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.
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!
This video has turned out to be quite prescient. Closing in on two months ago, when it became clear that the UAE was withdrawing some troops from Yemen, I proposed three possible scenarios for what it would mean. All three are still worth considering, but it’s looking like the one I flagged as most likely is the one that’s happening. It’s a sort of Vietnam 1973 scenario. The Saudis have lost, but they won’t acknowledge it yet, and there is plenty of murder and destruction to come before it becomes obvious to everyone with a 1975 style “helicopters on rooftops” moment.
I didn’t anticipate how quickly things would fall apart, however, with Saudi and UAE proxies engaging in open warfare in the only major Yemeni city that their “coalition” has managed to take. I think the Vietnam parallel stands though. Since World War II we have been lucky enough to see very little inter-state war. Much of the suffering in the world has come in the context of civil wars. This Saudi invasion of its neighbor is only one of a handful of such examples since the 1940s. Vietnam is one of those examples, and the parallels will just get more and more obvious. As sad as this is, it is a bit heartening to see that the US failure in Vietnam wasn’t some unique failure of will, it’s just really fricking hard to invade a country in the modern context. The Saudis are doing even worse than we did, much more quickly.
The US invasion of Iraq also fits into the Vietnam structure pretty well, as I documented five years ago…
Let me preface this by saying again that I’m not any kind of Israel expert, but I figured I should talk a bit more about the claim at the end of today’s video, that Israel has helped reduce its neighbors to smoking ruins. The question of Israel’s role in the run-up to the Iraq war is controversial, but the consensus seems to be that they were very much for Bush’s invasion, and did what they could to promote it. The current Israeli government’s almost gleeful support for the destruction of Syria is less controversial. Israel is officially neutral, but in 2017 they conceded that they had carried out around 100 airstrikes against Syrian and Hezbollah targets over the course of the war, and they have acted as a stumbling block to the peace process.
I think this is all a terrible mistake. This policy of aiding in the destruction of Iraq and Syria might have made sense during the Cold War. It would have been vicious then, but it would at least have had some justification. During that era, when they were faced with the opposition of a vastly better armed Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as the opposition of the Soviet Union, taking these sorts of actions would have been rational. Israel’s current leadership still acts as if they face this sort of existential threat. They don’t. And the world knows it. The desperately promoted threat from Iran is virtually nonexistent. The policies against Iraq and Syria that Israel supported did give Iran more power on the ground in these countries, but Israel remains free to bomb them at will in Syria. Most of Iran’s weapons systems date back to the Shah. Iran has made some limited progress with missile technology, but the use of that technology would quickly result in a complete roll-back of Iranian power in the region, and no doubt the destruction of multiple Iranian and Syrian cities by the Israeli and US air forces.
The Soviet Union is gone. Egypt and Jordan are now Israeli allies, and amazingly Saudi Arabia, if still officially hostile, is now largely seen as an Israeli ally as well. The international Palestinian terrorist threat of yore has been almost completely neutralized. It has been co-opted by the Palestinian Authority, and it has been fairly comprehensively rooted out of its old homes in Lebanon and Jordan. With the fences and walls around Gaza and the West Bank, the threat of a third Intifadah is largely meaningless. Palestinians would die in their thousands, in return for a few miles of burned Israeli farms. Netanyahu and company seem to think they are now secure enough to treat the Palestinians any way they want. This is a terrible mistake.
Despite all Israel’s protestations, the world, outside of Washington, DC, can now clearly see that it is more secure than it has ever been. All 21st century wars are media wars, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is even more so than others. Netanyahu’s behavior makes it look, even to Israel’s most natural allies, like Israel is THE destabilizing element in the region. Much of Israel’s support in the world, and in the US in particular, is based on the perception that the country is a plucky underdog. Killing Palestinians by the thousand, with the support of former enemies like Egypt, while increasing security cooperation with Saudi Arabia, does not fit that image. As today’s video says, Israel’s current leadership serves the interest of US defense contractors, not the interests of Israel.
I’m no Donald Trump fan (to put it mildly) but occasionally, he’s absolutely right. He wants to get out of Syria. He said so back at the end of March. I have a nasty suspicion that his statement may be the reason we ended up bombing that poor country a few weeks ago. As I’ve documented fairly rigorously over the past couple years, almost everybody in “respectable” politics in the United States is angling for a wider war in Syria.
That’s why it’s so hard to find the basic information I’ve laid out in today’s video. The conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq are often talked about in broad terms. It’s conceded that the conflicts were mistakes, but we get bogged down in the details, and questions of the individual mis-steps and controversies. The bigger picture gets obscured. I’d argue that’s kind of the goal. Because if you back up a bit, and view the trajectory of these conflicts, you quickly realize that they are very similar. And, horrifyingly, this is exactly the trajectory we’ve embarked upon in Syria. Today’s video draws back the curtain.
This video explains one of literacy’s most important effects. I’ve long been puzzled by the “Long Peace” we’ve been experiencing since the end of the second World War. Despite what our media tells us, the world is much more peaceful than it has ever been. There has been very little war between great powers since WWII, and the pace of civil wars has slackened greatly since the end of the Cold War as well. Even more importantly, the great powers have not been able to exploit this period of peace to beat up on everybody else they way they have in the past.
Europe experienced a great period of peace from the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815 until the Crimean War in the 1850’s. Even that war was a relatively quick, if costly, break in a period of peace stretching up until World War I (1914). During that period of time however, Europe extended over the whole world, crushing indigenous peoples and empires all around the globe. It was peace for Europe, and suffering for everybody else. This time it has been different. This video lays out why Literacy has a lot more to do with this than is currently recognized.
Steven Pinker talks about the “expanding circle of empathy”. Today’s video is an exercise in that. The concept, as I understand it, goes something like this. When we were all living in caves, we looked out for our family and that was about it. As societies develop, the circle of empathy expands. We look out for our tribe, our city, and over the past couple hundred years or so we’ve begun to see entire nation states as “our people”. Many of the challenges and victories of the past couple decades can be explained through this concept. Fights over everything from civil rights for other races and orientations, to environmentalism and animal rights are generated by differing ideas of the circle of empathy.
I’m generally a fan of expanding the circle. As I get older and crustier, I’m sure to object to stuff new generations come up with, but as of 2017, I’m pretty down with most expansion efforts. There’s one in particular that I try to get out ahead of. I spend a lot of time thinking about geopolitics. So much of what is written on the topic in the US fails to see things from the other side. It’s not that I’m not patriotic, it’s just that I think US interests are better served when we understand how other people are feeling. An expanding circle of empathy is a good in and of itself, but there’s also a utility there.
This video started off within one circle of empathy, and ends up in a broader one. Empathy is hard. The makers of Kong: Skull Island may have worried about the first circle, but as their actions and this video show, they put zero thought into the second.