“So, notwithstanding its anti-slavery efforts, was the British Empire centrally, essentially racist?

 

As with slavery, so with racism, before considering its bearing on the empire, we need first to reflect on what we mean by it. All the more so, because the meaning of ‘racism’ has so expanded in recent times that it obscures several morally significant distinctions and is made to apply to some phenomena that do not deserve it. An uncontroversial, formal definition of ‘racism’ would be ‘a pejorative attitude of a member of one race for all the members of another race’. So understood, what is objectionable about ‘racism’ is what is objectionable about any prejudice directed at other people—whether they are members of a race, nation, a social class or a religion—namely, that it prejudges the individual by regarding him or her simply as a member of a group, automatically attributing to the individual that group’s supposed characteristics, which are stereotyped in unflattering terms. So the sins of racism are two: first, the racial group is viewed in relentlessly negative terms; and second, the individual is not permitted to appear as anything other than a member of such a group. The group is simplified negatively, and the dignity of the individual is brushed aside.

 

. . . what is meant by ‘a race’ is not susceptible to precise definition . . . More commonly nowadays ‘race’ is used, even more imprecisely, to lump together all manner of finer distinction between different kinds of white or black. The safest definition of ‘race’ is still a vague one: it refers to an ethnic group marked by distinctive physical and cultural features.” (Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning by Nigel Biggar (2023, pages 67 and 68, 297 total pages)

 

 

A Pea and a Carrot: Two Reviews in One

 

Today, Praxis Circle offers a summer reading project for those interested who want to have some fun and who have time that needs filling during these lazy, hazy days of summer. (Where did lazy summers go?!? Gone with the wind, like failed empires . . .)

This will be the shortest book review in word length in Praxis Circle history per total number pages of the two books covered in this proposed summer project (372 pages + 297 pages = 669 total pages). I finished them both on December 31 last year, when thinking about warmer days, which would be now in our currently beautiful summer in Virginia.

The object of this summer project would be to learn a lot of interesting material on by far the largest empire in world history—the British Empire—and to pass judgment on its Great Sin: Colonialism. (All European countries were guilty, as were most “successful” nations or empires in the world prior to the word “colonialism” being invented likely in 1791, when first used in a letter by Jeremy Bentham.)

Your summer project would begin with reading Niall Ferguson’s fascinating Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2002, 372 pages with lots of pictures) to get the background, and then Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning (2023, 297 pages with no pictures, but much astute moral analysis) to begin forming your own moral judgement of that same Anglo empire. Niall Ferguson is a Scottish-American historian, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and at Harvard University, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali‘s husband. Nigel Biggar is a professor emeritus in moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford.

“Who am I to judge?” one might ask, and “Why do so?”

Well, you are you, that’s who, and you have every right to judge. In fact, you might have a duty to do so as a human moral agent. What you would do with that judgement I cannot say, but I’m sure it would help you navigate the morass of our “postmodern” and “woke” world, where no morality except my own is the prevailing standard. Reading these two books will help you sift through the minefields we face now across America and the West, just in time for a big American election likely between two white men. All of their power originated from islands between the North Sea and the Atlantic’s Gulf Stream. Being masters of the sea, a budding modernity tied to free enterprise with national elements, and the rule of law were perhaps the British tickets to empire. In the end, we are talking about assessing and judging at least 500 years of world history, so there could be no end to your study, if you become really interested. We are talking about extremely significant history in virtually every corner of the world.

Certainly, the subject is more than worthy and endlessly engaging, no matter your race, sex, or national persuasion. These are works of significant scholarship made enjoyably readable for average persons like us.

 

Five Points

 

I will offer just a few more comments before ending. First, the truism is true: Neither Rome nor the British Empire were built in a day. Not that they just kinda happened, but they just kinda did happen. It could have happened very differently. To say the Empire was a conspiracy is to overrate the evil British kings, queens, and “colonists.” Culture is created over generations, and its evolution in human praxis never stops. It’s difficult to pick a starting point for the development of such an empire as Great Britain and its United Kingdom, but Dr. Ferguson begins somewhere in the 1500s, when the Spanish Empire was by far the wealthiest and most successful empire in Europe. No one was betting on London then. If you would like an audio overview of Ferguson’s Empire, a good option appears just below. Another in video with Niall Ferguson himself appears in six episodes here.

 

 

Second, I thoroughly enjoyed both books and was left with a feeling of amazement of what human beings can accomplish when culture somehow works, but also a strong reminder, if not a deeper appreciation, of the inhumanity of man-to-man. The vast majority of the time we cannot easily place human beings today or in hindsight into two categories of “the oppressors” and “the oppressed” and then point the finger of blame and shame on one group. All forms of humanity are more than guilty as charged over extended periods. Not only is this part of my own worldview, it’s the obvious truth. Many times moral motives produce immoral results, and vice versa. And, of course, there is just plain goodness and badness applied from the hearts of individual men and women. History is incredibly complex, though these bestselling two books do a remarkable job of simplifying explanations and the issues. They make sense of whole epochs of history.

Third, I will note that Biggar offers his moral reckoning across almost the entire range of moral questions that empire’s into the modern era face from those living and passing judgment today (again, such judgment being necessary to scout future pathways): good and bad motives, slavery, human equality, cultural superiority, racism, the struggle over land, conquest, cultural assimilation, genocide, free trade, investment, exploitation (“capitalism”), government, the legitimacy of nationalism, justified force, and pervasive violence. Of course, again, there is quite a lot of badness—and goodness—in humanity. Biggar thinks outside-the-box as one would expect from a highly-trained ethicist, and he even assumes the moral positions of many with whom he utterly disagrees (like Marxists and postmodernists) when assessing the historical territory. Colonialism is an admirable work of applied objectivity.

 

 

Fourth, I offer the long quote at the beginning of this post about racism because defining terms and standards is vital to making any moral judgment at all, and Biggar, again, does this well. Furthermore, as mentioned in the quote itself, a similar definition can be applied to virtually any definition of immorality that identitarians might employ. (Identitarians are those who engage in applying critical theory across identities for moral, political, or power-game purposes. They are often the self-appointed woke, cultural Marxists, postmodernists, or anarchists.)

If you would like to read an unfavorable review of Colonialism, please read this review appearing in The Guardian. If you would like a favorable review, see this review appearing in The Wall Street Journal. (And discussions with Jordan Peterson —see link—are always fun for a host of reasons.)

What are the opposing worldviews of these two reviewing writers? How would they likely answer the issues raised by each other? These are interesting questions you might consider when done reading Empire and Colonialism near the end of your Summer of 2024 Project. In my opinion, reading these two books will equip you to do so. You do not need to be a history major. Focusing in a lot more on the intense goodness or badness of what actually happened or adding volumes of more evidence probably would not change your verdict much. (That’s how worldview usually works.)

Fifth, I would submit that much of this analysis could be applied to virtually any great empire, including the United States, as it spread from “sea to shining sea.” It helps place our approaching July 4 holiday in much bigger, better, and more critical perspective. Bring it on and celebrate.

 

To Judge or Not to Judge?

 

My own view is I’m glad the Empire got us here and that America and the Wests exists to benefit the world from moral and human flourishing points of view. Our culture and political freedom allows these kinds of books to be written and such debates to occur in search of truth. Classical Judeo-Christianity supplies the moral foundation of our civilization that makes moral reasoning possible. Without that, we are nothing. We have done quite ok together as diverse peoples and human beings, and it’s time for us to move on from historionics driven by questionable motives. We should quit pointing fingers at those who came before us during radically different times, while trying to advance personal gain from it today. Most alive today had nothing whatsoever to do with any of this, and it is nearly impossible to trace injustices back generations.

We are all born in the image of God and deserve to be judged as persons, not as “identities.” No two human beings are alike, each of us has moral agency, and much of the time we cannot know the true motives or circumstances of others. Judging anyone purely on identity is radically unjust and un-American today, and such behavior deserves its own moral reckoning.

Come to think of it, such a moral reckoning is right around the corner for each of us . . . in this world or the next. You think it’s hot now? Just wait ’til your time on the scales of life.

Now back to the pool, the shade under the pine trees, the breeze off the Bay, and a cut watermelon on the picnic table.