The Great British Empire Debate

Kenan Malik in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_2952 Jan. 30 20.18The sun may have long ago set on the British Empire (or on all but a few tattered shreds of it), but it never seems to set on the debate about the merits of empire. The latest controversy began when the Third World Quarterly, an academic journal known for its radical stance, published a paper by Bruce Gilley, an associate professor of political science at Portland State University in Oregon, called “The Case for Colonialism.” Fifteen of the thirty-four members on the journal’s editorial board resigned in protest, while a petition, with more than 10,000 signatories, called for the paper to be retracted. It was eventually withdrawn after the editor “received serious and credible threats of personal violence.”

Then, in November, Nigel Biggar, regius professor of theology at Oxford University, wrote an article in the London Times defending Gilley. Biggar saw Gilley’s “balanced reappraisal of the colonial past” as “courageous,” and called for “us British to moderate our post-imperial guilt.”

Biggar also revealed that he was launching a five-year academic project, under the auspices of Oxford University’s McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life, called “Ethics and Empire.” The project aims to question the notion prevalent “in most reaches of academic discourse,” that “imperialism is wicked; and empire is therefore unethical” and to develop “a Christian ethic of empire.” Fifty-eight Oxford scholars working on “histories of empire and colonialism” wrote an open lettercondemning the project as asking “the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes.” A second open letter with nearly two hundred signatures from academics across the globe expressed “alarm that the University of Oxford should invest resources in this project.” Another Oxford historian of empire, Alexander Morrison, denounced these open letters as being “deeply corrosive of normal academic exchange” and encouraging “online mobbing, public shaming and political polarization.”

More here.