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On being called a racist

My ‘literary spat’ with the London Review of Books

17 December 2011

12:00 AM

17 December 2011

12:00 AM

My ‘literary spat’ with the London Review of Books

Economic history is not politically correct. Many on the left therefore struggle with its findings. It is indeed astonishing that, from the beginning of the 16th century until the third quarter of the 20th century, the West (Europe and its settler colonies) did much better than the rest of the world and came to rule over it. But that’s what happened.

By the 1970s the average American was roughly 20 times richer than the average Chinese. The average Briton was at least 12 times richer than the average Indian. In the first half of the 20th century, westerners had life expectancy nearly twice that of non-westerners. Europeans and North Americans even grew taller than Asians.

Moreover, a dozen western empires were able literally to rule most of the world. At their zenith, these empires encompassed three fifths of the earth’s land surface and population and controlled three quarters of economic output. Fewer than 1,000 British civil servants governed the entire Indian subcontinent.

Explaining why this extraordinary divergence came about is the principal task I set myself in writing Civilization: The West and the Rest. The book argues that we cannot do so in terms of geography, the weather, culture — and least of all in terms of race. I write: ‘The idea that the success of the United States was contingent on racial segregation was nonsense.’ I call racism a ‘pseudo-science that ranks alongside the ideology of communism as the most lethal of all Western civilization’s exports’.

Imagine, then, my amazement to see myself accused, by the Indian journalist and travel writer Pankaj Mishra, of being a racist. In his review of my book in the London Review of Books, Mishra spent more than a page insinuating a resemblance between me and the American racial theorist Theodore Lothrop Stoddard, the author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy (1920) and a notorious Nazi sympathiser. Mishra described my book The Pity of War as ‘Stoddardesque’. My 2004 book Empire ‘belonged recognisably to the tradition of… white people’s histories’ that ‘celebrated… pith-helmeted missionaries’. According to Mishra, I ‘sound like the Europeans… who wanted gold and slaves’ and I feel ‘nostalgia for the intellectual certainties of the summer of 1914’.


In responding to these libellous statements, I have been accused by some of ‘hysteria’ and, bizarrely, of ‘violating intellectual freedom’. Others have made light of this ‘literary spat’. But an accusation of racism is no laughing matter. As expressions of racism are now defined as criminal acts in Britain,  I immediately demanded an apology from Mishra and the editor of the LRB. None was forthcoming. On the contrary, Mishra chose to hurl more abuse, accusing me of a ‘wider pathology’ of ‘bow[ing] down before the conqueror of the moment’, finally ranting wildly about my ‘disgraced worldview’.

Pankaj Mishra is not the first person to misrepresent my work in this way. In 2006 an obscure Cambridge lecturer named Priyamvada Gopal accused me of bringing ‘the racism institutionalized by empire… back into fashion’. This prompted an unusually candid Guardian contributor, Jonathan Jones, to ask if she — like he — had attacked my book Empire without actually having read it.

So why do I think the West came to dominate the Rest economically, geopolitically and even culturally between the 1500s and the 1970s? In Civilization, I argue that besides the familiar, ugly methods of expropriation and enslavement — employed by all empires through the ages — there were novelties, not all of them pernicious. One of these was the scientific method. Another was the rule of law, under which, among other things, the freedom of the press does not extend to defamation.

These are scarcely racist arguments. On the contrary: my thesis is that anyone can adopt these ideas, and the institutions that promote them, regardless of whether they are British or Indian, white or brown.   

Pankaj Mishra knows this full well. His own slight and solipsistic works reveal him to be something of an Anglophile, awkwardly conscious of his cultural debt to the Raj, embarrassingly flaunting his Oriental roots to please the ex-empire’s senescent champagne socialists. Presumably it was to win their applause that this Buddha of Grub Street launched his ad hominem attack.

As for the LRB, its conduct confirms that it is now nothing more than a vanity publication, run for the gratification of its editor Mary-Kay Wilmers, whose family trust fund bankrolls the operation.

Lucky for her. This year, the LRB ceased to receive financial support from the UK Arts Council. This followed (though it was not necessarily a consequence of) a complaint by the media watchdog Just Journalism that between 2000 and 2010 it had ‘consistently portrayed Israel as a bloodthirsty and genocidal regime out of all proportion to reality, while sympathetic portraits abounded of groups designated as terrorist organisations by the British government such as Hamas and Hezbollah’.

Four months earlier, the LRB had gone beyond its habitual anti-Zionism when, in a posting on the magazine’s website, its South African contributor R.W. Johnson drew a stunningly crass parallel between illegal immigrants to South Africa and baboons. For this, the LRB editor did apologise.

I think I begin to understand this pathology. We are dealing here with what I would describe as the racism of the anti-racists. I used to think that the Indian inferiority complex and Jewish self-hatred, like Theodore Stoddard’s white supremacism, were intellectual deformations of the past. But they are alive and well in London and desperately looking for someone to hate more than they hate themselves.

It is — almost — sad.


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