Beyond the ‘Case for Colonialism’: Rethinking Academic Practices and Dissent

This is the second in this weekend’s pair of posts on L’affaire TWQ. The author is Swati Parashar from the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg, Sweden, who has Disordered previously. An abridged version of this essay appeared in the Indian Express on 30 September 2017.


It is arguable that we are living in an era of anti-intellectualism, with little respect for scholarly debates and academic endeavours. Despite the odds, several academics have been at the forefront of resistance against undemocratic forces; from participating in the widely attended public lectures on ‘nationalism’ at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi in support of students charged with sedition, protesting against Trump’s policies in the US, to raising voices against state oppression in Turkey. Many academics in the critical tradition visualise an equitable world and contribute to insightful research and progressive activism. Hence, when a leading academic journal, intuitively named the Third World Quarterly (TWQ), founded to encourage anti colonial critiques and voices from the Global South, turns around to advocate for a return to colonialism and its benefits, it requires a serious public debate. It is time to hold the mirror to ourselves and reflect on our own academic practices.

TWQ was established in the 1970s, an era when being referred to as ‘Third World’ was a badge of defiance or honour rather than a slur. The term is now back in circulation within critical/postcolonial scholarship and has an analytical and political purchase. The journal averred to promote “an open-minded and sympathetic search for establishing an international order based on justice”. The main financial patron of this academic venture was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which gained notoriety in 1990s with allegations of money laundering and other financial irregularities. However, the journal recovered from this scandalous association and went on to become one of the premier academic avenues for critical development discourse and postcolonial and decolonial perspectives on global politics. Academics, especially from the Global South, take pride in publishing in this journal.

The most recent issue of the journal carried an article by Bruce Gilley, a professor of Political Science in the US, titled “The case for colonialism”, which not only glorifies the earlier colonial rule but also advocates for the recolonization of certain ex-colonies. The publication of this article led to widespread furore in the global academic community, with angry petitions demanding the retraction of the published article. The statement by the editor-in-chief that the article was a ‘Viewpoint’ published to generate debate and had undergone double blind peer review, was endorsed later by the Taylor and Francis Group. It has now come to light that the editor-in-chief chose to publish the piece with major revisions, after 2 reviewers’ recommendations varied from rejection to minor revisions. As a protest against the publication,15 of the 34-member editorial board have resigned, stating in their letter that they had not been consulted about the publication of this article, and that even after requests, the reviews were not made available to them. Continue reading

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The Eternal Return of Benign Colonialism

One of a pair of posts we will be featuring at The Disorder this weekend on the Third World Quarterly affair. This first contribution is from Naeem Inayatullah, Professor of Politics at Ithaca College, who has visited with us before.


In “The Case for Colonialism” (2017), Bruce Gilley calls for a return to colonialism. He asserts that colonialism brought great benefits to Third World states, that these gains were squandered due to a premature granting of independence to the former colonies, and that only a re-colonization by Western states can develop lost capacities. Many scholars are outraged by Gilley’s publication. Some have called for its retraction while others demand that we ignore it altogether. I think we make a mistake in underestimating this event.

We need not express surprise by Gilley’s presentation. He is only the latest in a long line of scholars and policy makers that have made such claims for decades and for centuries.  For example, Robert Jackson’s Quasi-States (1990) makes similar arguments but without Gilley’s polemical bite. Jackson’s book itself expands on an influential article he wrote with Carl Rossberg, “Why Africa’s Weak States Persist,” (Jackson and Rossberg, 1982).  Indeed, the tone and substance of Gilley’s presentation is widespread in our time. We can find it in the work, for example, of Max Boot (2002), Robert F. Cooper (2002), Niall Ferguson (2008), Michael Ignatieff (2003), Robert Kagan (2002) and Robert D. Kaplan (2003). Some Marxists make comparable claims: Bill Warren in Imperialism, Pioneer of Capitalism (1980) argues that the Third world needs more, not less capitalism and imperialism. Imperialism, as capitalism’s pioneer first destroys and then reconfigures all other cultures. This creative destruction is the condition for moving the world to socialism and to communism. The political bent of these mostly academic writers can range from Marxist to liberal to conservative. But they all require former colonizing states to accept the responsibility of doing good for others via a benevolent imperialism/colonialism. Nor are eminent philosophers, such as Kant, Hegel, and Marx, short on praise for imperialism’s and colonialism’s value to subjected people (Blaney and Inayatullah 2010, chapters 5 and 6).

If our response is disbelief, we might wish to familiarize ourselves with the academy’s centrality in propagating a colonial praxis. Indeed, many have said that academia is an effect of empire, that King Leopold’s dream of creating universities to propagate and refine colonialism has been true for some time.

Three elements make Gilley’s article different from the usual.

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The Face Of Sexuality: Why Do AI-Generated Sexual Orientations Matter?

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Weber is the author of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge which has been the subject of a symposium on this blog, besides also being an occasional contributor to the blog. This text is based on comments presented at the 2017 European International Studies Association Annual Conference, Barcelona, on the panel ‘The Politics and Responsibility of IR in an Age of Crisis’.

A Stanford University study by Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski that recently went viral repackages long discredited beliefs that a person’s face is scientifically readable for specific personality traits (also see this). The study claims artificial intelligence (AI) facial recognition technology can determine a person’s sexual orientation, with 16-30% greater accuracy than the human eye. The study analyzed more than 35,000 images on a US dating website of white, able-bodied, 18-40 year olds for ‘fixed’ (e.g., nose shape) and ‘transient’ facial features (e.g., grooming styles, weight, facial expressions). Researchers compared their AI-generated sexual orientations against sexual orientations researchers found from dating profiles, which researchers established ‘based on the gender of the partners that [website users] were looking for’.

LGBTQ advocacy organizations immediately labeled the study ‘junk science’. Social scientists will have little trouble understanding why. For example, the study’s sample is skewed in terms of race, age, (dis)ability, and location (online and in the US). Furthermore, the study’s coders failed to independently verify crucial information like age and the problematic category sexual orientation, which are things people regularly lie about on dating sites.

What may be less obvious to many reading the study are some of the other ways biases are created via coding errors or are written into the facial recognition algorithm. For example, the study restricts the range of sexual orientations, sexes and genders to neat yet inaccurate binaries: gay and straight, male and female, masculine and feminine. The study also mistakenly equates sexual orientation with sexual activity, even though people who have same-sex sex do not necessarily identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer. And the study treats ‘transient’ facial features as if they are natural or ‘native’ to ‘gay culture’ and ‘straight culture’, rather than understanding them as performative acts that are highly dependent upon context. In addition to naturalizing culture, this move overdetermines how ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are coded. For it fails to recognize that people who choose to go on a dating site will likely post photos of themselves that can be easily understood through sexualized stereotypes, which they may or may not perform in other on- and off-line contexts.

If there are so many problems with this study, why should any of us give it a second thought, particularly (IR) scholars, policymakers and activists? And why should this study be the focus of reflections on the politics and responsibility of International Relations in an age of crisis?

I have five answers.

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The Limits of Semantic Ambiguity: A response to Steve Fuller

‘Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny’

Mahatma Gandhi

I was at a seminar once, presenting an early version of some research on popular culture and world politics. During the question & answer period, a colleague – a distinguished scholar in literary studies and creative writing – asserted, quite forcefully, that I should reconsider my use of the concept of narrative. It didn’t belong in my scholarship, he argued, it was a concept with a history and a trajectory and its home was in literature not International Relations, the oddly ill-disciplined discipline in which I have found myself. My colleague raised his voice during this exchange, became somewhat upset. His emotional register, his irrational response to my naïve and perhaps clumsy use of a concept he had spent decades working on: he behaved like a woman.

Academics in general are such emotional creatures. We might speak, in fact, of ‘academic feminisation’. They’re so invested in their work, and the good ones are so committed to their students: they nurture, they foster talent and possibility, they provide guidance and professional socialisation. They act like women. They respond irrationally to criticisms of work, or the complaint that a concept is being misappropriated; or they focus on some perceived ‘injustice’ rather than take an argument at face value and use logic to refute it. Hysterical responses are not uncommon…

… It is clear, I hope, that the above paragraphs are deliberately ridiculous. In no scholarly outlet, one would hope, would such a flagrantly reductive and offensive set of gender stereotypes find a platform. And yet Steve Fuller was able to publish an article recently on the multi-author blog Sociological Imagination that used flagrantly reductive and offensive stereotypes about autism to support an argument about ‘semantic ambiguity’ in sociology. I want to respond here to both Fuller’s blog post, and his defence of said post – both in the comments and on Twitter – in which he essentially ‘doubles down’ on his original position. Continue reading

Trumped: Beyond the Whitelash

The election of a manifestly incompetent, billionaire bigot as president of the USA has come as a shock to many people, as indeed it should, and a vigorous debate has emerged over the causes. Many progressives, rightly horrified by the vile, nativist and sexist rhetoric of Trump’s campaign, seem to be concluding that it is this rhetoric that explains his success. Trump’s victory – enabled above all by white men – exposes the appeal of retrograde sentiment on gender – because voters rejected a highly-qualified woman for a self-declared ‘pussy-grabber’ – and race – since his supporters endorsed or at least disregarded his intensely racist rhetoric and policy pledges. Trump’s win thus expresses a ‘whitelash’ – a vile defence of threatened, white, male privilege. However, while sexists and racists undoubtedly supported Trump en masse, this thesis cannot explain how he was able to win. Indeed, it distracts attention from the most glaring cause of the outcome: the rot at the heart of America’s democratic system in general and of the Democratic Party in particular.

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When White Men Rule The World

A shorter version of this post appears at the Oxford University Press blog. It was invited – if that’s the right word – some months ago as a tie-in with the new edition of The Globalization of World Politics. Obviously, I was planning on writing about questions of imperial feminism and intersectionality. Things didn’t turn out that way. Apologies for repetition of good sense already promulgated elsewhere, and for the inevitable commentary fatigue.


Donald Trump

If Hillary Rodham Clinton had triumphed in last Tuesday’s presidential election, it would have been a milestone for women’s political representation: a shattering of the hardest glass ceiling, as her supporters liked to say. Clinton’s defeat in the electoral college (but not the popular ballot, where she narrowly triumphed by about 640,000 votes at last count) is also the failure of a certain feminist stratagem: namely, the cultivation of a highly qualified, centrist, establishment (and comparatively hawkish) female candidate, measured in speech and reassuringly moderate in her politics. But the victory of Donald Trump tells us just as much about the global politics of gender, and how it is being remade.

The election itself was predicted to be the most divided by sex in US history. Polls from a few weeks before the election had Clinton’s lead among women at the highest level for a presidential candidate since records began in 1952. A widely shared meme celebrated the trend and declared that “women’s suffrage is saving the world”. Activists from the ‘alt-right’ (a conglomerate of neo-Nazis, xenophobes, men’s rights types, lapsed libertarians and professional agitators) trolled in response that the 19th amendment should be repealed. Time called the election a ‘referendum on gender’; The New Yorker a question of ‘manifest misogyny’.

if-just-men-and-women-voted-meme

In the end, the politics of race mediated the politics of gender: white women were by many leagues more comfortable with Trump’s candidacy than women of colour. As Kimberlé Crenshaw pointed out on Wednesday morning, the claim for a singular female worldview – one that could be mobilised to ordain Clinton ‘Madame President’ – collapses under the pressure of other cross-cutting histories, interests, and ideologies (the idea that women share a common political perspective has of course been under attack within feminist theory for many decades). As has now been much rehearsed, NBC’s exit polls measured a 10% lead for Trump among white women, and an almost 20% lead amongst white women between the ages of 45 and 64. By contrast, CNN data indicated that 94% of black women voted for Clinton. Opinions now vary on how much blame to apportion suburban white women, or what have been called ‘Ivanka voters’, for the result. Somewhat confoundingly, Pew Research finds that the overall gender gap was indeed larger than in the last presidential elections (with women leaning Democrat). In either case the most significant shifts took place within the cohort of white voters (in favour of the Republicans).

And yet the power of race and racism in deciding the election should not be taken to mean that gender is irrelevant after all. As predicted, it was white men who voted for Trump in the greatest numbers. Trump is moreover symbolic of, and personally implicated in, a resurgent strain of misogynistic thinking: regularly dismissive of the intelligence and professionalism of women, speaking about them as sex objects or harridans, and fuelling conspiracy theories and denialism over sexual assault. And although the collapse in the predicted female vote for Clinton is surprising, it is at the same time no novelty to observe that women may also disqualify a politician on the basis of her sex – for example, in setting higher standards for female than male candidates, in believing that only men are aggressive enough for politics, or in judging women more harshly on their appearance and demeanour.  Continue reading

Against the New Phrenology: De-Pathologizing Trumpism

This is a guest post by Dan Boscov-Ellen. Dan is a Ph.Dprofile. student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research and a Visiting Instructor in Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute. His dissertation research involves exploring the political-philosophical implications of capitalist ecological crisis.


One of the most persistent refrains of the US Presidential election has been that of liberal incredulity at the idiocy of Trump voters. Depending on the current status of Nate Silver’s election forecasts, this tends to manifest either as amusement (perhaps chuckling at a Daily Show interview of deluded rally attendees or a screening of Idiocracy), or as disgust and horror (perhaps soberly staring into one’s craft IPA when the debate watch party gets too real). How, liberals wonder, could anyone vote for Cheeto™ Hitler?

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But of course they do not wonder too hard – it is obvious to most liberals that Trump voters are simply ignorant and stupid, an apparent truism of which comedians, political scientists, neuroscientists, and cognitive psychologists constantly assure us. Everyone knows that Trump supporters are less well-informed than liberals – if only they read the New York Times and listened to NPR instead of watching Fox News! But the deeper problem, allegedly, is that Trump voters are simply not intelligent enough to realize how ignorant they are. Psychologist David Dunning explains that

[t]he knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.

According to neuroscientist Bobby Azarian, this Dunning-Kruger effect “helps explain why even nonpartisan experts — like military generals and Independent former Mayor of New York/billionaire CEO Michael Bloomberg — as well as some respected Republican politicians, don’t seem to be able to say anything that can change the minds of loyal Trump followers.”

At base, then, it is the Trump voters’ fundamental and impenetrable stupidity that causes them to ignore the experts – highly credentialed neoclassical economists, experienced military and intelligence figures, beneficent billionaires, esteemed members of the mainstream American political establishment and independent press, and Neil Degrasse Tyson – who obviously know far better than the plebian masses. Indeed, many liberals secretly believe it might really be better if the experts just ran things and we revoked the cretins’ right to vote.

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