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Thirty-four years ago, I set off for Istanbul and the eastern Mediterranean on a two-year fellowship from the Institute of Current World Affairs (ICWA). Not long after I returned, I joined the outfit’s governing board, and later, for something like five years, I chaired that board.
One summer, ICWA’s executive director, who had been a fellow in Africa in the 1950s, organized a symposium on Africa in which the six or seven surviving former fellows who had done tours of duty on that continent in the 1950s and 1960s returned to discuss the post-independence trajectory of the countries in which they had then resided. All had once been enthusiasts who anticipated African independence and the end of colonialism with eagerness and joy. Not one of them, however, had a good word to say about the years that followed. Attending the conference was a bit like attending a funeral. It was clear that nearly all of the countries of Africa that were then independent had been better off when governed by the powers of Europe.
I mention this event because there is a pertinent piece on the website Legal Insurrection that deserves close attention. Written under the pseudonym “Occam’s Razor” by a graduate student who prefers anonymity to retaliation on the part of his instructors, it has as its focus the fate of an article entitled “The Case for Colonialism” penned by Professor Bruce Gilley of Portland State University, a political scientist who did his Ph.D. at Princeton and has published four important university press books including Tiger on the Brink: Jiang Zemin and China’s New Elite. (1998) and The Right to Rule: How States Win and Lose Legitimacy (2009).
Professor Gilley’s article, which was written with an eye to posing a forbidden question and initiating a debate, was accepted by Third World Quarterly and published this past August. But, instead of giving rise to an informed exchange of views, as Occam’s Razor explains, it provoked indignation and elicited an uproar — resignations from the journal’s editorial board, denunciations, and demands that the article be retracted and that the journal’s editor be dismissed. One petition along these lines — drafted by a dancer who has a master’s degree in project management from the University of Salford in Britain — attracted more than ten thousand signatures. Another, drafted by an associate professor of English and Director of the Critical Race Network at the University of Winnipeg attracted nearly seven thousand supporters. The latter read as follows:
The sentiments expressed in this article reek of colonial disdain for Indigenous peoples and ignore ongoing colonialism in white settler nations. The author ponders “what would likely have happened in a given place absent colonial rule?” (2) with the predictably racist conclusion that peoples and cultures would have remained “primitive,” relying upon an obscene, reductive colonial epithet. The author suggests a return of invasive, forced Western governance based on the purported “consent of the colonized” (2), which is a ludicrous proposal to anyone who has even a remote awareness of the history of national revolutions and independence movements. The author’s argument that colonized peoples “saw the benefits of being governed by a modernised and liberal state” (4) attempts to validate the white man’s burden ideology denounced by scholars such as Gayatri Spivak in her foundational essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak.” Gilley then devolves again into his white supremacist and Eurocentric call for “civility.” The point that “Western countries should be encouraged to hold power in specific governance areas (public finances, say, or criminal justice)” (2) cannot be taken out of the context in which BIPOC around the world are surveilled, disenfranchised, and murdered by colonial and state structures of criminal “justice.” This condescension also infantilizes and dehumanizes BIPOC [Black Indigenous Peoples of Color] by claiming that they are incapable of self-governance. This is especially appalling when the author elsewhere in the article takes the words of multiple decolonial scholars of colour out of context in order to justify his violence against their respective communities and cultures.
We prefer to be brief here and not spend our valuable time doing the work that your peer-reviewers and editorial board members should have done. We will close by asserting that this article is not only offensive but damaging. It is an active attack on BIPOC scholars, thinkers, and people, as well as on the project of decolonization. In our current political context, the lives and safety of BIPOC, refugees, and allies are being threatened by radicalized white supremacist groups. These kinds of ideas are not simply abstract provocations, but have real, material consequences for those who Prof. Gilley seeks to dominate and objectify. Regardless of its intention, and we are already suspicious of those intentions given Professor Gilley’s publication history and fields of inquiry, this article is harmful and poorly executed pseudo-“scholarship” and should be retracted immediately.
In dismay, the mild-mannered author of the offending article initially asked that it be withdrawn (then reportedly came to have misgivings about his decision). To his great credit, the journal’s editor, Shahid Qahir, refused to agree and explained why:
As journal publishers, we operate under the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) Code of Conduct. Among other things, COPE set out guidelines for situations in which a paper might be retracted. Peer-reviewed research articles cannot simply be withdrawn but must have grounds for retraction. These parameters exist in order to keep the scholarly record intact and so academic discourse cannot be shaped by any one opinion. Any request to change the scholarly record needs to follow a fair and transparent process, which is in line with these guidelines. As the publisher it is our role to treat this case as we would any other. On Thursday 21st September, the author contacted the journal’s editorial team, requesting the essay be withdrawn. In subsequent discussion with the author we have explained the above procedure and guidelines that we follow in all cases. As a result, the article remains online. In publishing this essay, it was never our, or the Editor-in-Chief’s, intention to cause offence or to open academic discourse up to ‘click-bait’. We wholeheartedly apologize to those who have seen this as such but, as the publisher, we stand by the peer review process which led to this essay being published and defend the right of our academic journal editors and editorial boards to remain independent in their decision-making. Third World Quarterly is a journal with a long-standing history of balanced debate, and, as with all Routledge journals, it follows industry-wide best practice in its peer-review and publication process. As an organization, Routledge has a history of publishing challenging, peer-reviewed content across the social sciences, opening up new paths for research which shape the fields in which our journals publish. Through nearly 200 years, we have not shied away from publishing what some may see as controversial material, maintaining strict editorial independence on our journals whilst ensuring the articles we publish go through a rigorous peer-review process and follow the polices we put in place as a company. This essay did undergo those processes and so, whilst its contents may make many of us uncomfortable (and indeed upset), we do not see it as our role to censor what is undoubtedly a highly controversial view.
Academics are not, by and large, a courageous lot. The system by which they secure tenure more often than not trains them in servility, and these days the hard left on our major campuses have the whip hand and are generous in applying the lash. Few have as much backbone as Qahid Shahir displayed on this occasion.
I wish that I could end this story here. But, alas, I cannot. Bruce Gilley’s article can no longer be accessed on the website of Third World Quarterly. Instead, at the pertinent link, one finds the following:
This Viewpoint essay has been withdrawn at the request of the academic journal editor, and in agreement with the author of the essay. Following a number of complaints, Taylor & Francis conducted a thorough investigation into the peer review process on this article. Whilst this clearly demonstrated the essay had undergone double-blind peer review, in line with the journal’s editorial policy, the journal editor has subsequently received serious and credible threats of personal violence. These threats are linked to the publication of this essay. As the publisher, we must take this seriously. Taylor & Francis has a strong and supportive duty of care to all our academic editorial teams, and this is why we are withdrawing this essay.
As Peter Wood, the President of the National Association of Scholars, explains at the website Minding the Campus, Gilley and Qadir have had their lives threatened – in the latter case by Indian nationalists. The article has, of course, garnered more readers than any other article ever published by Third World Quarterly, and it still can be found at the link I provided near the top of this post. But, as Wood, adds, there is still a problem.
It lies in the successful deployment of professional opprobrium and actual threats of murder to kill the article. That success was ultimately aimed at ensuring that other scholars who dissent from the contemporary orthodoxy of anti-colonialism will keep their mouths shut. It is further aimed at ensuring that generations of students will see no whisper of dissent from this orthodoxy in the published literature, and hear no hint of it from their instructors.
The desire of the anti-colonialist faction to reach beyond Gilley to intimidate other scholars who might pick up his thread is a backhanded acknowledgment of Gilley’s credibility and the force of his argument. Numerous scholars in the field are saying things to the effect that recognition of the positive effects of colonialism is long overdue. Such accolades are circulating widely but not—or not yet—openly. The anti-colonialist faction knows this and is desperate to keep the cork in the bottle.
One way the cork is kept in place is by intimidating college and university authorities. If the dean, provost, and presidents were living up to their responsibilities, they would be opening misconduct investigations in instances where faculty members have sought to intimidate, threaten, or censor views they disagree with. If academic freedom is to mean anything at all, it has to be enforced. We are in a period where college authorities frequently do nothing in the face of shout-downs of invited speakers and actual campus riots. Mizzou, Yale, Middlebury, Claremont McKenna, and Evergreen stand out in the public eye as the exemplars of such nonfeasance on the part of college presidents.
The whip of public scorn was enough to convince the presidents of Middlebury, Claremont McKenna, and Evergreen to take token actions against a handful of the student rioters—and no action at all against the faculty members who instigated them. But the general picture remains that college authorities do as little as they possibly can to maintain public order on campus when that order is threatened or violated by progressive activists.
And they do even less when it comes to faculty activists who engage in behavior wholly at odds with academic freedom. More often than not, college presidents offer a false equivalence between the right of a faculty member to say something “controversial” and the spurious “right” of other faculty members to threaten and intimidate that person. There is no such right. In the context of higher education, disagreement must be grounded in arguments and evidence, not in menace.
The framing of these issues as matters of “controversy” is itself misleading. Academic freedom exists to give knowledgeable individuals scope to pursue the truth. It is not a license to pursue controversy for its own sake. Professor Gilley’s arguments about colonialism are presented entirely in the framework of promoting “human flourishing” and respecting “the consent of the colonized.” His essay says something unexpected—that, in some circumstances, Western colonialism was good and might still be considered a viable choice—but Gilley’s aim is morally serious and ought not to be trivialized as merely seeking after controversy.
Thus the Gilley affair is yet another reminder of the hollowness of the university’s leaders. Confronted with a straightforward example of academic thuggery, they stand perplexed, unwilling to draw a meaningful line anywhere between legitimate expression of ideas and mob rule.
The truth is that, with rare exceptions, the presidents of our colleges and universities closely resemble the owners of the various National Football League franchises. They are women and men without backbone. In the face of intimidation from the left, they cower and make calculations solely concerning their own well-being. Roger Goodell would make a good university president.Published in