Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Trying to look on the bright side of colonialism

There has been a big flap this week about an article published in Third World Quarterly entitled 'The Case for Colonialism' by Bruce Gilley at Portland State University. The controversy seemingly revolves around how the article was published by the journal's editor despite having been rejected by its reviewers, i.e. a violation of the peer review process. But, of course, the complaints are not purely about the process of the paper coming to light: after all, the author is arguing that colonialism was largely a good thing, and we should have more of it. There would be much less political buzz if the journal's editor had, over the objections of reviewers, approved a paper called 'The Case Against Colonialism.'

As for the paper itself, it is something of a train wreck, and there is a strong case for thinking the reviewers (whose reviews are apparently under lock and key) were right. Gilley maps out a series of epistemic virtues (non-biased data and case selection, internal coherence, falsifiability of claims), which he uses to criticize those opposed to colonialism. In the course of building his own argument, however, he violates all of them, and how. You could base a drinking game on how many times he hoists himself on his own petard. Just one example: Gilley claims that colonialism had 'subjective legitimacy' because, he writes, the colonized populations generally approved of colonial powers and governance. His 'data' for this sweeping claim throughout the paper largely comes in the form of journalistic impressions and anecdotal remarks. This is not the worst of it. As others have pointed out, the most damning problem with the article is his relentless cherry-picking of benefits from colonial rule together with a complete disregard for the long-term and widespread damage colonial rule caused or the self-serving and usually racist motivations behind it. It does not take much effort to see the piece, particularly in the current US political climate, as historical revisionism in the service of white supremacy. No doubt defenders of such views will object that academia should be open to 'alternative voices' in the name of the First Amendment. But academic journals have no obligation to be open to crappy papers.

What could have been more interesting, instead of making a case for colonialism, is a critical analysis of the myriad ways former colonies grapple with the legacies of colonialism, since they are typically unable to fully embrace or reject them. Whatever 'benefits' might be attributed to colonialism cannot be disentangled from harms and violations; there are no real concepts to faithfully describe this. Tainted benefits? Abuses with an upside? When you drive the N1 out of Cape Town in South Africa, you are enjoying one of the best highways in Africa. You are also 'enjoying' the fruits of the Apartheid system, built by cheap labor, and as you drive, you can see townships where populations of non-whites were dumped and continue to experience the effects of political oppression. Reading Gilley is like hearing someone say: "Get over it. Don't you see you have a highway? So blind, so ungrateful."

Is there a link here to bioethics? I think so. Bioethics workers in developing countries are in a similarly uncomfortable position of being unable to fully reject assumptions, preoccupations and frameworks originating from the richer countries of the north, but also unable to fully embrace them without losing touch with (and being useful for) their own local context. The decolonization of bioethics in Africa, whose shape is hard to discern, will be a long work in progress.

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