 1960s under the guise of anti-Communist insurgency that were mostly about making sure they kept all those tin and rubber etc resources as long as possible.

Singapore was stripped of a bunch of infrastructure deliberately as punishment for going independent, ditto Malaysia. Britain was super pissed about losing their colonies and it was dicey getting back onto economic growth. Singapore's success isn't about infrastructure from the colonials but geography and governance (you could make an argument about LKY being his very own neo-colonialist internally which would be amusing).

Malaysia and Singapore owe the British zilch. The UK has massive wealth still thanks to colonial transfer of resources from previous centuries. That's straight up stolen and turned into all those beautiful houses, military and the government services the UK enjoys today. Colonialism is at its heart, theft.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 9:14 AM on September 19, 2017 [16 favorites]


saucysault: Yes? Colonialism has had a positive reputation for a long time and certainly in 1917 (and 1967!) it was considered a very good thing.

You need to read yourself more Mark Twain, if you don't think that by 1917 there was substantial awareness even in the West that colonialism was a poisonous evil.
posted by tavella at 9:26 AM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]


You need to read yourself more Mark Twain, if you don't think that by 1917 there was substantial awareness even in the West that colonialism was a poisonous evil.

I mean, yeah? Go a few decades earlier and you've got Marx. There's always been folks rightly decrying colonialism both from the colonised and colonising countries. A pro-colonial attitude was still the dominant discourse, particularly in European and American history writing, in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That's what Twain was satirising.

This isn't to excuse anyone but to note that anti-colonialism was not the main ideology of the powerful. It's not the main ideology of the powerful now either.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 9:49 AM on September 19, 2017 [19 favorites]


And... 15 members of the Third World Quarterly Editorial Board resigned in protest: We have also been informed through correspondence between Prof Ilan Kapoor and our colleague who was the peer-reviewer, after the piece was rejected by the Special Issue editors, that her review also rejected the Viewpoint. Thus, the fact is established that this did not pass the peer-review when we have documentation that it was rejected by three peer reviewers.

As the Viewpoint did not pass the double-blind peer review as claimed by the editor in the statement he issued in the name of the journal, it must be retracted and a new statement issued.

The Viewpoint fails criterion #1 of the Committee on Publication Ethics COPE guidelines that state: “Journal editors should consider retracting a publication if: they have clear evidence that the findings are unreliable, either as a result of misconduct (e.g. data fabrication) or honest error (e.g. miscalculation or experimental error).” https://publicationethics.org/…/Retractions_COPE_gline_fina…
These COPE guidelines are Taylor & Francis’s reference documents for ethics of retracting a publication the editorial board was told in an email on 18 September by Shahid Qadir.

Thus, Bruce Gilley’s Viewpoint essay, “The case for colonialism” must be retracted, as it fails to provide reliable findings, as demonstrated by its failure in the double-blind peer review process.

We all subscribe to the principle of freedom of speech and the value of provocation in order to generate critical debate. However, this cannot be done by means of a piece that fails to meet academic standards of rigour and balance by ignoring all manner of violence, exploitation and harm perpetrated in the name of colonialism (and imperialism) and that causes offence and hurt and thereby clearly violates that very principle of free speech.

posted by TwoStride at 9:55 AM on September 19, 2017 [18 favorites]


The entire editorial board has resigned.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:55 AM on September 19, 2017 [8 favorites]


(Whoops, crossed with TwoStride.)
posted by thomas j wise at 9:56 AM on September 19, 2017


What I've mainly heard about the Brit Emp all my life is endless cliched talk about how we're in sad decline, clinging hopelessly to the tatters of Empire. Never heard anyone who wasn't drunk defend colonialism.

Now an objective assessment of colonialism might be good; the point is, this isn't it. What this bloke is saying is too silly to be worth addressing; as Jane Austen would have said, he does not deserve the compliment of rational opposition.
posted by Segundus at 10:06 AM on September 19, 2017 [5 favorites]


I absolutely and with seriousness want to read an in depth Thai historian's take on this as one of the most famous nations for avoiding colonialism and threading the needle between world powers

I learned about this from an Ask Historians thread a few years back, the first few answers seem quite good for an intro, other sources seem a little hard to come by.
posted by Space Coyote at 10:33 AM on September 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


I'm impressed with the specificity, clarity and accessibility of A Quick Reminder Of Why Colonialism Was Bad. You can breeze right through it even if you have no background in historical study. Author's longer linked story about The Bell Curve is also worth a read.
posted by Western Infidels at 11:05 AM on September 19, 2017 [4 favorites]


Oh, hey, remember when right-wingers called Obama "anti-colonial" like that's supposed to be a bad thing? Yeah, good times.
posted by mhum at 11:19 AM on September 19, 2017 [6 favorites]


Well, I can't agree with that entirely. What about the human rights campaign against atrocities by Belgium

In France, there was criticism of the way colonialism was implemented, or of the cost of maintaining colonies, or of the colonial wars, but very, very little criticism of colonialism itself. André Gide's Voyage au Congo (1927) is typical: he decribes the forced labour and the appalling living conditions of the Congolese but it's not an indictment of colonisation: blah blah blah civilizing mission. See also Andrée Viollis' Indochine SOS (1935). Their books denounced colonial practices (and were considered scandalous at the time) but they were about reforming colonialism, not ending it.

In France, the world "decolonisation" did not appear in its current sense before 1952. People in the metropole actually knew very little about the colonies, and the general opinion was that perhaps we should be nicer to the natives (if they behaved) but that they had no reason to complain because schools / hospitals / civilizing mission / whatever. The French Communist Party maintained an anticolonialist line in the 1920s, but dropped it in the 1930s. The Brazzaville conference of 1944 introduced reforms, but de Gaulle, like everyone else in France, opposed "any thought of autonomy or any possibility of development outside the French empire". It was just unthinkable. The Sétif massacre of 8 May 1945 in Algeria was considered by all French parties, including the Communist Party, as a sensible answer to a "fascist plot" by "Hitlerian agents". When Hồ Chí Minh declared the independance of Vietnam in September 1945, French authorities could not process it and field reports that colonization in Indochina was over fell on deaf ears. It took two long and bloody wars until people in France got the message. So yes, the idea that colonisation had a bad name since 1917 is preposterous (again, at least for France).

For me being born in Malaysia, with its legacy of problems relating to colonialism, it isn't so clear.

I agree that a lot of the modern discourse about colonialism tend to be a little simplistic. Colonial legacy is complex and more than often cannot be reduced to "good" or "bad". Unfortunately, it's been weaponized for decades and it's difficult to discuss.
posted by elgilito at 11:25 AM on September 19, 2017 [9 favorites]


I had to write a paper with exactly this topic--"why colonialism was good"--as a teenager in the 90s in my world history class. We were assigned topics. When I got a bit upset about this and said I couldn't find support for that thesis, my teacher said that I should write about railroads and schools. But especially railroads. She was really sure that the proof was railroads. Maybe if he just spent more of the paper talking about railroads, people would be less upset. Clearly railroads make up for torturing and enslaving people and ripping all the natural resources out of their countries.

I am still a bit upset about this.
posted by Sequence at 12:03 PM on September 19, 2017 [18 favorites]


The reply from Stanley Mushava linked above is just excellent:
Your criticism against African leaders who lord it over their people, faring sumptuously like Arab oil barons while we fight over crumbs at AU summits, really holds. I publicly share some of this criticisms as a young, broke and politically unaffiliated pitbull of the fourth estate.

Just that, I wonder how the failings of African leaders invalidate the evils of colonialism. No, you don't play us that easily, Master Gilley. History may not know us names, we the ordinary, anonymous Africans, but we have better things to aspire than being assigned the devil who negotiates Photoshop better. Do you know the name of the black servant on whom Queen Nzinga sat when your people refused her a chair? Neither do, but who ever it was, that's whom I think of when I speak of Africa. History has made the quarrel of kings its exclusive business but the poor and anonymous have their dignity. Ask them their ambitions before you deign to speak for mankind[...]

Good sir, do you even realise how anachronistic your article is? In 2003, a Spectator article identically headed, "The Case for Colonialism" equally salivated for the blood of Iraqis under the doctrine of Caucasian moral superiority. As for how that story ended, don't get me started.
posted by Anita Bath at 12:27 PM on September 19, 2017 [13 favorites]


Objectively, colonialism introduced benefits at the same time it introduced horrors. But measuring the right of self-determination against kilometres of new railroads per capita or whatever so misses the forest for the trees, even before you get to the economic exploitation and murders and whatnot, that it's astonishing anyone could make it with a straight face. It's basically an argument for the gilded cage, made by cage manufacturers, with the irony that the people who make it are often simultaneously incredibly proud of their own independent democracy and the self-determining institutions that make it possible.
posted by Palindromedary at 1:07 PM on September 19, 2017 [5 favorites]


Never heard anyone who wasn't drunk defend colonialism.

How about Niall "I am fundamentally in favour of empire" Ferguson of Oxford, Stanford and Harvard Universities?
posted by biffa at 1:33 PM on September 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


Ha, wtf. The author of this piece is the exact same guy who was the author of the newspaper article about Chinese medical centers selling aborted fetuses as dietary supplements. No, seriously. It was part of early 2000s stupid internet lore.

Anyway, more from RetractionWatch.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:34 PM on September 19, 2017 [8 favorites]


Clearly railroads make up for torturing and enslaving people and ripping all the natural resources out of their countries.

Even more bitterly ironic as railroads in colonies (and in neo-colonial contexts, like British-financed railroads in 19th Century Latin America) tended to connect agricultural/mining regions to the coast or to a port on a river in order to facilitate extraction, and very often did not actually help connect parts of a colony or help people within the colony move around. I.e., a bunch of separate lines going from the interior to the coast without actually networking with each other.
posted by dhens at 3:01 PM on September 19, 2017 [11 favorites]


That colonial practice occasionally improved infrastructure does not erase all the harm that colonial practice did. Colonies are never ruled for the benefit of the colony. That is literally the whole point of colonialism.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:36 PM on September 19, 2017 [6 favorites]


Sequence, I think I had your teacher's male counterpart for 10th grade World Civilization. My second semester term paper assignment was a defense of colonialism in the British Raj, and I recall that railroads were heavily featured. (Because there is really very little else to say in favor of colonialism.) I did manage to point out that the Indian freedom fighters communicated and planned via telegraph and in English rather than the fifty million South Asian languages, which was my teenage attempt at subverting the "teaching Caliban to speak" argument. But yeah. Mr Richardson, you taught me a lot about primary source research, but damn your politics were gross.
posted by basalganglia at 6:18 PM on September 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


"Wow, I figured this was going to be some blinkered overinterpretation of, like, state building theories, that misunderstood analysis of outcomes as approval of them, but BOY HOWDY this is just wrong on top of wrong all the way down, he has NO idea what he's talking about factually and he appears utterly morally bankrupt and he's writing at the level of a very stupid and arrogant freshman who's never gotten a C before and is about to learn some painful life lessons about hot takes not being academic analysis."

Yeah, I'm honestly someone who's sympathetic to arguments that "anti-colonialist" rhetoric is over-deployed, that empires and imperialism can be far more mixed in outcome than would be implied by a simplistic ideological gloss, and may be necessary in some terms, and don't have to be based on assumptions of racism/orientalism, etc.

But then the dude is like, "Here are all the positive effects of the Holocaust on real estate markets" and it's basically the exact opposite of what you would do if you actually wanted to engage critically with history or political science, to the point that he actually ends up reinforcing the case(s) against colonialism through his inept blundering.
posted by klangklangston at 6:48 PM on September 19, 2017 [3 favorites]


This ludicrous piece of "scholarship" -- which is appalling -- nevertheless reverberates oddly with the recent wave of progressives on Twitter avidly retweeting Mary Beard's tweets about the diversity of Roman Britain -- a diversity that consisted, largely, of the racially diverse colonial administrators and settler elites who were dispatched by the Roman metropole to crush indigenous Britons and keep them in check under the imperial boot heel.

So.... it seems that even we on the left WILL laud colonialism, gladly, when enough time has passed, so long as it provides a convenient platform for our own contemporary politics!
posted by mylittlepoppet at 7:50 PM on September 19, 2017


progressives on Twitter avidly retweeting Mary Beard's tweets about the diversity of Roman Britain

Discussions of absorptive colonialism (such as that practiced by Rome) can be tricky to deal with, especially when dealing with pre-literate subject peoples. This is because the combination of assimilationist polices and the lack of written history available to keep the old culture alive means that subject peoples can eventually become their masters, even to the point of leading them and directing the addition of new peoples to the fold. For example, the provinces provided numerous emperors to Rome (though many were from Italian settler families). Elements of pre-Roman British identity survived the Roman conquest, but the clean lines between conqueror and conquered were certainly blurred by the third and fourth centuries AD.

You don't have such difficulties when dealing with modern-era European exploitive empires, which drew very hard lines between rulers and ruled, even if they did use their colonials as soldiers.
posted by Palindromedary at 8:50 PM on September 19, 2017 [8 favorites]


Just a subtle clarification. The Romans believed in conquest. They might have brought along the trapping of their civilization but there was little of the, 'white man's burden,' about their expansion. Colonial thought wraps itself in the banner of a moral good. The, 'savages,' deserve the largess of the colonists. Sure they have to be enslaved and forcibly, 'civilized,' for their own good. The Romans just wanted stuff. Land, tin, gold, the genocide of anyone who had beaten them in the past were worth killing for. Turning people into Romans was really just a secondary concern. Rome had a history of welcoming outsiders into their city and would let most conquered nation keep their language and culture, within limits. I am in no way defending the depredations of the Romans. They were utter, vicious bastards. There was just a greater honesty about it than colonial powers typically demonstrate. Besides people usually assimilate to conquerors. Rome could wait. For some reason colonial powers with a Christian mission just never could. Funny that.
posted by Ignorantsavage at 11:00 PM on September 19, 2017 [7 favorites]


Author's longer linked story about The Bell Curve is also worth a read.

Wow, it definitely was.
posted by value of information at 12:11 AM on September 20, 2017 [1 favorite]


[Important: None of this is advocacy. Observing purely descriptively.]

There are two paths to wealth for a country: Tax the people (human resources) or tax the land (natural resources). If the latter, the citizenry is just a cost center -- they want some of that wealth you're producing! You bribe the smallest number you can, and suppress the rest (with their help).

If the former, it's a little different. Suppressed, poor people actually don't produce very much, meaning you can't tax them much. You've got to educate a population to make its labor worth buying, and therefore worth taxing. You've got to make them want to work for you, too.

So, you end up with the two models. Just take their stuff, or teach them how to do things for you. Or, more depressingly, kill 'em or convert 'em.

The change in the 20th century was that wars became a thing that because of technology, might not be survivable by anyone. And, oddly, religion became a thing that fewer and fewer wanted to be visibly pushing (possibly because it wasn't _actually_ the priests with the power anymore). There seems to have been this huge attempt at another model, but I'm not convinced anyone's happy with the result.
posted by effugas at 12:22 AM on September 20, 2017


To correct my earlier posting: not the entire board, just most of it.
posted by thomas j wise at 3:37 AM on September 20, 2017


Ha, wtf. The author of this piece is the exact same guy who was the author of the newspaper article about Chinese medical centers selling aborted fetuses as dietary supplements. No, seriously. It was part of early 2000s stupid internet lore.

That lore is awfully persistent.
posted by L.P. Hatecraft at 3:44 AM on September 20, 2017 [2 favorites]


Good sir, do you even realise how anachronistic your article is? In 2003, a Spectator article identically headed, "The Case for Colonialism" equally salivated for the blood of Iraqis under the doctrine of Caucasian moral superiority. As for how that story ended, don't get me started.

You could only see this as "anachronistic" if you think of 14 years as a really long time, that should have changed everything. I conclude that the author is younger than 30.
posted by thelonius at 4:01 AM on September 20, 2017



Here's a conspiratorial hypothesis: perhaps this whole thing was planned to clean house at TWQ, in order to alter the ideological composition of the editorial board and turn TWQ into the academic equivalent of Fox News hahahaha
posted by thedamnbees at 9:48 AM on September 20, 2017


Even more bitterly ironic as railroads in colonies (and in neo-colonial contexts, like British-financed railroads in 19th Century Latin America) tended to connect agricultural/mining regions to the coast or to a port on a river in order to facilitate extraction, and very often did not actually help connect parts of a colony or help people within the colony move around. I.e., a bunch of separate lines going from the interior to the coast without actually networking with each other.

This seems as good a thread as any in which to plug Late Victorian Holocausts, a history of the El Niño famines of the late nineteenth century, which the book argues were made worse by free-market policies forced upon poor countries by their imperial masters. One of its recurring themes is the use of the new railroads and infrastructure to export food from hungry provinces, though previous administrations had relieved famines in part by forbidding or restricting such exports.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:23 AM on September 20, 2017 [5 favorites]


I will heartily second Late Victorian Holocausts as an excellent book. I've also recently read King Leopold's Ghost (which is quoted in the Robinson article). One of the interesting things that comes out of that book is that E D Morel, the British activist against atrocities in the Congo, had a serious blind-spot about atrocities committed by the British Empire. Even the people who campaigned against the worst excesses of the system could be so saturated with the colonial worldview that they didn't consider it bad of itself.

And as for current attitudes in the UK - open up the Foreign Office Virtual Tour. Click on the 360 of the murals, then click on the information - "The murals on the first floor depict the origin, education, development, expansion and triumph of the British Empire." The merest hintet that some people might not have thought it all that triumphal? Nope! (I have seen those murals in person - the sheer size of them, the bombastic jingoism, and the total historical inaccuracy of all of that in your face is something else. And I say that as someone who was taught history in school in the 90s by a Niall Ferguson fanboy - after six years of that I thought I couldn't be surprised again.)
posted by Vortisaur at 12:04 PM on September 20, 2017 [1 favorite]


Now it's the author who wants to retract the essay.
posted by thomas j wise at 5:41 AM on September 22, 2017


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