Academics ought to be able to discuss colonialism and empire without flinching

In September, I commented on the controversy about a paper on The Case for Colonialism.  This week, a similar argument has exploded in the University of Oxford.  A proposal for a series of seminars on  the ‘Ethics of Empire‘ has been established in the University’s McDonald Centre.  It states that ’empire’ can mean many different things, that both “apologias and critiques” of  empire need to be tested against the historical evidence, and that there are lessons to be drawn for contemporary engagement by the Western Powers. (Note that it refers to “apologias” rather than “defences”; this is not an agenda that puts arguments for and against empire on an equal footing.)  The seminars that have taken place to date have considered the Assyrian, Roman and Chinese empires.

In reply, a letter to the Guardian has been sent by a large and assorted collection of 58 academics, mainly historians, who object to the premises of the proposal.  They claim that that the project is based in ignorance of current scholarship and proposes a “crude cost/benefit analysis” of empire.  (I cannot comment on the first, but if it is true, then a dedicated series of seminars featuring presentations of historical empires by international experts  should help to diminish the scope of the organisers’ ignorance.   I do know something about cost-benefit analysis, and I think I can say more confidently say that there is nothing in the proposal, either explicitly or implicitly, which does argue for such an approach.)  The objectors are on stronger ground when they write:  “Developing a ‘Christian ethics of empire’ is not an intellectually sound, let alone an academically robust, endeavour ”.  The suggestion that the project will offer “a nuanced and historically intelligent Christian ethic of empire” seems to imply that there can be such an ethic, analogous to the idea of a just war; that is controversial, and it may indeed be “political” in the terms criticised in the letter.

It hasn’t helped that the Daily Mail has now stuck its oar in.     The objectors are advocates of an “ugly totalitarianism’, and to prove the point the Mail digs out any mud that it can throw: some of them are opposed to Brexit, five are anti-Israel, and several are (gasp!) supporters of the Labour Party.  The Mail‘s article, by Guy Adams,  is rambling and ill-focused, but at the core it does have a point.  The objectors are basically trying to suppress a dispassionate discussion of  issues in an academic context, because it is framed in terms that they disagree with.  If we can’t discuss the Assyrian empire without prior political genuflections, we’re in trouble.

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