Saturday, February 19, 2005


The Absent-Minded Oppressor

There's a fascinating article in this week's TLS about Bernard Porter's study The Absent-Minded Imperialists: What the British Really Thought About Empire. He sounds determined, through roll-up-your-sleeves archive-diving, to knock the Edward Said school of assumptions about Imperialism for a loop:

Porter... has sampled a huge collection of source materials: some seventy-eight newspapers, periodicals and school magazines from The Times to Tit-Bits via the Harrovian ; official publications ranging from Hansard to the Lord Chamberlain’s list of plays performed; over 100 memoirs; more than 130 “school textbooks” – a category that include Macaulay’s History of England ; and a further 200 contemporary publications, including many popular novels.... In the course of inquiry a number of the more ebullient claims about the place of Empire in popular culture are subjected to a crushing (and justified) dismissal.

The overall conclusion is heavily negative. Porter concedes that there is abundant evidence for Imperialist attitudes, the internalization of Imperial values and the passionate belief in an Imperial mission. But rather than being spread through British society it was heavily bunched. In working-class culture, it was practically invisible. Empire held almost no interest and evoked even less enthusiasm among working-class audiences, readers and voters....

Porter is sceptical of the fashionable claim that English identity was shaped by unflattering comparisons with non-European peoples. They were far more likely, if popular histories are any guide, to stress the contrast with their own “savage” forebears. He is dismissive of the suggestion, also highly fashionable, that twenty-first-century racism is the lineal descendant of Imperial attitudes, arguing that the majority view in Victorian England attributed English success to cultural not racial attributes: the English were in front, not on top. Modern-day racism was a post-colonial phenomenon.

Porter finds Imperialism highly concentrated among the ruling class, but that popular culture is much more of a mixed bag, one that can get presented inaccurately through selective quotation by later historians. My own experience at reading the periodical literature of the time certainly finds attitudes towards the empire were more complex than we give them credit for. To claim this hardly makes Victorians loveable paragons of enlightened progressivism: but it does make them less of a caricature and more recognizably like us. Many did not particularly agree with what their government did abroad, but they also meditated upon their role as an empire less than we might imagine: it was difficult and tiresome to think about something that was much bigger than they were. And anyway, they had their own problems and everyday lives to attend to.

I wonder if, a couple hundred years hence, some future Bernard Porter will be find much the same to be true of Americans today?

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