British Empire Debate
This week Andrew Marr presents a special edition of Start the Week. To mark the end of Radio 4's This Sceptred Isle: Empire series, some of this country's best-known historians will be examining how Britain and other countries around the world have been changed by their experience of empire. They'll be discussing whether Britain should apologise and make reparation for its imperial past or glory in it, and asking whether the twenty-first century will see the birth of new empires. Eric Hobsbawm, Niall Ferguson, Robert Beckford, Linda Colley and Priya Gopal join Andrew Marr.
Eric Hobsbawm is a very knowledgeable British historian, who is also an unreconstructed Stalinist. I didn't hear him making any apologies of his own during the show. As a Commie, Hobsbawm's interpretations, including his views on the history of capitalism, don't require much refutation or attention.
Niall Ferguson advocated an analysis of the British Empire based on balance and an absence of presentism. For this he was attacked personally by some of the other participants. His refusal to accept unearned guilt has upsetted not just those on the program.
Robert Beckford is a professor of something at the University of Birmingham. He is one of those types of professors, "then the posters on the walls of Robert Beckford's office...Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and the US preacher Bishop Noel Jones loom behind his desk. As symbols of black struggle, black power and the black church, they provide a fitting backdrop for the lecturer in African diasporan religions and cultures." During the discussion it was clear that Beckford is incapable of distinguishing the difference between race and culture. As an English speaker at an English university using, I assume, Western methods of historiography, he complains that "my culture was stolen." When Ferguson disagreed with his White Devil Theory of history Beckford became indignant.
Linda Colley is another British historian and was generally sensible, occupying a middle position between the Leftists and Ferguson.
Priya Gopal provided the most entertainment value. She is not a historian but your typical, trendy English professor of "Post-Colonial" studies. Her latest book is Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence and she is editing a tome titled After Iraq: Reframing Postcolonial Studies. Ferguson called Bullshit on Gopal's depiction of pre-British India as utopia. Gopal doesn't mention suttee or caste in her "history" of India before the White Devil arrived. Early in the program she accused Ferguson of "crude" and "lazy" thinking for daring to disagree with her. Gopal also forgets the joys of the Mughal Empire and the Arab/Moslem slave trade. When pressed the Leftist fall back position was slavery and empire weren't that bad until Europeans arrived and messed up a good thing.
The Leftists also, willfully, confuse 17th and 18th century mercantilism with contemporary capitalism. Of course, globalization is another bogeyman of neo-colonialism. Beckford and Gopal were really hating it every time Feguson mentioned the existence of non-Western empires. The various Moslem empires of the last 1400 years get a free pass. Nor are the depredations of the Javanese Empire in Western New Guinea brought up. Gopal also had the nerve to blame the last sixty years of violence between Hindus and Moslems on the sub-continent on the British.
In the context of "asking whether the twenty-first century will see the birth of new empires" there was no mention of the obvious. That is the revival of one of the oldest empires in history.
Demonstrating how academic Leftists are not used to hearing ideas they disagree with, Gopal wrote an open letter to the BBC whining about the meanness of it all. What's funny is that she chose a Leninist website in which to air her views. I wasn't aware that Marxist-Leninism was an indigenous Indian philosophy.
Crossposted at The Dougout.