Maya Jasanoff: This Empire We Inherited

Maya Jasanoff is letting me lay down my how-did-we-become-an-empire obsessions before a rising star among imperial historians. She teaches the Harvard course on the British Empire. William Dalrymple calls her “a bit of a genius” for her big new book Liberty’s Exiles — representative tales of the 60,000 English loyalists who fled the independent United States after 1783 and remade Britain’s fortunes around the world in a century-plus of glory. My questions are: how did we Americans — with anti-imperialism in our revolutionary roots, in our sentimental DNA — let ourselves in for the burdens and sorrows of empire, the corruption and disrepute of empire? And what should we suppose is our chance of escaping the fate of empires?

The start of Professor Jasanoff’s answer is that global ambition, maybe hubris, were written into the American story, into Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty,” from the beginning. The end of it is that the United States — assuming the British mantle in the 20th Century, fighting on old British battlegrounds (Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt) in the 21st — finds itself now roughly where Britain was in 1900, Boer War time. That is: powerful, wounded, demoralized, rightly worried about a gathering of forces against us and perhaps even a cataclysm of World War I proportions.

She does not like my polar cartoons of the British empire — which gave the world Shakespeare, Milton and the rules of law and commerce in, say, Niall Ferguson‘s fond fancy; or else “the worst war crime in the history of the species,” as David Rieff once put it to me. The real pity of the American empire, she’s saying, is that half-wit slogans — “freedom” and “democracy” — for military and oil adventures have made cynics of us all about what a privileged society might share with others. It’s another sad difference between the American and British Empires, Maya Jasanoff notes, that we do not believe in our mission enough to debate it, or call it by its proper name.

I think the divergence between rhetoric and reality is much greater for us now. I think that what we’ve really forgotten here is that being a republican nation-state is not incompatible with being an empire, that in the era of our founding, being an empire was what America aspired to. Now we tend to dupe ourselves by saying we’re a great democracy, we’re a great republic, we’re promoting that around the world, when plainly our own democracy is very much in trouble and plainly our role in the world is not quite as benign as we like to think.

In Britain there were always the critics, there were always people challenging empire, there were also always the people lauding imperial intervention. But I don’t think anyone would be in disagreement about the fact that Britain was an empire, that Britain was involved around he world in these ways, that this was central to what being British was being about. And I think that there’s a kind of honesty in that, for all its bleakness if you don’t like the idea of empire. I think you have to applaud the kind of honesty that goes into saying this is who we are and this is what we’re doing. It allows for a degree of public debate and engagement with what it means to be an empire that we are really lacking in America right now.

Maya Jasanoff with Chris Lydon at Harvard’s Center for European Studies, April 28, 2011.

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  • Some reactions to ROS excellent Maya Jasanoff discussion on empire:
    1. An extremely perceptive analysis of psychological/techno-religious impulses behind America’s imperial domination-mania is given by Michael Adas in his 2006 Harvard University Press book Dominance by Design.
    Product Details:
    • Hardcover: 480 pages
    • Publisher: Belknap Press
    • January 20, 2006
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 0674018672
    • ISBN-13: 978-0674018679
    Dominance by Design: Technological Imperatives and America‘s
    Civilizing Mission
    Michael Adas (Author)
    Product Description
    Long before the United States became a major force in global affairs, Americans believed in their superiority over others due to their inventiveness, productivity, and economic and social well-being. U.S. expansionists assumed a mandate to “civilize” non-Western peoples by demanding submission to American technological prowess and design. As an integral part of America’s national identity and sense of itself in the world, this civilizing mission provided the rationale to displace the Indians from much of our continent, to build an island empire in the Pacific and Caribbean, and to promote unilateral—at times military—interventionism throughout Asia. In our age of “smart bombs” and mobile warfare, technological aptitude remains preeminent in validating America’s global mission.
    Michael Adas brilliantly pursues the history of this mission through America’s foreign relations over nearly four centuries from North America to the Philippines, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. The belief that it is our right and destiny to remake foreign societies in our image has endured from the early decades of colonization to our current crusade to implant American-style democracy in the Muslim Middle East.
    Dominance by Design explores the critical ways in which technological superiority has undergirded the U.S.’s policies of unilateralism, preemption, and interventionism in foreign affairs and raised us from an impoverished frontier nation to a global power. Challenging the long-held assumptions and imperatives that sustain the civilizing mission, Adas gives us an essential guide to America’s past and present role in the world as well as cautionary lessons for the future.

    2. The 1985 James Mason movie classic “The Shooting Party” set in 1913 England, gives the viewer a sense of the emotional stake in Empire that the “lower orders” have developed in the imperial venture and its trickle-down prestige payments that “fund” British self-identity.

    James Mason’s character Sir Ralph Nettleby accidentally shoots the Gordon Jackson groundskeeper character in the eye in the noisy chaos of the hunt. As this wounded working class character lies bleeding to death, he gives up his soul worshipping the majesty of the British Empire. Empire takes you from nobody to somebody.

    This gives a convincing feel for Empire and the masses.

    Thus the “classes and the masses” have their own imperial rewards.

    “The British film classic The Shooting Party is set in 1913 England, on the brink of what would be the war to end all wars, the film focuses on an assortment of upper-crust acquaintances who gather for a weekend of hunting and society niceties (billiards, cards, draping oneself in jewels the evening after stomping around all day in the muck).

    Presiding over the festivities is a masterful James Mason as Sir Randolph Nettleby, a sort of benevolent dictator of his breathtaking estate, as his family and friends dip in and out of the action, adhering to the strict code of class conduct for all of their affairs–sport, self-advancement, illicit love. Though the weekend is supposed to be a holiday, there is subtle, ominous foreshadowing in the very first scenes, of the men lined up in a meadow, as though troops on a battlefield, taking out ducks and hares with an almost dispassionate relish. Mason as Nettleby has rarely been better–crisp, bemused, comfortable in his role but not quite in his own skin.”

    “In October 1913, a group of aristocratic men and women gather for a shooting party at an estate in the heart of the English countryside. Assured and opulent, they move through the elaborate rituals of an Edwardian country house party. But times are changing, The values that have ordered their glittering world will no longer have any meaning in the new age about to dawn”


    3. Thomas Cole’s circa 1836 “Course of Empire” paintings will reinforce your appreciation of Michael Adas book mentioned above.

    “The Course of Empire: The Savage State”, 1834
    “The Course of Empire: The Pastoral or Arcadian State”, 1834
    “The Course of Empire: The Consummation of Empire”, 1835
    “The Course of Empire: Destruction”, 1836
    “The Course of Empire: Desolation”, 1836

  • Doug McCallum

    Leave it to a Harvard professor to say something good about empire. I pray for that day that empires will not be possible, and agree with Michael Palin, “What have the Romans (or British) ever done for us?”

  • She says denouncing empire condemns us to an ‘isolationaist’ position! So in her view empire is the only mode of engaging with the world? How about trade without domination? How about bilateral relations without colonial control? Or perhaps laying off empire is the price one pays for a sinecure at Harvard.

  • Duke

    Aren’t you two being a bit hasty, here? As much as your anti-imperial enthusiasm may be laudable, though one wonders whether she really occupies a ‘sinecure’, she said that to begin acting in an anti-imperial fashion belies the way world is and will be. The point isn’t that America should remain an Empire, but that before we can dismantle an empire (should we so choose) we must come to terms with being one. The word you left out was ‘false’, and that’s the crucial word because she’s saying we would be pretending to a level of isolation we in no way have, nor can force ourselves to have. We are enmeshed with the way the world is working, now, and to pretend that we can just stop doing that would be false isolationism, as it indeed would be.

    • I wasn’t impressed by her avoidance of making normative judgements about the British and American Empires either. Would she have been as loath to make a moral evaluation of the Soviet empire, which she alluded to briefly? How about the Third Reich? And if we can say that certain empires are, on balance, malign, then we can just as well judge the American imperium as well, as either a good or ill influence on the world. Christopher Lydon was right to sniff at her dismissal of the question.

  • Potter

    I love the quote, very insightful. We don’t have this honesty about ourselves… with these “half-wit” slogans that people repeat mindlessly- “we have to fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here” , the” “war on terror” “protecting the homeland” which means license for endless war.

    I do admire the British today. They backed away with grace. (Am I wrong?)

    This is a very honest and thought provoking analysis; on the one hand Maya is clear about her own personal feelings about empire, on the other hand the historian in her with a long and wide perspective tempers that reaction and does not allow her to say “bad” or “good”. I like that. I tend to be in the same place myself. It hit me when we went to Sri Lanka, a former British colony, Ceylon, where you can see all the vestiges and remnants of British rule and how these many years the Sri Lankans, the Tamils and Singalese, have managed independently. We arrived shortly after their airport was bombed by Tamil rebels. (This could be a much longer post). We didn’t see the dead: those who in the past suffered sacrificed and were exploited by the British. We did see the municipal buildings, the tea plantations, the railroad, the roads, and we spoke English.

    About this viewpoint on empire in general, which clearly has its downside and downright immoral aspects, it is part of history, social political evolution. I don’t know if one could call looking upon it this way exactly non-judgmental. We know bad and good, right and wrong but it is more about awareness and acceptance of what was and what is- learning from that and trying to do better as she said. But it does take honesty about ourselves which we do not have.


  • Potter

    Related- There is a very good article on Gandhi in the current New Yorker Magazine:

    The Inner Voice:Gandhi’s Real Legacy

  • Siddhartha Banerjee

    Nice effort, Chris, but of course Maya Jasanoff would equivocate over Empire. Ask her when she has retired, changed careers or been fired. You might get a more truthful answer about Empire then.

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  • Chris….I think Noam Chomsky is our modern day Edmund Burke. As I consider my own journey as an American, it has been a progressive disillusionment. Just to come to terms with the fact that our national action is imperialistic is to shed the myths of democracy, the idealism of the best ideal thoughts of our founding fathers, the sense of self image that we represent goodness and fairness in our dealings with the people of the world. A study of history shows ruthless self interest of the monied elite, the non extension of our own supposed freedoms to others, etc. Further, another disillusionment is that the present political structures, democrats and republicans, do not express the intent or will of the American people, but rather the monied interests that lever the economy…the owners of the for profit federal reserve, the major corporations and the like. Increasingly, I see that politics is largely a political theatre, the creation of a sellable storyline to co opt the American public to serve the interests of the owners of the federal reserve, finance and entrenched interest of the corporate elite. This is what gives continuity right through presidents of either party and is where the dark heart of empire resides….quite invisible to the non perceptive, gullible recipients of the modern storyline. All this theatre occurs above and hardly related to the stern hard thought of the power brokers behind the scene, those that use the national purse, harness the life blood of a nation towards a further, consolidated domination not only of others but ultimately, the host, the American people.

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  • Grady Lee Howard

    Maybe Empire is a different thing when a pretty intelligent woman discusses it?
    Lydon seems to think so.
    Most of you guys’ deli-slicing is way over my intellectual pay grade.
    Harvard and Niall Ferguson are not things I’d wish for personally.
    I’ve had people argue with me in the last few days that militarization of the Internet is inevitable because it is a battlefield where Oligarchial property is threatened. Another young woman, a cyber security expert, told Tom Ashbrook (that hack) that bin Laden’s death had to be materialistic and bloody for theatrical effect: to warn off hackers.
    We live in a different technological reality from earlier empiires where the tracking of every step and electronic colonization of the mind have become real things.
    The horror show of American Empire could persist for centuries as all human rights canons from the Magna Carta on up are reversed.
    I’m glad I won’t live to have my life metered in nanoseconds via an implant or handheld device.
    The rich are different than the rest of us. They noy only own Harvard, but they have several magnitudes more servers and do not care whom they punish for supposed dissent.
    Empire ain’t the Sunday picnic it used to be.

  • Ur posting, “Maya Jasanoff on this Empire we Inherited | Radio Open Source with
    Christopher Lydon” was very well worth writing a comment down
    here in the comment section! Basically needed
    to point out you actually did a good job. Many thanks -Gertrude