The history of empire isn’t about pride – or guilt.
Oxford professor Nigel Biggar has called for the British to ‘moderate our post-imperial guilt’. But it’s evidence alone that should inform our study of the past
‘When Cecil Rhodes was proposed for an honorary degree at Oxford in 1899, there was vocal protest from 92 academics.’ Students at Oriel College, Oxford, call for the removal of a statue of Cecil Rhodes, March 2016. Photograph: Chris Ratcliffe/Getty Images
There is something ironic about an Oxford theologian being portrayed as persecuted for arguing that Britain should be proud of its imperial past, when 59% of the population agree with him. But it’s no laughing matter.
Oxford’s Ethics and Empire project, announced last month by Prof Nigel Biggar, has drawn widespread concern from historians of all stripes. And, as expected, it attracted some fierce criticism from academics. An open letter from 58 Oxford scholars of empire registered disagreement with the project’s aims and preconceptions. I was its principal author. Co-signatories included world-renowned professors and younger researchers doing cutting-edge work in the field.
Predictably, the subsequent media furore ignored the issues at stake. We were attacked for denying freedom of expression to views we oppose – when in fact we expressly affirmed it – or for holding “unbalanced”, prejudiced views of the history we have spent our professional lives studying.
It’s unsurprising that once again, “experts” who argue from evidence against the national-populist mood should be vilified in the rightwing press. It’s also dangerous, and not only for universities, to dismiss critical history in favour of a rehabilitation of imperialism as a morally justifiable enterprise, serving a sense of national pride. Equally unhelpful is the assertion that if we’re not proud of the empire, we must feel guilty about it. History is not about how people feel.
For 40 years, scholars of empire have reassessed and reinterpreted what imperial rule, colonial settlement, conquest, administration, and decolonisation have meant in different periods across the world. Empires have been nearly ubiquitous in history, much older than nations. Colonial empires provided the matrix of the modern world in the 19th century, and their effects still influence the shape of the world and the division of privilege across it today.
To evaluate so complex a process by moral measurement – how much suffering was offset by how much “progress”? – is, for most historians, irrelevant as well as inadequate. Equally inadequate and irrelevant is the preoccupation – almost an obsession for the Brexit-Britain right – with the role of empire in an integrating “island story” of plucky white British patriots and globalisers. Even at the height of the Victorian empire, some figures who are now held up by empire nostalgics as inviolable national icons, most notably Cecil Rhodes, were criticised by their compatriots as acting more in their own than in the national interest. When Rhodes, already censured by a parliamentary select committee, was proposed for an honorary degree at Oxford in 1899, there was vocal protest from 92 academics (none of whom were Corbynistas.)
Britain, like France, the United States, the Netherlands, Japan, Russia, Germany and Italy, does need a public debate about the realities and legacies of its imperial past. We need a fuller public understanding of what Britain’s empire was, and how its aftereffects have influenced Britain’s multi-ethnic, multi-confessional society, its inequalities and injustices as well as its commonalities and opportunities.
That debate should be equitable, rational and based on all the available evidence. It should not be about apportioning blame, instilling guilt or recovering pride. We also need to see that history as part of a larger, longer, global history of empire, not as something peculiar to us. It’s important in understanding our collective present that we know what forces shaped it. But historical understanding is about recapturing the sense of things done by, and done to, other people at other times. It’s not about us, and how we feel about it is entirely irrelevant.
(James McDougall is associate professor, fellow and tutor in modern history at Trinity College, Oxford).
Reporting on the World’s Most Controversial Farm Chemical.
Veteran journalist Carey Gillam’s new book sheds light on the ongoing battle over glyphosate, the nation's most commonly used herbicide.
Want to start a fight at a state fair, agriculture show, or meeting of the European Commission? Get farmers, consumers, and politicians discussing Monsanto, genetic engineering, and pesticide use.
The entwined topics all happen to comprise one of the most contentious food and agriculture debates of the last decade. In fact, the European Union is set to vote later this month on whether to approve a 10-year license renewal for the chemical glyphosate—the main ingredient in Monsanto’s flagship Roundup weed-killer and a probable carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer. (A year later, the WHO and Food and Agriculture Organization said glyphosate was unlikely to cause cancer to humans “through the diet.”)
Carey Gillam ventures right into this global hornets’ nest in her new book, Whitewash: The Story of a Weed Killer, Cancer, and the Corruption of Science, published today from Island Press. An investigative journalist for more than two decades, Gillam covered business and agriculture for national news outlets, including Reuters, where she wrote some of the first articles looking at the potential dangers of glyphosate. After spending years on the “Monsanto beat,” Gillam left Reuters in 2015 to serve as research director at U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit group that advocates for transparency in America’s food system.
Civil Eats spoke with Gillam about her life in and out of mainstream journalism, the farmers she met along the way, and the big business of agriculture.
The main character in your book is glyphosate. Can you say more about how it’s made, what it’s used for, and why you center your book around this fairly obscure chemical?
[Laughs.] Few people at cocktail parties want to talk about glyphosate, right? It’s not a household term. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in what many people are familiar with, which is Monsanto’s Roundup-branded herbicide. Glyphosate is the most widely used weed-killer in the world, and it came to market in 1974 as a miracle for combating weeds, which are very difficult for farmers to tackle.
Glyphosate was remarkable in that it was very efficient and could be applied broadly to a range of different weed types. It was considered much safer than many other herbicides, and it was considered much more environmentally benign. It got a lot of applause, a lot of attention. The Monsanto scientists who discovered the weed-killing properties won awards for that.
It was embraced pretty widely around the world as a replacement for some more dangerous weed killers, and of course moms and dads know it because people use it on their lawns and gardens. It’s used on golf courses, and cities and municipalities use it in parks and playgrounds. [Roundup] really has become pervasive in our world, and I see it as the poster child for larger discussions about pesticide use.
You begin and end Whitewash with the story of Jack McCall. Who was he and why did you feel it was important to start with him?
Throughout Whitewash, I tried to tell the stories of real people, because that’s what I care about—I think that’s what we all care about. People like Jack McCall, his wife Teri, and their family have this beautiful little farm in Cambria, California, and grew different types of citrus fruits as well as avocados. Jack developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a very aggressive kind, and died a particularly horrible, suffering death the day after Christmas in 2015.
Their story is particularly compelling to me because Jack did not want to use pesticides on his farm. He was kind of a hippie environmentalist, and he used Roundup because he had been told and believed it was very, very safe. Which is a story that we hear from a lot of people—that they believed Roundup to be safe.
You write a lot about what you see as Monsanto’s effort to cover-up evidence that glyphosate effects farm communities and the environment adversely. Can you say more about that?
The research and the revelations in Whitewash really are the culmination of 19 years of work I’ve done on glyphosate and Monsanto. Over those years, I’ve learned about Monsanto’s business strategies, and their efforts to promote and expand the use of their glyphosate products. In the course of doing that, I’ve interviewed a lot of individuals, and I’ve learned that the company’s position, and the narrative that it put forward didn’t really always jibe with the story on the ground—what you were hearing from farmers, scientists, or other researchers.
You also add on top of that Freedom of Information Act documents that I have obtained—literally thousands of pages—from different regulatory agencies: U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and Department of Agriculture.
You layer on top of that the other documents that the organization I work for, U.S. Right to Know, has obtained from agricultural professors and plant pathologists at universities who have been working secretly behind the scenes with Monsanto. Then you layer on top of that the documents that have been recently coming out through discovery in the litigation that is pending against Monsanto.
When you put all this together, it paints a very clear picture of strategic efforts to control, manipulate, and deceive. It’s indisputable that Monsanto has made a grand effort to deceive regulators, policymakers, and the public for many, many years about this chemical.
What did you find in the course of reviewing the FOIA documents that particularly shocked you?
There’s such a long list. One example is the network of scientists around the world that Monsanto has developed as a secret army of soldiers that it can deploy whenever it needs in order to convince regulators, scientific journals, or the press that Monsanto’s position is valid and that any concerns are not. As I found in the documents, Monsanto is giving assignments to these professors to write a policy paper or put out a particular journal article that Monsanto’s public relations firm has written, that will carry the name of the scientist and appear to be independent.
One very specific example is University of Illinois professor Bruce Chassy, who, while he was at the university, received a lot of money over the years for his program. When he was retiring, Monsanto wanted to set him up in the nonprofit organization called Academics Review—which purports to be independent and publishes articles and weighs in on important issues.
Monsanto in the emails back and forth is talking about how they want to set this up, don’t want anyone to know Monsanto’s behind it. And they’ve done that over and over again with numerous organizations and numerous professors that they can deploy as attack dogs to discredit scientists or journalists or put forth false narratives regarding the safety of Monsanto’s products. To me, it’s outrageous and egregious. It seems unethical and deceitful.
There have been Marches Against Monsanto around the globe and a great deal of efforts to illuminate the company’s practices. Has any of this impacted Monsanto’s bottom line?
I don’t think so. The company’s share price has been on the uptick the last few months. Shareholders love it, investors love it, and yes, they get a lot of negativity and earn the ire of food safety advocates and environmentalists, but they know how to generate money and profits, and they have such a dominant position in the agriculture market with their seeds and traits. That’s what the market rewards.
You document the lengths to which Monsanto goes to discredit and attack scientists and journalists. Have they come after you?
Yes. Monsanto admits that they reached out to my editors, and made efforts to get me removed from the food and agriculture beat at Reuters. They also employed surrogates like BIO and CropLife in the ag-chemical industry who tried to block my and limit my coverage. They had nonprofits like Academics Review write attack articles about me. They’ve tried to vilify and discredit my work for at least the last decade—after they discovered that I wasn’t going to parrot the propaganda that they want reporters to use.
You worked for a couple decades as an investigative journalist. Why did you give up such a successful career as a reporter?
I had a new editor come in [at Reuters] who wasn’t fully familiar with the food and ag beat. The pressure from Monsanto and the industry created a lot of tensions, and I eventually decided it was best to move to U.S. Right to Know, where I could focus full-time on researching food and ag—a topic I had become particularly passionate about.
Was it hard to make that switch from a neutral journalist position to more of an advocacy position?
I still reject the “advocacy” label—other than advocating for truth and transparency, which, as a journalist, that’s what you’re supposed to do. When you are a journalist, you are a seeker of truth, and you share that with others. That’s what I’m trying to do now.
For instance, I do not take a position or weigh in on whether glyphosate should be banned or not. That is a risk management position to be made by policymakers and regulators—it is not my job. My job is to present truthful, relevant information that has been hidden from the public or that is not readily available to the public so that informed decisions can be made. That doesn’t sit well with a lot of people, and eventually maybe I will be more comfortable in [an advocacy] role, but at this point I think it’s simply enough just to tell the truth.
How do you think the issue’s being reported in the mainstream media?
I think there is a lack of sufficient, in-depth reporting on the important topics surrounding food and agriculture and the health of our environment. That’s for a lot of reasons: space demands for other stories; a lack of clarity on very complex, complicated, highly controversial issues. There are a lot of reasons why it’s difficult for a journalist at a newswire, for instance, or a radio station or a newspaper to dig deep into these things…. There are outlets that are doing really good investigative work, but they’re few and far between. But you see this with a lot of really important issues today.
You were just in France presenting on glyphosate before Parliament. The E.U. has traditionally been much tougher on regulating the weed killer than the U.S. Why do you think this is?
What I have found in Europe is that they have long had a more precautionary view of protecting their food, their people, and their environment than we do here. Historically, it doesn’t seem like they’ve had the kind of regulatory capture by corporations that we have here in the U.S., although there certainly appear to be concerns about that there. They value their public and environmental health, and quality and purity of their food, more than we do here in the United States.
Here, we all just expect a rubber stamp from the EPA because that’s what we always get from the EPA. That is another, bigger message: I don’t see this as just a Monsanto or glyphosate problem. If we did away with Monsanto or glyphosate tomorrow, that doesn’t solve the pesticide problem. We have become so dependent on pesticides as an easy or quick fix for anything we identify as a problem. It’s not healthy, and it’s not sustainable for the long term.
What do you anticipate happening under EPA head Scott Pruitt, who has shown himself to be quite cozy with the agrichemical companies and the other industries he regulates.
We’re definitely not improving, and it seems to be pretty clear we’re going in the opposite direction, where it doesn’t matter what the science says or what the concerns are—if the corporation wants it, the corporation’s going get it. Look at Dow Chemical and chlorpyrifos, for crying out loud. Chlorpyrifos has an abundance of evidence of harm to small children and their neuro-development, and was set to be banned. And then Dow Chemical waltzes in with a $1 million donation to the Trump inaugural fund and lo and behold, the EPA decides not to ban chlorpyrifos. They’re not even trying to hide the collusion.
What is giving you hope these days?
I see it as a hopeful sign that so many people seem to be paying attention to these issues. We’re seeing at least a slight groundswell of grassroots interest, and education, and outreach and attempts to wake up policymakers and others to try to protect our communities. We’re seeing it more on the local levels where people are urging their school systems to stop spraying the weed-killers on the playgrounds, than we are on the national level. But I do think people are starting to pay attention, so there’s hope in that, maybe?
How Climate Change Deniers Rise to the Top in Google Searches.
Groups that reject established climate science can use the search
engine’s advertising business to their advantage, gaming the
system to find a mass platform for false or misleading claims.
Type the words “climate change” into Google and you could get an unexpected result: advertisements that call global warming a hoax.
“Scientists blast climate alarm,” said one that appeared at the top of the search results page during a recent search, pointing to a website, DefyCCC, that asserted: “Nothing has been studied better and found more harmless than anthropogenic CO2 release.”
Another ad proclaimed: “The Global Warming Hoax — Why the Science Isn’t Settled,” linking to a video containing unsupported assertions, including that there is no correlation between rising levels of greenhouse gases and higher global temperatures.
(In reality, the harmful effects of carbon dioxide emissions linked to human activity, like rising temperatures and melting sea ice, have been acknowledged by every major scientific organization in the world.)
America’s technology giants have come under fire for their role in the spread of fake news during the 2016 presidential campaign, prompting promises from Google and others to crack down on sites that spread disinformation.
Less scrutinized has been the way tech companies continue to provide a mass platform for the most extreme sites among those that use false or misleading science to reject the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change. Google’s search page has become an especially contentious battleground between those who seek to educate the public on the established climate science and those who reject it.
Not everyone who uses Google will see climate denial ads in their search results. Google’s algorithms use search history and other data to tailor ads to the individual, something that is helping to create a highly partisan internet.
A recent search for “climate change” or “global warming” from a Google account linked to a New York Times climate reporter did not return any denial ads. The top results were ads from environmental groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund.
But when the same reporter searched for those terms using private browsing mode, which helps mask identity information from Google’s algorithms, the ad for DefyCCC popped up.
“These are the info wars,” said Robert J. Brulle, a Drexel University professor of sociology and environmental science who has studied climate advocacy and misinformation. “It’s becoming harder and harder for the individual to find unbiased information that they can trust, because there’s so much other material trying to crowd that space.”
After being contacted by The New York Times in mid-December, Google said it had removed an ad from its climate search results, though it declined to identify which one. An ad from DefyCCC was still turning up at the top of searches days later. As of Wednesday, no ads at all were turning up for Times reporters and editors running these searches.
The climate denialist ads are an example of how contrarian groups can use the internet’s largest automated advertising systems to their advantage, gaming the system to find a mass platform for false or misleading claims.
Google allows companies to bid on search terms, and displays paid content at the top of its search results in the same blue font used for unpaid content.
(For example, a candy maker might bid on the term “Christmas candy” so that its ads pop up when someone searches for those words.) Google identifies ads in its search results with an icon below the link.
A search for “climate change” yielded a similar ad. A Google spokeswoman said the company regularly removes ads that violate its policies on deceptive content.
“We have extensive policies that protect users, advertisers and publishers from harmful, misleading, and deceptive content,” a Google spokeswoman, Elisa Greene, said in a statement. She said that last year the company had removed 1.7 billion ads and 100,000 publishers for policy violations in its ad network.
Google’s AdWords policy on misrepresentation states that it does not want users “to feel misled by ads that we deliver, so we strive to be clear and honest, and provide the information that users need to make informed decisions.” But that policy focuses on consumer protection — for example, guarding against concealed subscription or shipping costs — not on the veracity of other content.
Many media organizations have come under fire for giving a platform to climate change denialists in the interest of balance, and policies on paid advertiesments vary.
A spokeswoman for The New York Times, Danielle Rhoades Ha, said that the paper’s advertising acceptability standards prohibited obvious falsehoods, so it would not accept an ad that said climate change is not happening or that human beings have played no role in it. Steve Severinghaus, a spokesman for The Wall Street Joural, said the paper accepted “a wide range of advertisements, including those with provocative viewpoints.”
The climate denial ads on Google come amid a wider effort — backed by wealthy conservatives, fossil fuel companies and right-wing think tanks — to discredit the prevailing science on global warming and to prevent action.
DefyCCC, the site that recently bought the “climate change” search term on Google, devotes an entire section of its site to content from WattsUpWithThat, a well-known climate denial site by the blogger Anthony Watts. Mr. Watts has received funding from the Heartland Institute, backed by the billionaire Koch brothers.
Beyond that, little is known about DefyCCC. Its domain was registered through DomainsByProxy, a service that allows owners to keep their personal information secret.
Reached by phone in Austin, Tex., Leo Goldstein, DefyCCC’s founder, said he had started the site in 2015, and that CCC stood for “climate change cult — which sounds like an exaggeration, but it’s not.”
He said he aimed to combat what he saw as alarmism over science that he argued was not settled. He received help with his site but would not say who his backers were to protect their privacy. “I can tell you it’s not the fossil fuel industry,” he said.
He said that advertising on Google had dramatically increased his site’s visitor numbers. Traffic to DefyCCC has surged almost 2,000 percent over the past six months, with much of the increase since late September, according to data from web analytics firm SimilarWeb.
“Of course, people click,” said Mr. Goldstein, who said he had emigrated from Russia two decades ago and had worked in the software and power industries. “Google is the No. 1 advertising choice.”
The proliferation of climate disinformation, both online and off, has coincided with an effort to undermine measures to combat climate change. Republican leaders regularly question climate science and President Trump has called climate change a hoax. He announced plans to withdraw from the global Paris accord on climate change and is aggressively rolling back environmental regulations.
Fewer than a third of registered Republicans nationwide say that climate change is caused mostly by human activities, according to a new study published in the journal Climatic Change by researchers at the University of California Santa Barbara, Yale University and Utah State University.
The Natural Resources Defense Council buys Google search terms as “a tool we use to help connect with people who want to get informed and get involved in the fight against climate change,” said Margie Kelly, a spokeswoman for the environmental group. The Environmental Defense Fund did not respond to requests for comment.
Jeffrey Harvey, a population ecologist at the Netherlands Institute of Ecology, recently published a study on blogs that deny the well-documented impacts of climate change and Arctic ice loss on polar bears. He said that contrarian ads on web search results, which many users considered to be neutral territory, were especially problematic.
“If you search for ‘global warming’ and ‘polar bear,’ you’ll often get bombarded with sites that are ignoring the scientific evidence,” he said. “I think this is something that search engines need to address.” (By HIROKO TABUCHI).