As a moral framework for assessing regimes in an imperfect world, Nigel Biggar’s Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning has much to recommend it, writes Samuel Gregg in Public Discourse.
A common feature of many cultural revolutions is the effort to distort or even erase historical truth in the service of ideological goals. Past events, customs, economic systems, and political structures are presented as irredeemably evil. It follows that only radical redress in the present (self-denouncing struggle sessions, reparations, and purges of books, artifacts, and people) offers any possibility of atonement (though rarely redemption). Woe betide those who indicate that history and the human choices that drive it are a little more complicated.
Events like the Shoah are rightly labeled evil on account of their foundational premises and the intrinsic wrongness of any policy aimed at eliminating an entire people. Most historical occurrences, however, are not so easily categorized. Assessing a political, cultural, and economic phenomenon like feudalism or the series of choices that led European statesmen to go to war in 1914 is an even more difficult exercise.
Three things are required if any such analysis is to withstand critical scrutiny. The first is an accurate grasp of the relevant facts. That involves identifying myths that distort the truth of what really happened. Second, those facts that are pivotal to grasping the moral dimension of historical phenomena must be distinguished from those that are largely accidental and incidental. The third is to establish a defensible standard for making moral judgments of historical events, figures, and regimes that avoids the temptation of presentism. Taking these preconditions seriously is central to Oxford Regius Professor Emeritus of Moral and Pastoral Theology Nigel Biggar’s enterprise in his new book, Colonialism: A Moral Reckoning.
In our time, the very word “colonialism”—specifically, the emergence and spread of European colonial empires from the sixteenth century onward before their dismantling in the twentieth century’s second half—generally functions as a synonym for the worst forms of perfidy and exploitation.
This connotation has been fueled by knowledge of past real injustices associated with these empires. But also at work in our time is contemporary “wokeism”: the ideological conviction that everything, ranging from constitutions to mathematics, is stained by systemic injustices to which people (especially white male people) must be “awoken.”
To propose that the multifaceted figures, events, and institutions associated with the British Empire are more morally complex than is generally supposed is one of the fastest ways to be canceled these days. This proposition, however, is central to Biggar’s Colonialism. Biggar’s account of the genesis of his book, its original commissioning, and the subsequent obstacles it had to overcome before eventually being published underscores how difficult it is today to question any historical narrative proclaimed to be sacrosanct by the perpetually outraged…