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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