The idea that there could be some salubrious aspects to creating an empire (which of course means “colonization”) is about as taboo an idea you can have these days—save defending slavery. And that’s what Nigel Biggar discovered when he wanted to explore the pros and cons of empires. First, part of his c.v. from Wikipedia:
Nigel John Biggar(born 14 March 1955) is a British Anglican priest and theologian. From 2007 to 2022, he was the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford.
The article is about two projects of Biggar: an academic unit about colonialism at Oxford, and then his new book on the same topic. Click below to read how the Oxford project created hysterical opposition, and then how Biggar’s book on colonialism after first exciting a lot of interest at the publisher Bloomsbury, was effectively canceled when there was a public outcry. Bloomsbury then lied about why they had delayed publication. Further, Biggar’s five year project on “Ethics and Empire,” beginning in 2017 at Oxford, aroused such hostility that most of the project’s participants quit as The Offended tried to shut it down.
Now I’m no fan of colonialism and certainly not of empire, but I am also no fan of suppressing speech, either. If there’s a case to be made for the creation of empires like the Roman or British Empires, it should be hashed out and its proponents allowed to make their best case. How else can opponents hone or modify their ideas if the “case for empire” is simply shut down? To me, this is like banning Holocaust denialism, which I also believe should not be shut down. From reading about that denialism (most notably in Michael Shermer’s book Denying History) , I’ve been better able to argue for why it’s bogus to deny the Holocaust (you wouldn’t believe how clever and slippery the denialists are!). You can listen to a sample chapter of Shermer’s book here.
Back to Biggar. I admit that I don’t know squat about his views, either expressed in his Oxford project or his book, Colonialism: A Moral reckoning, which finally was published by William Collins. Here’s the published version; click to see the Amazon link:
The Project at Oxford. (Quotes from the article indented):
What had I done to deserve all this unexpected attention? Three things. In late 2015 and early 2016, I had offered a partial defense of the late-19th-century imperialist Cecil Rhodes during the Rhodes Must Fall campaign at Oxford. Then, in late November 2017, I published a column in The Times of London, in which I referred approvingly to Bruce Gilley’s controversial article “The Case for Colonialism,” and argued that we Britons have reason to feel pride as well as shame about our imperial past. Note: pride, as well as shame. And a few days later, third, I finally got around to publishing an online account of the “Ethics and Empire” project, whose first conference had in fact been held the previous July. Contrary to what the critics seemed to think, this project isn’t designed to defend the British Empire, or even empire in general. Rather, it aims to study evaluations of empire from ancient China to the modern period, to understand and reflect on the ethical terms in which empires have been viewed historically.
. . .That was quite enough to rouse the academic forces of repression. Responding to the online description of “Ethics and Empire,” Priyamvada Gopal—then a reader in postcolonial studies at the University of Cambridge, now promoted to professor—tweeted, “OMG. This is serious shit…. We need to SHUT THIS DOWN” (Dec. 13, 2017, 8:45 a.m.). A few minutes later, she issued a call to arms to “Oxford postcolonial academics” (8:49 a.m.). Among those who responded were Max Harris, fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, who tweeted, “Totally agree—more needs to be done” (5:08 p.m.), and “working on a response” (Dec. 14, 2017, 2:30 a.m.); and Jon Wilson, senior lecturer in history at King’s College London, who wrote, “We need a big well-argued letter signed by everyone who writes on empire” (Dec. 16, 2017, 12:39 a.m.), and, “I’ll be in touch with James [McDougall]” (2:14 a.m.). When the Oxford Open Letter appeared on Dec. 19, Max Harris and Jon Wilson were among its signatories, and James McDougall, professor of history at Oxford, was listed as its senior co-author. When the worldwide one followed on Dec. 21, Priyamvada Gopal’s name came first, then Jon Wilson’s.
Shortly afterward, Oxford’s Centre for Global History took its cue, almost verbatim, from the Oxford letter and announced on its website that it “is not involved” in the “Ethics and Empire” project headed by me and “other scholars at Oxford”—coyly declining to name John Darwin, who, until very recently, had been the Centre’s own director. That this was a statement of boycotting intent, not of mere fact, was evidenced by the Centre’s obliquely critical claim “to move beyond the problematic balance sheet of empires’ advantages and disadvantages” and to “shun imperial nostalgia.” When this notice was first posted, one of the Centre’s own members reported to me that no one had consulted him about it.
I am so tired of the moral fervor of people like Gopal, who screams “We need to SHUT THIS DOWN!” It is the cry of those who want to keep everyone from hearing what the screamer doesn’t want to hear herself. It is censorship, pure and simple.
Oxford, of course, followed Gopal when the open letters appeared, severing official ties with Biggar’s project. And several of his colleagues in the project simply resigned. But the project didn’t die: Biggar recruited four other historians and they’ve had three annual conferences.
The main goal of Biggar’s piece is to shame Bloomsbury Publishing for the way it treated him: first accepting his book with great approbation, and then, when the outcry began, “indefinitely delaying publication” without giving Biggar a reason, though he (and we) well know what the reason was. It was Empire, Jake! Biggar’s account does indeed make Bloomsbury look pretty dreaful, and, to use Biggar’s word, “craven.” Publishers are not in the business of putting out books that conform only to dominant ideologies; they are there to publish books that can edify, offend, and, overall, encourage discussion. Biggar’s book falls in that class.
The facts are these. In the wake of the public row in December 2017, I was approached by Robin Baird-Smith of Bloomsbury Publishing, who suggested that I should write a book on colonialism. Initially doubtful, I gave it some thought and eventually decided to take up his suggestion. In May 2018, Bloomsbury and I signed a contract. [JAC: Baird-Smith is now the senior publisher at Bloomsbury.]
Thirty months later, I delivered a manuscript, a nail-biting eight hours short of the deadline. On Jan. 5, Robin wrote to me, saying, “I consider this to be a book of major importance, certainly one of the most important on my list for some time…. Your research is exhaustive. I am speechless. Your argument is conveyed with care and precision. I say again, this is such an important book.” He predicted sales of 15,000 to 20,000 copies. The manuscript was entered into the copy-editing process, and a cover was designed.
Then, on March 15, an email arrived from Sarah Broadway, head of special-interest publishing at Bloomsbury. In it, she told me that “we are of the view that conditions are not currently favorable to publication” and that “we will therefore be postponing publication and will review the position next year.” She added, “If you are not happy with this, we will pay the balance of the advance due and revert the rights to you.”
I was stunned.
Twenty minutes on, I replied, asking, “Please explain what conditions make the publication of my book ‘currently unfavorable’ and what conditions next year might make it favorable.” Four days later, Broadway replied, revealing nothing and merely repeating, “We consider that public feeling on the subject does not currently support the publication of the book and will reassess that next year.”
A knowledgeable source informed me that senior Bloomsbury executives wanted me to volunteer to walk away, so that they could appease younger staff who had protested against being made to work on material they found objectionable. Since I had no alternative publisher waiting in the wings, I was strongly disinclined to comply. Instead, I decided to hire a lawyer to look at my contract in the hope that I might be able to make Bloomsbury proceed with publication. Alas, £600 later, I was told that a get-out clause permitted the publisher to walk away virtually at will. From my point of view, it was worthless.
What’s interesting here is the enthusiasm that Bloomsbury initially showed toward the manuscript (beside the plaudits above, remember that they accepted the book’s prospectus, which is a group decision, and forked out an advance) as opposed to the haste with which they backed off when faced with opposition. Note as well the duplicity of the publishers in coming clean about the “delay”, and the fact that it’s the younger people who seem to feel that publishers should only issue ideologically approved books (this same thing happened when Woody Allen’s memoirs were canceled).
Bigger wrote a strong letter to Bloomsbury, chewing their tuchas, and then made all his emails available to the Times of London, including those showing that Bloomsbury lied about delaying the book (the Times wrote about this just a few days ago). Biggar’s is a good letter, and was sent to the founder/director of Bloomsbury:
Since Bloomsbury decided to cancel my contract, I took the only option left me and gave my consent.
I do not wish to conclude this correspondence without communicating the depth of my dismay at Bloomsbury’s conduct. You commissioned me to write a book on colonialism. I submitted the text on time. Your own commissioning editor, Robin Baird-Smith, described it as ‘a book of major importance, certainly one of the most important on my list for some time.’ He predicted sales of 15,000 to 20,000 copies. And yet you decided to cancel my contract because of ‘public feeling.’
This ‘public feeling’ was sufficiently clear to you to warrant cancelling a contract. Yet, in spite of two requests, you refused to be transparent with me about it.
Of course, it is quite clear what it is. The public feeling that concerns you is that of—for want of a more scientific term—the ‘woke’ left. This is an illiberal movement that agitates to suppress the expression of any views that offend it. Since my book exposes several of its basic assumptions as false, you correctly anticipated that the ‘woke’ section of public feeling would be offended by it.
Therefore, rather than publish cogent arguments and important truths that would attract the aggression of these illiberals, you chose to align yourselves with them by de-platforming me. In so doing, you have made your own contribution to the expansion of authoritarianism and the shrinking of moral and political diversity among us.
I can quite understand, then, why you were unwilling to be transparent about your reasons. They are shameful.
Yes they are.
Go have a look at the last two paragraphs in which Biggar draws some conclusions about the substitution of hysteria for rational discussion and about about the willingness of publishers to defer to the younger members of their companies. He finishes with this:
That’s why it’s so important that Bloomsbury be held to account in public—so that they, and other publishers, see the reputational costs of unprincipled cravenness.
To me the lesson is also that of Hitchens, Mill, Milton, and other free-speech advocates. If someone wants to argue against the “received wisdom”, it is important not just to let them speak, but it is more important to let them speak than those who parrot the current ideas. And it’s most important that people listen to the most heterodox ideas. I haven’t read Biggar’s book and don’t know what’s in it, but the fervor and censoriousness of its opponents make it all the more important to read and consider.
h/t: T. m.