Pub­lish­ers damned for the sake of free speech

The Australian - - WORLD - TOM WHIP­PLE

It was never go­ing to be a quiet ad­di­tion to post-colo­nial lit­er­a­ture. “For the last 100 years West­ern colo­nial­ism has had a bad name,” be­gan Bruce Gil­ley, a po­lit­i­cal-sci­ence pro­fes­sor from Port­land State Univer­sity. “It is high time to ques­tion this or­tho­doxy.”

Over the next 6000 words his aca­demic pa­per in Third World Quar­terly ar­gued not only that colo­nial rule was ben­e­fi­cial and le­git­i­mate, not only that sub­se­quent in­de­pen­dence had cre­ated a “cesspool of hu­man suf­fer­ing”, but also that West­ern rule should be rein­tro­duced in the de­vel­op­ing world.

The Case for Colo­nial­ism led to the res­ig­na­tion of half the jour­nal’s edi­tors. Re­tracted this week, it cre­ated a row just as in­tense, be­cause the stated rea­son was not qual­ity, but “se­ri­ous and cred­i­ble threats of per­sonal vi­o­lence” against the pub­lisher.

Amid ac­cu­sa­tions of in­tol­er­ance on US cam­puses, this re­trac­tion has been taken by some as an­other sign that free speech is un­der threat. Jonathan Haidt, pro­fes­sor of eth­i­cal lead­er­ship at New York Univer­sity’s Stern School of Busi­ness, said ar­gu­ment it­self was be­ing closed down, and that the ap­pro­pri­ate way to ob­ject to an aca­demic pa­per should al­ways be to write an­other in re­sponse. “Re­trac­tion is the new re­but­tal, and threats of vi­o­lence against jour­nal edi­tors is the new way to get a re­trac­tion,” he said.

John K Wil­son, who writes for Academe magazine, said it was a dan­ger­ous prece­dent. “There’s a real dan­ger when we give in to death threats, whether it’s can­celling speak­ers or cen­sor­ing pub­li­ca­tions. The ob­vi­ous dan­ger is to free ex­pres­sion but it also cre­ates a greater in­cen­tive to threaten.”

Gil­ley’s pa­per was not lack­ing in peo­ple pre­pared to re­but it. He ar­gued that “anti-colo­nial­ist ide­ol­ogy” had cre­ated “100 years of disas­ter” in which gov­er­nance had de­gen­er­ated and mil­lions had suf­fered. “The peo­ple of Bangladesh will have to wait an­other 244 years at their cur­rent rate to reach a high­ca­pac­ity state,” he wrote. “Would it have taken Bri­tain un­til the mid­dle of the 23rd cen­tury to in­sti­tute good gov­ern­ment in this for­mer prov­ince of east­ern Ben­gal?”

His so­lu­tion? Mod­ern-day Liv­ing­stones, ar­riv­ing at the be­hest of the mod­ern-day na­tives. Just as the “Sul­tan of Brunei in­stalled an English trav­eller, James Brooke, as the ra­jah of his chaotic prov­ince of Sarawak in 1841”, so too could West­ern coun­tries spon­sor mod­ern city states.

One aca­demic from the Cato In­sti­tute called the pa­per a “bad joke”. An­other, from Ohio Univer­sity, said it ig­nored a “vast body of re­search” that showed the poor eco­nomic per­for­mance of colonies and the in­tense suf­fer­ing of many of their peo­ple.

Vi­jay Prashad, from Trin­ity

‘Re­trac­tion is the new re­but­tal, and threats of vi­o­lence against jour­nal edi­tors is the new way to get a re­trac­tion’ JONATHAN HAIDT STERN SCHOOL OF BUSI­NESS

Col­lege, Con­necti­cut, was one of 15 mem­bers of the jour­nal’s ed­i­to­rial board who re­signed in protest at its re­fusal to re­tract the ar­ti­cle, claim­ing it failed “to meet aca­demic stan­dards of rigour and bal­ance”. How­ever, he said yes­ter­day, it should have been removed be­cause of its poor qual­ity, not threats. “I’m very up­set when any de­bates around ideas are brought into the realm of vi­o­lence. It’s tragic. But this hap­pens rou­tinely and daily. I get death threats every three to four days for writ­ing var­i­ous things. But we don’t pull ev­ery­thing we write for such threats.

“The piece was very poorly put to­gether. For a piece that recog­nises — un­less he was liv­ing un­der a rock — that it is en­ter­ing con­tro­ver­sial ter­ri­tory, you’d have thought the au­thor would have crossed all the t’s and dot­ted all the i’s. But this was a poor-qual­ity, un­der grad­u­at­esta ndard pa­per, with a sniff of white supremacy.”

Even be­fore the re­trac­tion, Gil­ley had him­self called for its with­drawal, say­ing: “I re­gret the pain and anger it has caused for many peo­ple.”

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