With today’s video I try something new. Most of my video scripts come to me more fully formed, in a rush of inspiration. With this “Avoiding the British Empire” series, I’m trying something more ambitious. The first 9 episodes of the video series are meant to work with each other, building the case, and helping viewers arrive at a picture of the world that grows with each installment. The series is meant to be greater than the sum of its parts. I’m not sure this has been entirely successful. I tend to focus on making discrete points and individually successful videos. My writing process is like that as well. This series is the first I can think of, where multiple videos started out as “Oh, I need to do this in this video”, rather than as a loose collection of thematically related issues. Many of the videos in the series predated the over-arching series structure. Today’s video did not. What do you think?
I occasionally enjoy running one of these snippets, and you may see more of them. Once a month I do a live chat that ends with a lengthy Q & A. Occasionally I like one of my answers enough that I think it deserves being re-cut into its own video. This is probably the least articulate of the videos I have done this with, but I think the anger is appropriate, and I think the necessary point is completely made. What do you think of these sorts of videos? Fun to surface them, or best to leave well enough alone?
With today’s video we begin to get into the meat of it… This Avoiding the British Empire series does, in fact, have a point that it is getting to, beyond clever comparisons. This video represents the first half of the main thesis. Considering what we now know about Britain’s power in the 19th century, and how much less power everybody else had… one conclusion becomes inescapable:
World War I was Britain’s fault. I am already getting some pretty shell shocked comments on the video, but not many who dispute the point. I’d love to hear what you think!
Honestly, I think this video is the most punk rock thing I’ve ever done. I pride myself on occasionally making videos that nobody agrees with, but I think I may have really outdone myself with this one. In the series so far, I’ve laid out that my vision of what happened in the 19th and 20th centuries doesn’t exactly accord with the standard view, but I’ve been pretty delicate about it. With this one I go ahead and torch a whole bunch of historical pieties in the loudest way possible. Yes, as a title “European Empire is a Myth” is outrageous, and that’s kind of the point. This is YouTube after all, and I’ve got to take shots at virality occasionally.
At the end of the day, though, once you think about it, I hope you’ll agree that the people who will be most offended by this episode are Nazis, white supremacists, British nationalists and possibly an Oxbridge historian or two who doesn’t have a sense of humor. I think the upending of world history I do here serves a purpose. Or perhaps I’m just an asshole. You be the judge!
There are some standard stories about the fall of the British Empire, like imperial overstretch, and the rise of nationalism world-wide. But they are rarely linked to what I see as the real cause of the Empire’s fall: incessant war mongering. As we close out this epic week of content on the British empire, World War One will take center stage. World War One has a much more central part in British mythology than it does in the US. That may be the reason why people are reluctant to draw the connection between that “victory” and the end of the Empire as closely as I do.
The story I’m telling in today’s video is a bit reductive. It must seem crazy, or even a little racist to try to boil all of history down to the actions and power of two Atlantic empires, the British and the American. I am aware that this vision of history is easy to argue against. But as weird as it is, I think it’s definitely saner than the standard view. The 19th and the second half of the 20th centuries are often described as if they were stable systems, governed by agreement, or at least peaceful competition between great powers. The longer I look at these issues, the more convinced I become that that’s not really what’s going on. The stability in both systems was underpinned by hegemonic power. British in the 19th, American in the 20th. The implications of this are rather grim. Looking at history this way doesn’t flatter the British or the Americans, it heaps guilt on them. That’s why British and US propagandists are so obsessed with the idea of competition.
To some extent, today’s video is about what empire means. Is it just about territory? I think not. Later in the week we will show how the British Empire quickly disintegrated after it lost something more intangible: its “informal empire”. This concept is pretty amorphous, and as I think about the way I’m using it this week, I think I may not do a very good job of sticking to just one definition either. Informal Empire includes what is currently known as “soft power”, the financial and cultural weight that a society has, distinct from its military power. But I consider some aspects of military power to be part of “informal empire” as well. If you are undertaking some sort of quick punitive expedition to get people to act more in accordance with your wishes, I think that’s informal empire too. Obviously, when we’re talking about military action, the lines between informal and formal empire become less clear.
I think my definition of informal empire probably includes everything that is not formal empire. If you’re not planting a flag, or a near century-long “temporary presence” like the British had in Egypt, we’re talking informal empire. US military bases abroad are formal empire. Everything else the US does in those countries, from the bankers to the diplomats, to the fact that people in that country love Apple iPhones… is informal empire. I hope this has been clarifying rather than mystifying, and I hope you enjoy today’s video “Is the United States an Empire?”
I think this video is a fairly clever way to launch this epic series on the British Empire’s lessons for the world of today. One of the many things I think about when I’m doing any sort of persuasive writing is “What are the arguments against this?” It may not be apparent this week, but what today’s video does, is get out ahead of what I anticipate will be some of the most prevalent arguments against this video. The vids this week are probably more likely to piss off fans of the British Empire, But the vids on the two following Tuesdays should start annoying the “Why U No Like America” types. As with many videos, the argument here had its genesis in a facebook argument years ago. I’m glad to finally get it out there.
And no, Rambo, the symbol of rampaging 1980s hyper-patriotism, does not appear in this video. I’m hoping to capitalize on some of the magic of this video, which kicked off my Everybody’s Lying About Islam series. “Saudi Arabia Is Finished” did not feature Eddard Stark of Game of Thrones Fame, despite his being featured on the thumbnail. My guess is that pop culture reference might have had something to do with the almost 800K views that video has racked up. I am hoping Rambo can help with this one…
With this blog post, I’d like to continue to complain about something I was harping on in today’s video. In our new media era coverage of international news is just abysmal. Because it gets clicks, you can find exhaustive coverage of every new sound bite in the 2020 US presidential election. But when political earthquakes like this happen, we’re reliant on a staggeringly small range of voices. As I mentioned in the video, many of the New York Times stories written on Bolivia are actually produced in Brazil. That may be where their regional headquarters are but in previous eras there would have been actual correspondents on the ground, or at least competent local stringers that the NYT could have been able to rely upon. But instead we’ve got a guy who certainly knows more than I do, but will be writing about Brazil next week, and maybe Uruguay the week after next.
I am kind of hard on the unthinking coverage of the New York Times and the Washington Post in this video, but that doesn’t mean I am against these organizations. In fact, I think you should all subscribe to them. As biased and incomplete as the stories they tell sometimes are, without them we’d be lost. If the opponents of these resources get their way, then all we’d have to go on in Bolivia would be the reports of the Organization of American States, the US State Department, and the triumphant tweets of US senators. As bad as things are now, that would be even worse. In the 1980s the US media effectively blocked some terrible US policies in Latin America. It’s pretty clear that the media no longer has the strength or capacity to do that. That’s pretty sad.
As promised, I’m going to spend this week’s blog post weighing in on “When Turkey Destroyed It’s Christians“, an infuriating article written by two academics, Benny Morris and Dror Ze’evi, and published by the Wall Street Journal this past May…
In 1915, the Young Turk government that was losing World War I for the Ottoman Empire embarked on a program of genocide against its Armenian minority. Outside of Turkey you won’t find anyone who disputes that, and you certainly won’t find anyone to dispute that here. The Armenian Genocide happened, full stop. Bludgeoning the Turks with this fact until they admit it is a fair thing to do.
That’s not what this Wall Street Journal article does. It attempts something much more sweeping and sinister. With the US-Turkish relationship more fraught than it has been since at least the 1970s, we should be trying to understand Turkey better. Instead, the two authors offer us a highly prejudiced and incomplete essay damning Turkey in irresponsibly sweeping terms over its history with its Christian minority. The Wall Street Journal has given these arguments credibility they do not deserve by publishing them. The article, and the book it is based on, argues that across four decades and three completely different governments, the loss of territory on three continents, and the immolation of a 600 year old empire, the Turks engaged in a conscious multi-decade program of anti-Christian genocide that is directly comparable to the Final Solution cooked up by the Nazis. The authors actually say that in the closing paragraph of their article. By doing so they manage to cheapen the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, and commit a pretty horrific slur against the Turkish people. To my mind it’s quite similar to saying that the pre-Nazi Weimar German government of the 1920s and 1930s and the post World War II West German government are just as guilty of Genocide as the Nazis are, implying that there is something naturally evil about the Turks. These authors seem to be motivated by exactly the same sorts of blind nationalist disrespect for history that Armenian Genocide deniers are. The lead “historian” on this is Benny Morris, an Israeli scholar who distinguished himself in his youth by pointing out that the foundation of Israel involved more ethnic cleansing of Arabs than is usually admitted. He has spent his career since writing about why ethnic cleansing to found the Israeli state was actually a good thing. He’s a figure associated with justifying the political projects of his own country, and not an expert on this era. Dror Ze-evi, the second author, does appear to be an Ottomanist, but he’s either not a good one, or he knows he’s being dishonest.
If you’re familiar with the history, you’re already aware of how deeply insulting it is to tar Ataturk and the Ottoman sultans with the crimes of the Young Turk Genocidaires, but let’s run through this a bit. It takes a lot for me to defend the late Ottoman Sultans, but the outright Nazi comparison does the trick. The fundamental historical point that the WSJ article never mentions is that across the 19th century, the Ottoman empire was losing territory. As they lost territory, their central lands in Anatolia filled up with ethnically cleansed Muslims from across Europe. If you walk through central Athens, you will find multiple former mosques or burnt out relics of them. Well over 100,000 Turks were kicked out of Greek territory after Greece’s independence in 1830. There are churches in Istanbul today, but there are no mosques in Athens. The Russians repeatedly invaded Ottoman territory, usually forced back more by pressure from the other European powers rather than Ottoman strength. Serbian, Romanian and Bulgarian independence happened in stages of mixed sovereignty and self determination. As these territories became more self-governed, atrocities against Muslims, some of whom had been there for 600 years, became more frequent. To its eternal shame the Ottomans engaged in atrocities as well. Interestingly the WSJ article does not mention the Bulgarian massacres, which were some of the worst anti-Christian massacres carried out by the Ottoman government. This is because mentioning those atrocities would require acknowledging the other side of the story, decaying Ottoman control in Europe and the accompanying ethnic cleansing of Muslims. It’s kind of hard to write a hit piece alleging one-sided Turkish ethnic cleansing if you mention actions that were carried out by Muslim populations that no longer exist. The late Ottoman sultanate was a brutal, vicious, failure, losing miserably and committing great atrocities. But were they Nazis? No. Were they even as bad as the Russians, Belgians and Americans of the time? No. They just failed where the Russians, Belgians and Americans succeeded, so their atrocities are harder to wave away.
The Young Turk government that took power from the Sultan in 1908 initially included a lot of propaganda about a new understanding between Turks and minorities. Some of its leaders may even have believed that propaganda. Under the pressures of losing World War I, they carried out a genocide against the Armenians in 1915. Nothing to defend here. Though I would argue that the writers of the WSJ article ARE defending the Young Turks, by pretending that their horrific actions were part of some over-arching Turkish plot, not their own unique responsibility.
It’s the last bit of the WSJ article argument that is truly outrageous. After the Ottomans lost World War One, the victorious allies, chiefly Britain, offered a whole bunch of Turkish territory to Greece. This left out the inconvenient fact that the Turks still held that territory at the end of hostilities with the allies. The Greeks invaded, sweeping across Anatolia, carrying out all manner of atrocities against local Turks as they went. The Turks under Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish republic, rallied and pushed them out, committing atrocities against local Greeks as they went. At the end of the war, after the invading Greeks had been pushed out, a population transfer was agreed. 1.5 million Christians were moved to Greece, and Half a million Muslims were moved to Turkey. This imbalance is explained by the fact that as Greece expanded throughout the 19th century, they had ethnically cleansed all Muslims as they went, while the Ottomans didn’t get started on systematically extirpating Christians until 1915. The Population transfer was a horrible thing, and not something that the international community would accept today. At the time however, it was seen as an appropriate solution. What’s important to remember here, is that unlike the situation with the Armenians, the Greek government was equally at fault for what happened to the Greeks of Anatolia, if not vastly more culpable than the Turkish government. The WSJ article doesn’t mention any of this detail at all. It simply slots the end of Greek presence in Anatolia into its fairy tale of Turkish evil.
History is important. Harvard, the WSJ, and these “scholars” may not think so, but I do. The Wall Street Journal’s brand may be fading in the Murdoch era, but it still matters. People reflexively believe things that are printed there. Because I lived in Turkey for 6 years, multiple people have reached out to me to talk about this article. I see it pop up on twitter all the time, especially in light of the recent non-existent anti-Kurdish genocide in Northern Syria. Turkish history is not a topic that many in the US have really dived into. If the WSJ says something about it, it will believed. Many Americans now believe that the Turks had a four decade, concerted, out of nowhere plot to murder all of its Christians. That’s not true. The fact that this article exists is an example of the “Plot against Turkey” I talk about in today’s video.