May 13, 2002


Two Cheers for Colonialism (DINESH D'SOUZA, May 10, 2002, Chronicle of Higher Education)
The assault against colonialism and its legacy has many dimensions, but at its core it is a theory of oppression that relies on three premises: First,
colonialism and imperialism are distinctively Western evils that were inflicted on the non-Western world. Second, as a consequence of colonialism, the West became rich and the colonies became impoverished; in short, the West succeeded at the expense of the colonies. Third, the descendants of colonialism are worse off than they would be had colonialism never occurred.

After deconstructing these claims to devastating effect, Mr. D'Souza makes a particularly lucid point :
[T]he greatest benefit that the British provided to the Indians: They taught them the language of freedom. Once again, it was not the objective of the colonial rulers to encourage rebellion. But by exposing Indians to the ideas of the West, they did. The Indian leaders were the product of Western civilization. Gandhi studied in England and South Africa; Nehru was a product of Harrow and Cambridge. That exposure was not entirely to the good; Nehru, for example, who became India's first prime minister after independence, was highly influenced by Fabian socialism through the teachings of Harold Laski. The result was that India had a mismanaged socialist economy for a generation. But my broader point is that the champions of Indian independence acquired the principles, the language, and even the strategies of liberation from the civilization of their oppressors. This was true not just of India but also of other Asian and African countries that broke free of the European yoke.

My conclusion is that against their intentions, the colonialists brought things to India that have immeasurably enriched the lives of the descendants of colonialism. It is doubtful that non-Western countries would have acquired those good things by themselves. It was the British who, applying a universal notion of human rights, in the early 19th century abolished the ancient Indian institution of suttee -- the custom of tossing widows on their husbands' funeral pyres. There is no reason to believe that the Indians, who had practiced suttee for centuries, would have reached such a conclusion on their own. Imagine an African or Indian king encountering the works of Locke or Madison and saying, "You know, I think those fellows have a good point. I should relinquish my power and let my people decide whether they want me or someone else to rule." Somehow, I don't see that as likely.

Colonialism was the transmission belt that brought to Asia, Africa, and South America the blessings of Western civilization. Many of those cultures continue to have serious problems of tyranny, tribal and religious conflict, poverty, and underdevelopment, but that is not due to an excess of Western influence; rather, it is due to the fact that those countries are insufficiently Westernized. Sub-Saharan Africa, which is probably in the worst position, has been described by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as "a cocktail of disasters." That is not because colonialism in Africa lasted so long, but because it lasted a mere half-century. It was too short a time to permit Western institutions to take firm root. Consequently, after their independence, most African nations have retreated into a kind of tribal barbarism that can be remedied only with more Western influence, not less. Africa needs more Western capital, more technology, more rule of law, and more individual freedom.

We do well not to romanticize Imperialism, if for no other reason than that laid out by Orwell in Shooting an Elephant, that it corroded the soul of the colonists as much as the colonized, but the broad trends of the post-Colonial era do raise the question of whether those nations that experienced British overlordship are not vastly better off than those that did not. The cases of America, Canada, Australia, etc. are obvious, but in these nations the natives were largely wiped out. More interesting are places like India, Bangladesh, etc., where, despite predictable difficulties, robust liberal democracies have taken root. Thanks to British rule the peoples of these nations, as Mr. D'Souza says, learned "the language of freedom" and they used it against their oppressors and have subsequently, if intermittently, held themselves to its standards. Though the legacy of colonialism is mixed, this aspect at least is an unalloyed good. Posted by Orrin Judd at May 13, 2002 7:34 AM
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