Day By Day

Sunday, December 04, 2011

History Wars Heat Up

For the past half century and more students in Western educational institutions and indeed the general public have been subjected to an unrelenting stream of calumny and abuse on the subject of "imperialism" -- specifically, the two or three centuries in which Western nation states dominated non-Western peoples around the globe. Imperialism, we were told, was everywhere destructive of native cultures, stultifying them and degrading the populations subjected to colonial rule. Often it was genocidal. The legacy of colonialism included political and economic dislocation, psychological enervation, and a sense of cultural uncertainty against which post-colonial peoples are still struggling, and which accounts for the abysmal performance of many post-colonial regimes. What is perhaps worse, imperialism was in itself a manifestation of deep and abiding defects within Western culture itself, a manifestation of racism, a fear of "the other", a product of predatory capitalism, or a way of exporting antagonisms produced by domestic oppression onto other peoples.

Elements of this critique are drawn from many sources -- from the exuberance of non-Western nationalists, from the propaganda efforts of communist regimes, from the mystical dreams of cultural and religious radicals -- but they lead to a common conclusion:

So poisonous has the experience of Western imperialism been, critics argue, that non-Western societies can only advance by divesting themselves of that heritage. Anti-colonialism has thus adopted anti-capitalist, anti-Christian, and indeed anti-"white" positions and programs while indulging in extravagant visions of a return to the virtues of primitive simplicity, the restoration of a glorious period of past dominance, or a new, indigenous form of social organization.

With few exceptions academics, journalists, and cultural and intellectual elites throughout the West have embraced this criticism. Few, whether from matters of belief or fear of criticism, have stood up to oppose or correct it. It has become the received wisdom of our academic and political cultures. One of those few brave souls who have mad the case for imperialism has been Naill Ferguson, one of today's most prolific and popular historians. In a series of books and articles he has argued that, despite the undoubted abuses and occasional horrors associated with imperialism, many aspects of imperial rule, particularly in the British empire, were benign and beneficial to subject peoples. He laments the great Twentieth Century wars that ended the period of Western domination, and calls upon the United States to pick up the banner of world leadership that Britain no longer is able to carry. For this, he has been viciously attacked and among the most prominent of his antagonists has been Indian scholar Paskaj Mishra, who wrote a blistering critique of Ferguson's recent writings in which he portrayed his subject as a reactionary Atlantic man who writes "white people's histories" rife with unapologetic neoimperialism and more than a touch of racism. Most insultingly, he repeatedly compared Ferguson's views with those of early Twentieth Century racial theorist T. L. Stoddard.

[Read Mishra's review and Ferguson's letter in response to it, and the back-and-forth charges that ensued in the London Review of Books here.]

Outraged by the personal attacks in Mishra's review, particularly the suggestion that he was a racist, Ferguson [who left his Scottish wife to marry Somalian political activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali] struck back with a series of letters which forced Mishra to back away to some extent from the charge of racism [admitting that nobody, not even Ferguson, these days thinks quite like Stoddard]. Not satisfied, though, Ferguson has since threatened to press his case in court stating "If he won't apologise for calling me a racist, I will persecute him until he does." [here] So the controversy stands now. It's a fine dust-up in which articulate spokesmen representing radically different world-views go at it hammer and tongs.

Gad! I love this stuff!


For a sympathetic review of Prof. Ferguson's book check out Donald Kagan's piece in the NYT here.

Kagan's review earned him this attack by economist Brad DeLong, who wants to write historical villains out of the Western Heritage.

DeLong's rant engendered this response from Ross Douthat in the New York Times. He points out that it is not so easy to separate heroes from villains, that good and evil coexist within the human soul, and that claiming a civilizational affiliation with the good guys necessarily entails a link to the bad guys because both are part of the same culture.

It just keeps getting better and better.

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