It feels like a strawman or too easy a target, but Ross Douthat is published in the national newspaper of record. Thus, when he defines empire as glorious, England’s “world-bestriding past,” and slams the nationalist independence movement in Scotland, he is speaking for, and to, many:
“For much of European history, empire was the normal political arrangement:
[What is supposed to be “normal” about it? I see empires rise and fall for a few centuries each in European history, but I wouldn’t call them normal. There is more complexity. For example, my gaze is always trained on England 1500-1700, and there was no unified Europe. One can make an argument for global, longue-duree empires, inter-imperiality a la Doyle, but Douthat is too superficial for that. Why the focus on Europe? Asia and Africa are marked strongly by empires, several of which bordered on Europe.]
“Large, polyglot, multiethnic and eventually multireligious, with a monarch on top and a jostling confederation underneath.”
[What is distinctively European about any of this? European colonial empires in the sense of which Douthat is speaking did not begin until maybe the 1400s. Multiethnic: is this the new euphemism for slave-holding? And I like that “eventually.” Jesuitical coward at words. Europe has been devastated repeatedly by religious wars for most of its history.]
“Then came modernity, democracy and nationalism, and the ‘nations’ of Europe — half-real, half-invented — demanded self-determination and self-rule.”
[Again, what is this assumption that nationhood is ever “real”? Ever not invention?]
“Between 1914 and 1945 (with a final act in the Balkans in the 1990s), this led to world-historical disaster, mass exterminations, ruthless wars for mastery.”
[Has this man heard of the period 1000-1500? One or two ruthless wars and massacres then.]
“But out of those conflicts came a new kind of hybrid order. The nations would have self-rule, within borders redrawn by war and ethnic cleansing.”
[Lord knows Europe never saw war or ethnic cleansing until all this pesky democracy . . . ]
“But they would be supervised by a kind of postmodern empire, an imperial bureaucracy without the emperor — the European Union.”
And this is an American speaking! A (presumed) lover of liberty. Dear sir, do you recall a small conflict sometimes called the War of Independence? When thirteen colonies rejected the control of an empire?
Independence may not be easy, or possible without radical systemic change, but it certainly ought not be slandered this way. Scotland, to say nothing of Ireland, has a long history of being attacked and exploited for its resources by England. I was just reading Seamus Heaney’s introduction to his translation of Beowulf (not 100% recommended, because he tends to rely on previous translators, but that’s beside the point) where he reminds us of Irish sufferings under the colonialist hand of England. It is worth pointing out that Ireland and Scotland would be likely to have a stronger economic position in the world today if they had not suffered centuries of imperialist aggression.
This desperate, half-hearted defense of empire, without even a reference to the exploitation of India, or to the eagerness of so many colonies to gain independence, seems based wholly on economy, not ethics. Impoverishment of discourse. At least Kipling’s broad, raw Britons had some satiric depth.
“The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands”
Take up the White Man’s burden, Send forth the best ye breed
Go bind your sons to exile, to serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness, On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child.
Take up the White Man’s burden, In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit, And work another’s gain.
Take up the White Man’s burden, The savage wars of peace—
Fill full the mouth of Famine And bid the sickness cease;
And when your goal is nearest The end for others sought,
Watch sloth and heathen Folly Bring all your hopes to nought.
Take up the White Man’s burden, No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper, The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living, And mark them with your dead.
Take up the White Man’s burden And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better, The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour (Ah, slowly!) toward the light:—
“Why brought he us from bondage, Our loved Egyptian night?”
Take up the White Man’s burden, Ye dare not stoop to less—
Nor call too loud on Freedom To cloke your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper, By all ye leave or do,
The silent, sullen peoples Shall weigh your gods and you.
Take up the White Man’s burden, Have done with childish days—
The lightly proferred laurel, The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood, through all the thankless years
Cold, edged with dear-bought wisdom, The judgment of your peers!