Tag Archives: British Empire

How English Freedom Crushed Egypt | Ismael & Urabi | Avoiding the British Empire 16

This morning I was struck by another one of the reasons that the British Empire still has such a positive reputation (in some circles). When we focus on the British interaction with a group of people, we tend to focus on the end. It’s the struggle for independence that matters for the national stories of all the formerly subjugated countries. Of course, these stories are still in living memory for many, which also contributes to their popularity. But beyond that, nobody wants to look like a victim. Newly independent countries understandably want to focus on their victorious heroes rather than their defeated and brutalized ancestors from centuries past.

The British certainly committed many atrocities as their empire fell apart. Jallianwalla Bagh and the suppression of the Mau Mau are just two instances that leap to mind. But the more popular image is one of haplessness. The humiliation of Suez, the pretentious pointlessness of Mountbatten. The things that Britain is most blamed for at the end, like the Israel Palestine situation, and horrors of Indian partition, are stories about British neglect and poverty, not British greed and destruction. You can almost (not quite) find yourself pitying the British as their carefully crafted systems of control fall apart.

If you look at the other end of the Imperial story, there is nothing British to sympathize with. In country after country we see the people who live there struggle and fail, against differing degrees of brutality, as universally hypocritical Englishmen proclaim their civilizing values and cash their checks. Today’s video attempts to surface just one of those hundreds (thousands?) of stories, by telling the neglected tale of the British subjugation of Egypt.

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Why Isn’t Egypt As Rich As Germany? | Muhammad Ali | Avoiding the British Empire 15

History can seem predictable sometimes. We know how it turned out, so we assume that the countries that are powerful today had somewhat predictable paths to power. Sure, there were ups and downs, but the countries we’ve come to expect to have done well, did well. No surprises there. The story of Egypt’s 19th century provides a counterpoint to that complacency. There was a lot about its story that was quite similar to the stories of the Japanese and German world-beaters we are more familiar with. In the 1830s, an African country was, quite successfully, intervening in Europe. If a few things had gone differently, Egypt might have ended up as one of the world’s great powers.

It all went wrong of course. And the British had a lot to do with this. But too some extent, it was also just bad luck. There was nothing to guarantee that Japan or Germany would be successful countries. There wasn’t even anything guaranteeing that the United States would have been as successful an experiment as it has been. It’s all much more up in the air than we might think. This is a little terrifying, but also a little exciting. Today’s video on Egypt talks about what could have been.

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What PragerU Gets Right About The British Empire | Avoiding the British Empire 14

This one was kind of a journey. Attacking PragerU’s dumb mistakes, as I did in the last video, is not a difficult project. Many have done so already. What’s a lot more difficult, is reckoning with the valid points that Prager makes. The British Empire was tremendously influential, and it is responsible for the spread of representative institutions all over the world. Prager is absolutely right about that.
The larger problem is reconciling these two things we know about the British Empire:

A: It left the world some decent institutions and…

B: The British Empire inflicted massive suffering on the world, on a scale that dwarfs anything that came before, and Britain’s poorly managed reign ended with the multi-decade apocalypse we know as the two world wars.

The standard approach is to pick one narrative and run with it. The viewpoint you choose often coincides with the left or right political marketing segment you choose to fall into. What I try to do with today’s video is reconcile the two, which involves diving in and attempting to sort out my own feelings about freedom, history, and life in general. I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. Let me know how you think I did.

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What PragerU Gets Wrong About The British Empire | Avoiding the British Empire 13

The Prager U video on the British Empire has a lot of issues, but I think it also vindicates my decision to deal with the empire as a multi-part series. Today’s video goes through a lot of the assumptions and foolishness in the video, but Prager’s biggest mistake is probably trying to tell this epic, world-altering story in such a short form. There wasn’t much agreement on what the British Empire was, and what it represented at the time, and there isn’t much more now. I’ve now got over a dozen videos that attempt to put forward an argument about the British Empire. Prager’s attempt to sum it all up in just five and a half minutes looks deeply silly by comparison.

This has been one of the most requested videos since I launched the British Empire series last fall. I hope you enjoy it!

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Why Brexit Could Be Good For US Empire | Avoiding the British Empire 12 | Brexit X

Ahhh, the Royals… I have successfully avoided reading a single story on the current Meghan Markle / Ginger Prince scandal, but I think I have gotten the gist from twitter. Putting Markle in the thumbnail was obviously a desperate bid for clicks, but it’s also got a tangential relation to the topic of today’s video, beyond the fact that the Royals are briefly discussed at the end of it. As I understand it, Ginger Prince was allowed to marry an American actress because it was seen as good for the institution, modernizing and a helpful way to appeal to new markets. Now the institution is shocked that the changes they hoped were cosmetic might yield more significant changes.

This story is obviously a very specialized thing, but I have a hunch that it’s emblematic of an emerging theme for the United Kingdom over the next half century or so. From free trade agreements, to military commitments and positions on international incidents, the British will continue to make changes that look small and clever in the short run, but end up changing things more than they’d like in the medium to long term. Like the Queen of England this week, the British people will find themselves grumbling as they acquiesce to new arrangements they did not foresee, and would not have chosen had they known they were coming.

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Brexit Is The End Of The British Empire | Avoiding the British Empire 11 | Brexit IX

The later 20th century was not a big focus of my book, Avoiding the British Empire. I date the end of the British world system to 1914, and the beginning of World War I. The time after than is mostly one of decline. But it had peaks, and the period after 2016 will be seen as a new valley. One of the things that I did study intensely in writing the book was the distinction between “informal” and “formal” empire. The informal empire of financial power was as important, or perhaps more important than all the red bits on the map that were formally controlled by the British Empire.

If you look at it that way, then it’s clear that the European Union represented a new informal empire for Britain. Which makes throwing it away with Brexit quite nuts. I take a more in depth look at this in today’s video.

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Were The British “Better” Colonizers Than the French? | Avoiding The British Empire 10

Believe it or not, today’s video deals with a surprisingly persistent piece of conventional wisdom. I honestly couldn’t tell you where I picked it up, maybe Niall Ferguson, but it’s something I unthinkingly believed for decades. The idea is that countries that were colonized by the British were better off than those colonized by the French, because of superior British institutions, or better management or whatever. I hardly thought about this old assumption in my two years researching the British Empire. Serious books of history don’t try to make this claim. But once the vids started coming out, it started cropping up in the comments.

This is one of the most fun things about studying history. If you build up a base of knowledge, you can occasionally get these sudden “Ah-Hah!” moments when you realize that something you’ve always believed is unmitigated balderdash. Today’s video wrote itself with very little prompting. If you have a cursory knowledge of the history of the countries in each of the Empires before and after colonization, it becomes clear how silly this old story is. And with this video, I get to make it clear to everybody else too… I love my job.

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Was Winston Churchill a Loser? | Avoiding the British Empire 9

Winston Churchill is a complicated figure. He’s also a cherished one for the British, and for white dads across the English speaking world. He’s seen completely differently by the Indians, millions of whom starved to death on his watch, and there are very few others in the broader British empire that would have had much good to say about him. These historical arguments are important, and I don’t really have all that much interest in them one way or the other. But Winston Churchill is not just a historical figure. He’s a symbol. That glorious year and a half, between Churchill’s coming to power, and successfully convincing the US to save Britain, are worth emulating and celebrating. But for US politicians, the vital belligerence that made Churchill so valuable for that destroyed world, is something that should constantly be applied to our infinitely safer, happier world. That’s nuts. Which is why I made today’s video.

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Why World War III Will Be America’s Fault | Avoiding the British Empire 8

My book, and today’s video aren’t just intended as “blame America First” whining. They are intended as the basis for a new, saner approach to US foreign policy. One of the central problems in Washington, DC for the past 30 years is that we haven’t had a goal. We’ve had a ton of resources, a ton of professionals geared towards the outside world, and no clear sense of what to do with them since the end of the Cold War. Instead all these people have pursued a variety of conflicting goals. Some of them have been noble, some have been horrible, but in combination they have produced an effect that is disorganized in the most self-interested and chaotic way. With this series I hope to suggest a better way.

The mission of US foreign policy should be to stave off war for as long as possible. We should use our extraordinary power and reach to try to make the world a less dangerous place for everyone. This would do the world a great service, but it would also serve the United States in the best possible way. As I’ve also emphasized, it’s the United States that has the most power to lose from a new world war. So we should stop seeking it out in the deserts of the Middle East and in the waters of the South China Sea. We should stop sending the instruments of death to every country in the world we can, in ever accelerating amounts. If we stopped doing these things, I think we’d find that there is still plenty for Washington, DC to do. Even beyond the much larger problems that the United States has made, the world has many fault lines that could benefit from our diplomatic attention. Imagine a world with DC think tanks that were focused on solving Nagorno-Karabakh, or opening the border between Morocco and Algeria, rather than fomenting wars? It may all sound a bit pie in the sky, but once you’ve absorbed the arguments of today’s video, how could you want to do anything else?

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Halford Mackinder Was Wrong About Everything | Avoiding the British Empire 7

I can’t seem to find it, but I believe it was Keynes who has this wonderful quote on the fact that so much of the world around us is shaped by the ideas of long-dead thinkers who nobody actually reads and whose names have been largely forgotten. Today’s video is about one of those thinkers, Halford Mackinder. He’s not a household name, but he creeps around the margins of any large history book you will read, and he still inspires a lot of bad foreign and domestic policy in countries all over the world. His “World Island” or “Heartland” thesis is part of the list of justifications people will offer for interventionist US foreign policy. But Mackinder’s influence always remains somewhat subterranean. Because it kind of has to. Because his ideas are crap.

If you actually read one of Mackinder’s books, which I did, his ideas sound more like a half-assed dungeons and dragons game than a serious theory of history and politics. And when you dive in and examine his assumptions about the upcoming 20th century, you realize they were all wrong. His idea of looking at geopolitics as a whole is rightly influential. His actual ideas about geopolitics and their future are frankly laughable. It’s amazing how influential you can get if you give a veneer of respectability to the paranoid visions of militarists. Today’s video demolishes Mackinder’s ideas.

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