From safe spaces for colonial apologists to Britain’s second empire, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
I’ve just returned to university following a period of parental leave. Although I was careful not to get drawn into work during my time off, I could not help but notice the controversy around Oxford Professor Nigel Biggar’s “Ethics and Empire” project. I also read about Universities Minister Jo Johnson’s attack on “safe space culture”.
Both Biggar’s defenders and Johnson have justified their positions by claiming to be defending freedom of speech. However, they are better understood as retrenching colonial thinking in universities. Nigel Biggar’s research project proposes to take a cost-benefit analysis of British imperial history, weighing the bad things against the good. In defending the project he called on “usBritish to moderate our post-imperial guilt” (emphasis added) in an article in The Times. There have been some excellent critiques of the naive simplicity of the research methods proposed, most notably an excellent open-letter drafted by a range of prominent Oxford academics of different disciplinary backgrounds. This led to a backlash from right-wing newspapers against these academics. [continue reading]
There is something ironic about an Oxford theologian being portrayed as persecuted for arguing that Britain should be proud of its imperial past, when 59% of the population agree with him. But it’s no laughing matter. Oxford’s Ethics and Empire project, announced last month by Prof Nigel Biggar, has drawn widespread concern from historians of all stripes. And, as expected, it attracted some fierce criticism from academics.
An open letter from 58 Oxford scholars of empire registered disagreement with the project’s aims and preconceptions. I was its principal author. Co-signatories included world-renowned professors and younger researchers doing cutting-edge work in the field. Predictably, the subsequent media furore ignored the issues at stake. We were attacked for denying freedom of expression to views we oppose – when in fact we expressly affirmed it – or for holding “unbalanced”, prejudiced views of the history we have spent our professional lives studying. [continue reading]
London Review of Books
When the Iranian parliament, or Majlis, did exactly that [nationalised the AIOC] in March 1951, the British government retaliated by organising an embargo on Western purchases of Iranian oil. Indications that the prime minister, General Ali Razmara, might cut a deal with Britain led to his assassination. In short order Mossadegh – who as a leading member of the Majlis had engineered the AIOC takeover – became prime minister, an appointment to which the shah agreed with little enthusiasm. A protracted and extremely bitter stand-off ensued, with Britain demanding compensation that Iran was neither willing nor able to offer. The US was caught on the horns of a dilemma.
On the one hand, as a proud promoter of self-determination, it wished to identify itself with anti-colonialism. On the other, it felt obliged to show solidarity with Britain, which was the archetypal imperial power and a valued partner in the Cold War. In attempting to satisfy both requirements, the US found Mossadegh a less than ideal interlocutor. Americans who had dealt with him, chief among them Loy Henderson, the US ambassador, found him erratic and eccentric, not to say downright weird. No one questioned his credentials as an Iranian patriot, but he seemed to the Americans incapable of running a shoeshine stand, much less presiding over a government. A further complication was the position of the communist Tudeh Party. In Tehran and Washington US officials obsessed over Tudeh, suspecting it of plotting to overthrow the government or of conniving to ingratiate itself with Mossadegh and thereby gain power indirectly. [continue reading]
The Stakes of Historical Revisionism in Trump’s America: Teaching about the Comfort Women Atrocity in the Japanese Empire
Miriam Kingsberg Kadia
As a professor of modern Japanese history at a progressive-leaning institution in a liberal college town and now blue state, I often have the opportunity to reflect on this question. In particular, teaching about World War II—an unavoidable topic in nearly every conceivable course on my subject (modern Japanese history)—almost always provokes latent and overt statements of nationalism by a number of students of diverse backgrounds. American-born students, often the grandchildren of veterans, are, for instance, frequently eager to debate and defend the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My courses also enroll increasing numbers of students from mainland China, many of whom have studied some history of the Sino-Japanese war in their home country.
The discussion of Japanese imperial atrocities sometimes prompts these students to contribute PRC orthodoxy on matters such as the number of victims of the Nanjing Massacre (sometimes inflated by historians and journalists friendly to China and under-counted by sympathizers of Japanese nationalism). When students bring up the issue of numbers, I like to encourage them to speculate about why different nations and different historians within nations might advance different estimates. Ideally, regardless of their conclusions, my hope is that they will take away a better understanding of the ways in which the “facts” of past atrocities may be manipulated for domestic and international political advantages in the present. Less common, though not unheard of in my classroom, are expressions of Japanese neo-nationalism. In the past, some students born and educated in Japan have made statements defending or denying crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Japanese military. In spring 2017, for the first time in my experience, a non-Japanese undergraduate student advanced a revisionist argument regarding the euphemistically named “comfort women.” [continue reading]
On 1 December I attended SOAS University for a screening of the film ‘The Spider’s Web: Britain’s Second Empire’, co-produced by film maker Michael Oswald and John Christensen of the Tax Justice Network, and hosted by the SOAS Open Economics Forum and Dr. Ourania Dimakou. The Spider’s Web offers unique insight into the British Empire, both past and present, and its colonies and far flung outposts. This is a story which, if known at all, is often understood through a rose tinted view of what that British Empire actually represented. The Spider’s Web details how the former Empire was transformed after World War 2 into a new financial empire of offshore tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions. Nicholas Shaxson, author of ‘Treasure Islands’, notes that the historians Cain and Hopkins called the City of London the “Governor of the Imperial engine”, so it is perhaps no surprise to learn that ‘the City’ still controls the reigns of Britain’s second-run financial services empire, with as much as 25% of the global offshore market controlled by Britain and its satellites. As City University’s Ronan Palan observes:
“The City of London is a truly unique and interesting phenomenon, which should have attracted the attention of political scientists and economists, but I don’t know of anyone, who has systematically studied the Corporation of London and its impacts on policy and economic policy.”
The City of London and the Bank of England, experiencing a crisis of legitimacy marked by Britain’s declining global influence following World War 2 and the Suez crisis, facilitated the transformation of former British territories and dependencies such as the Cayman Islands and British Virgin Islands into tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions, taking a relaxed view of increasing corruption risk provided that the monetary flows benefited the UK. [continue reading]