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November 28, 2007


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Charlie Stross

Speaking as a Brit (of post-imperial vintage) who has occasionally visited the funny lump off rock off the east coast, I'm inclined to think that the empire didn't do Britain much good in the long run. Made us a target for a Kaiser with naval penis envy? Check. Feather-bedded our domestic industries with cheap raw material imports while the rest of the developed world modernized? Check. Encouraged the nobs to ignore the desperate poverty and degradation on their own doorsteps? Check. Gave the god-botherers delusions of evangelical potency? Check. Gave us a generations-long hangover as the whole rickety assembly disassembled itself post-1945? Check.

And that's the downside, for the people on top of the heap: for those underneath, it was just unspeakable.

Empires? Just say no.

(And I really wish the idiots in Washington DC had read enough history to get over their hang-up on American exceptionalism and realize that what's sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander.)

Noel Maurer

Charlie! God damn. How long have you been lurking here? I've been waiting for your skewed commentary to grace this place.

I don't agree with you about the lessons of history. No, wait, let me rephrase that: I think you're right, but you're right for the wrong reason.

The problem is that the British Empire makes an astoundingly lousy comparison for modern American imperialism. In other words, the idiots in Washington, D.C., are wrong, but not for the reason you think they're wrong. Niall Ferguson is quite right when he argues that the old British Empire would have handled the mess'o'potamia quite differently, even allowing for modern technologies and ideologies ... but those policy options aren't easily adopted by a modern democratic republic. (Although taking a close look at the awfully-named "Anbar Awakening" might make you doubt that.)

But that isn't to say that there aren't historical precedents that the U.S. could learn a lot from! (And which would probably lead to just saying no.)

In fact, Carlos and I have written a lot and will be writing more on one particular historical empire that makes (unlike the British one) a very close parallel to our modern extraterritorial blundering ... over to you, Carlos.

Carlos: To be fair (which I understand is more than the British Empire really deserves), one could argue that the depreciation caused a transfer from rent-seeking Anglo bureaucrats to poor Indian producers of raw cotton, cotton yarn (for a while, at least), opium, and rice.

I am a bit less skeptical than Charlie of empires in general. I might even be a bit more favorably inclined towards the British Empire had they not taken places that would have been more than happy to accept their rights and duties as Englishmen and shoved them out of their precious polity because white people didn't want to live next to black people in Notting Hill.

Yes, that is a Caribbocentric point of view. (And maybe Mauritian, too.) Doesn't make it less true.


The second American empire: faster and louder! The ODs should be happening about [checks time] now.

Noel, I'd worry about the inelasticity of manufactured imports on the Indian market.


Reading history doesn't affect the exceptionalist viewpoint, Charlie. That's its advantage -- you can read all you want, and never have to worry about what it means to you, because you're different. You're better. You're not like all the other wannabe empires, you're the frickin Good Guys.

Which is not to say that you're not right, of course. There is a serious dearth of education in Washington. But Rice, for one, knows her history, and it doesn't seem to have had any positive effect at all.

No, American exceptionalism is something more perverse than a mere lack of education. My Dad's infected with a bad case of it. (Which drives my wife absolutely berzerk, I can assure you...)

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