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How the hate mob tried to silence me
December 2017 / January 2018

Sir Alan Burns: Defended colonial rule at the UN (PRIVATE COLLECTION)

“The Case for Colonialism” was my answer. I approached the question in three ways. The “colonialism as history” section is mainly methodological: how do we set up a research design that is not juiced with anti-colonial (or pro-colonial) bias? The “colonialism as present” section was mainly a recounting of Guinea-Bissau and its astounding human tragedy after a Soviet-armed war against Portuguese rule. The “colonialism as future” section was about applying evidence-based lessons learned. Can we reclaim what Achebe called the “great human story” of colonialism’s benefits while avoiding its pitfalls? If so, how?

Perhaps a more nuanced title would have been politic. Yet I was reminded of the narrator in V.S. Naipaul’s 1967 novel The Mimic Men who leads anti-colonial mobs to destroy a humane British colony in the Caribbean: “We wondered why no one had called our bluff. We felt our success to be fraudulent.” It needed a straightforward title because I wanted to call the bluff: anti-colonial ideology is often logically incoherent and empirically false.

In retrospect, I should have been more careful to distinguish between early and late colonialism, and to highlight the many inexcusable atrocities that occurred under European rule, inexcusable not just in the normal sense but also in the Burkean sense of an extra duty of care, a “sacred trust”, that comes with alien rule. And frankly, I overstated the evidentiary basis for the legitimacy of colonial regimes: the fact is, we simply don’t have sufficient data to know for sure.

I first submitted the essay to a well-known UK-based political science journal owned by a big European publisher. The editor was enthusiastic and asked me to bulk up the literature review before he sent it for peer review. “I really think it is a very powerful piece,” he wrote to me. When the reviews came back, one was mostly positive and one was mostly negative, but both were stamped “Reject”. As the editor later told me, he had argued for the piece to be published alongside critical responses. The question had gone to the journal’s editorial board. They (correctly as it turned out) anticipated a fury and decided it was not worth the grief. As the editor late wrote to me: “I am sorry our reviewers and editorial board decided to play it safe, but I also understand their position (fear of political backlash).”

My next stop was the London-based Third World Quarterly (TWQ), where I had previously published two peer-reviewed articles. The journal had been founded in 1979 to be “an open-minded and sympathetic search for establishing an international order based on justice” and “a forum for informed and reasoned debate.” It had tilted far left for most of the time since, but its gentle Pakistani-born editor since 1990, Shahid Qadir, had remained adventurous. Too much for his own good as it turned out. The article went through the normal peer review process. As before, the two reviews were split, one positive and one negative. As before, the editor wanted to publish it. Unlike the first editor, Qadir did not run it through a political litmus test first. When the article appeared online, the fury was immediate and intense.

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July 23rd, 2018
3:07 PM
@sam butler great blog. @Bruce Gilley: hero. You sir have given me a new direction in life. A new respect for my ancestors and myself. I am a proud barbarian and I will build the hoard. Fear us.

January 6th, 2018
5:01 PM
According to the journal website the article went through double blind peer review. HELLER DOES NOT MENTION THIS IN HIS COMMENT ABOVE.

Prof. Kevin Heller
December 27th, 2017
11:12 AM
Not surprisingly, the author fails to mention that, according to the 15 members of TWQ's Editorial Board that resigned, the article did not pass peer review, but was in fact rejected by three separate reviewers, including one that was given the essay after it had already been rejected by the editors of the Special issue in question.

Prof. Kevin Jon Heller
December 27th, 2017
8:12 AM
Call me crazy, but ignoring all of the substantive criticism of the essay and arguing "some of my best friends are colonial peoples" might not be the most effective rhetorical strategy.

Sam Butler
December 20th, 2017
3:12 PM
I'm grateful to Bruce Gilley for his bravery. Here's a minor contribution to the debate:

Lawrence Jamess
December 5th, 2017
8:12 AM
I have encountered many Indians who appreciate the value of British rule. Its denigrators are most Indian academics who have created a cosy myth of a stable progressive pre-imperial sib-continent. One assumes, perhaps wickedly, that they would be happy to see the return of dacoits, the cults of thagi and sati, and the rule of a Muslim dynasty,

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