From the great British Empire debate to the internet revival of the invented language of Esperanto, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
New York Review of Books
The 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 It was eventually withdrawn after the editor “received serious and credible threats of personal violence.”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.” [continue reading]
Christian G. Appy
Exactly a year before he was murdered, Martin Luther King, Jr., gave one of the greatest speeches of his life, a piercing critique of the war in Vietnam. Two thousand people jammed into New York’s Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, to hear King shred the historical, political, and moral claims that U.S. leaders had invoked since the end of World War II to justify their counterrevolutionary foreign policy. The United States had not supported Vietnamese independence and democracy, King argued, but had repeatedly opposed it; the United States had not defended the people of South Vietnam from external communist aggression, but was itself the foreign aggressor—burning and bombing villages, forcing peasants off their ancestral land, and killing, by then, as many as one million Vietnamese. “We are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure,” King said, “while we create a hell for the poor.”
The war was an “enemy of the poor” at home as well. Not only were poor black and white boys sent “to kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools,” but the vast expense required to obliterate an impoverished, nonwhite nation 8,000 miles away eviscerated the domestic social programs that had promised to narrow economic and racial inequalities at home. The military draft, for instance, offered deferments and exemptions that favored the privileged while programs such as Project 100,000 enlisted men from “the subterranean poor”—men so badly educated they would once have been rejected for military service. Project 100,000 was touted as a program of social uplift, but in reality, it sent poor men to the front lines as cannon fodder, further proving King’s point that the promises of the Great Society were “shot down on the battlefield of Vietnam.” [continue reading]
This month, Sri Lanka, unable to pay the onerous debt to China it has accumulated, formally handed over its strategically located Hambantota port to the Asian giant. It was a major acquisition for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – which President Xi Jinping calls the “project of the century” – and proof of just how effective China’s debt-trap diplomacy can be.
Unlike International Monetary Fund and World Bank lending, Chinese loans are collateralized by strategically important natural assets with high long-term value (even if they lack short-term commercial viability). Hambantota, for example, straddles Indian Ocean trade routes linking Europe, Africa, and the Middle East to Asia. In exchange for financing and building the infrastructure that poorer countries need, China demands favorable access to their natural assets, from mineral resources to ports. [continue reading]
In June of 1971, Gar Alperovitz, a thirty-five-year-old historian, sped through suburban Boston, looking for an out-of-the-way pay phone to use to call a reporter. Alperovitz had never considered himself much of a risk-taker. The father of two ran a small economic think tank focussed on community-building. He had participated in demonstrations against the Vietnam War and rung doorbells with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Boston, as part of an antiwar campaign. But what he was doing on this day, propelled by his desire to end the conflict, could lead to federal prison.
He pulled his old Saab up to a phone booth on the outskirts of Harvard Square, and rang a hotel room nearby. When the reporter picked up, Alperovitz identified himself with the alias he had adopted: “It’s Mr. Boston.” Alperovitz told the journalist to open the door. Waiting in the hallway was a cardboard box, left minutes before by a runner working with Alperovitz. Inside were several hundred pages of the most sought-after documents in the United States—the top-secret Vietnam history known as the Pentagon Papers. [continue reading]
Jose Luis Penarredonda
In a small house in north London, six enthusiastic young men are having their weekly language lesson. They are taking part in a 130-year old tradition that has survived war and scorn, chaos and oblivion, Hitler and Stalin. They are not getting some practice in before a trip to a foreign country. The language they are learning will probably never help them get a job or buy groceries on a city break abroad – most of them only get to actually speak it once a week, in these lessons.
Yet, it is a full-fledged tongue, complete with poetry and profanities. Since it was first proposed in a small booklet written by Ludwik L Zamenhof in 1887, it has evolved into the quintessential invented language, the liveliest and most popular ever created. But, many would tell you, Esperanto is a failure. More than a century after it was created, its current speaker base is just some two million people – a geeky niche, not unlike the fan base of any other obscure hobby. So why are more people than ever trying to learn it? [continue reading]