Wednesday 18 April 2007

Welcome to Andrew Roberts Watch!

We have been inspired to start monitoring the historian Andrew Roberts by the widespread ridicule and loathing of him in the American academic community, and spurred on by this remarkable article in the New Republic:

White Man for the Job

BYLINE: Johann Hari

Last month, a little-known British historian named Andrew Roberts was swept into the White House for a three-hour-long hug. He lunched with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, huddled alone with the president in the Oval Office, and was rapturously lauded by him as "great." Roberts was so fawned over that his wife, Susan Gilchrist, told the London Observer, "I thought I had a crush on him, but it's nothing like the crush President Bush has on him."

At first glance, this isn't surprising. Roberts's latest work--A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900--sounds like a standard-issue neocon narrative. As a sequel to Winston Churchill's famous series, it purports to tell the story of how the "Anglosphere" (Great Britain, the United States, Australia, and friends) saved the world from a slew of totalitarian menaces, from the kaiser to the caliphate. It presents Bush as the logical successor to Churchill--only Bush is, of course, even better.

Yet, beyond this surface sycophancy, there is something darker and more fetid. Bush, Cheney, and--in a recent, glowing cover story--National Review, have, in fact, embraced a man with links to white supremacism, whose book is not a history but an ahistorical catalogue of apologies and justifications for mass murder that even blames the victims of concentration camps for their own deaths. The decision to laud Roberts provides a bleak insight into the thinking of the Bush White House as his presidential clock nears midnight.

Andrew Roberts describes himself as "extremely right wing" and "a reactionary," and, in Great Britain, the 44-year-old has long been regarded as a caricature of a caricature of the old imperial historians. He famously lauds the British Empire--and its massacres and suppressions--as "glorious" on every occasion. He sucks up to the English aristocracy to the point that Tatler, the society journal, says, "[H]is adolescent crush on the upper classes is matched by virtually no one else in this country." One of the few things that can silence Roberts is a mention of his origins in the distinctly nonaristocratic merchant classes, with a father who owned a string of Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. Much as he longs to be K&C (Kensington and Chelsea), to those he adores, he will always have the whiff of KFC.

Yet this Evelyn Waugh tomfoolery masks an agenda that the distinguished Harvard historian Caroline Elkins describes as "incredibly dangerous and frightening." To understand the core of Roberts's philosophy--from Waugh to war--it's necessary to look at a small, sinister group of British-based South African and Zimbabwean exiles he has embraced.

In 2001, Roberts spoke to a dinner of the Springbok Club, a group that regards itself as a shadow white government of South Africa and calls for "the reestablishment of civilized European rule throughout the African continent." Founded by a former member of the neo-fascist National Front, the club flies the flag of apartheid South Africa at every meeting. The dinner was a celebration of the thirty-sixth anniversary of the day the white supremacist government of Rhodesia announced a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Great Britain, which was pressing it to enfranchise black people. Surrounded by nostalgists for this racist rule, Roberts, according to the club's website, "finished his speech by proposing a toast to the Springbok Club, which he said he considered the heir to previous imperial achievements."

The British High Commission in South Africa has accused the club of spreading "hate literature." Yet Roberts's fondness for the Springbok Club is not an anomaly; it is perfectly logical to anybody who has read his writing, which consists of elaborate and historically discredited defenses for the actions of a white supremacist empire--the British--and a plea to the United States to continue its work.

Roberts advises Bush to embrace the idea of the United States as a civilizing empire ruling the world: the white man's burden in the White House. Pigmentation--the old basis for dominance--is now discredited, so he has politely switched to linguistics. The Americans must pick up where the British left off: "Just as we do not today differentiate between the Roman Republic and the imperial period of the Julio-Claudians when we think of the Roman Empire, so in the future no one will bother to make a distinction between the British Empire-led and the American Republic-led periods of English-speaking dominance."

How should this American Empire exercise its power? One useful tactic, Roberts believes, is massacring civilians. The Amritsar massacre is one of the ugliest episodes in the history of the British Raj. In 1919, British Brigadier General Reginald Dyer opened fire on 10,000 unarmed men, women, and children who were peacefully protesting, and around 400 died. Dyer was even repudiated by the British government. As Patrick French, an award-winning historian of the period, explains: "The biographies of Dyer show that he was clearly mentally abnormal, and there was no way he should have been in charge of troops."

Yet Dyer has, at last, found a defender--Andrew Roberts. After the massacre, Roberts notes, "[I]t was not necessary for another shot to be fired throughout the entire region". He later comments: "Today's reactions to Dyer's deed are of course uniformly damning ... but if the Amritsar district, Punjab region or southern India generally had carried on in revolt, many more than 379 people would have lost their lives."

This is a recurring theme in Roberts's work, with obvious appeal to Bush: that nationalist sentiments can be successfully crushed with massive violence. He claimed, in a speech to the Heritage Foundation in February, that "when you see Arab nationalism today, ... that simply would not have happened had there been British troops [remaining] in the [Suez] canal zone." He even argues that German nationalism would not have re-emerged following World War I if only Germany had been more humiliated.

But French and dozens of other historians have shown that, far from successfully suppressing nationalist sentiments, the Amritsar massacre inflamed them. Figures in the Indian National Congress like Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru--men who had been constitutionalists with some residual loyalty to the Empire--abandoned their position following Amritsar, reasoning that, if the British were going to gun down women and children, there was no point in taking the reformist route.

Much of Roberts's advice to Bush is based on similarly skewed and surreal misreadings of history. For example, he has advised Bush to adopt "the whole idea of mass internment," saying: "I think it is the way the administration of Iraq should go." At his lunch with Bush, according to economist Irwin Stelzer, who was present, Roberts cited Ireland as a place where internment worked.

Every major historian of Ireland--across the political spectrum--says the opposite is the case. When internment was introduced in Northern Ireland in 1971, violence vastly increased--and it only fell when it was abolished. The decision by the British to grab Catholics on the flimsiest evidence and hold them without trial is universally regarded as the greatest recruiting gift the Irish Republican Army was ever handed. "Roberts has no track record as a historian of Ireland," says Brendan O'Leary of the University of Pennsylvania, an expert on both Ireland and counterinsurgency techniques. "If he did, he would know that there is a total historical consensus that internment was a catastrophe."

Roberts is even supportive of politicians who take mass internment to its most extreme conclusion--concentration camps. His political hero is Lord Salisbury, the British prime minister who, during the Boer War, constructed concentration camps in South Africa that, a generation later, inspired Hermann Goering. Under Salisbury, the British burned Boer civilians out of their homes and farms and drove them into concentration camps. The result was that about 34,000 people--some 15 percent of the entire Boer population--died in the camps, mainly of disease and starvation.

Roberts presents a very different picture for Bush. Drawing obvious parallels with Iraq, he says the British introduced "regime change" in Pretoria out of a concern "for human rights." They bravely fought on against an insurgency campaign that led many weak-willed liberals back home to believe the war was lost, until victory was finally achieved. (It wouldn't be surprising to see him claim the Boers had a stash of WMD.)

In his most radical piece of revisionism, Roberts argues that, far from being a "war crime," the concentration camps "were set up for the Boers' protection." Mike Davis of the University of California, Irvine, author of Late Victorian Holocausts, says bluntly: "This is tantamount to Holocaust-denial. His arguments about the Boer concentration camps are similar to the arguments of the Nazi apologists about those camps."

Yet Roberts's denialism extends to an even greater crime by the British Empire: the creation and perpetuation of famines that killed millions. In the 1870s, under British rule, India was reduced to a state of extreme famine. One dissident British civil servant, Lieutenant-Colonel Ronald Osborne, described staggering through the horror: "Mothers sold their children for a single scanty meal. Husbands flung their wives into ponds, to escape the torment of seeing them perish by the lingering agonies of hunger."

Roberts presents this string of famines as a natural disaster, which the British dealt with through "fairness and decency and astonishingly little interest in personal gain." He also explicitly praises the British viceroys who adopted the policies that worsened the starvation. In his biography of Lord Salisbury, he praises Viceroy Lord Lytton for "his excellent management of the famine"--think of it as "Heckuva job, Brownie," a hundred years too soon.

Yet the research of Nobel Prize- winning economist Amartya Sen shows that the famines in the Raj were a direct--if unintended--result of British rule: "The best response to people like Roberts is to show that India continued to have famines right up to the time of independence in 1947," Sen explained to me. "But, since the British left, there ... has been no substantial famine."
Roberts's raw imperialism informs the advice he offers Bush today. For one, he urges Bush to adopt a supreme imperial indifference to public opinion. He counsels that "there can be no greater test of statesmanship than sticking to unpopular but correct policies." The real threat isn't abroad, but at home, among domestic critics. Roberts writes, "The greatest danger to [the British and, by extension, the American] continued imperium came not from declared enemies without, but rather from vociferous enemies within their own society."

In this Bushian history, democratic debate--especially in wartime--is a sign of weakness to be suppressed. "Contrary to the received view of the Vietnam War, the United States was never defeated in the field of battle," he writes. It was Walter Cronkite, not Ho Chi Minh, who was the true menace: "Some of the media was indeed a prime enemy of the conflict." Self-criticism is only ever interpreted in these histories as "self-hatred," which he says is "an abiding defect in the English-speaking peoples, and for some reason especially strong in Americans." It can only sap the "willpower" of any empire.

It doesn't appear to occur to Roberts that the British or U.S. empires could simply hit up against a limit to their power. Could there be a worse adviser for George W. Bush right now? Roberts's advice is a vicious imperial anachronism: Target civilians, introduce mass internment, don't worry about whether people hate you, bear down on dissent because it will sap the empire's willpower, ignore your critics because they're just jealous, and--above all--keep on fighting and you'll prevail.

It seems that Bush looks to historians as he looks to his advisers: to be told he's doing just fine. But to hear that message, he's had to scrape around for a fifth-rate Rudyard Kipling mocked by almost all serious historians and soaked in slaughter.

Alladvice and articles about Roberts welcome! Do you have any stories about him?


billhaydon said...

George Bush's Favorite Historian
The strange views of Andrew Roberts.
By Jacob Weisberg
Posted Wednesday, March 28, 2007, at 3:40 PM ET

President Bush is sometimes a boastful anti-intellectual, but in the past year he has been touting his reading lists and engaging in who-can-read-more contests with his chief political adviser, Karl Rove. (Bush claimed to have read 60 books in just the first seven and a half months of last year, the pace of a full-time reviewer.) There even seems to be a White House book club.

The most recent selection was A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 by conservative British writer Andrew Roberts. Bush invited Roberts for a discussion over lunch at the White House earlier this month. The author was joined by Dick Cheney (who was recently photographed carrying the book), Rove, and a group of neoconservative intellectuals including Norman Podhoretz and Gertrude Himmelfarb, along with various other officials and conservative journalists. Though the event was supposed to be off the record, several participants wrote it up afterward. (You can read their breathy accounts here and here and here.) Bush's embrace of Roberts' book is hardly surprising, given how it glorifies his presidency. But it does suggest that all the heavy reading he's been doing lately may not be opening his mind.

Roberts' book picks up in 1900, shortly before the point where Winston Churchill's four volumes of similar title leave off. It also takes up Churchill's idea that the Anglo-American alliance is responsible for the survival of liberty. Though Roberts does not favor the term, his framework closely tracks the notion of an "Anglosphere"—a natural alliance among the English-speaking former colonies of Great Britain that spreads higher civilization in the form of democracy and capitalism. His own idiosyncratic definition of English-speaking countries, which includes New Zealand but not Bermuda, Canada but not Ireland, and Australia but not India or South Africa, explains the book's curious cross-cutting from London to Wellington to Washington to Canberra.

At the core of the book is Roberts' notion of what might be called the Super-Special Relationship. When Britain could no longer rule its empire in 1946, he argues, it handed responsibility for the rest of the world over to its successor, the United States. "Just as in science-fiction people are able to live on through cryogenic freezing after their bodies die, so British post-imperial greatness has been preserved and fostered through its incorporation into the American world-historical project," Roberts writes. He views British colonialism and American hegemony as alike in their selfless benevolence and effectiveness. Like Bush, he is peeved that the recipients of our generosity are not more grateful. The answer, Roberts says, "is the first law of modern imperialism: that no good deed goes unpunished."

As a historian, Roberts is present-minded in the extreme, returning at every stage of his narrative to justifications for Bush's actions in Iraq. The neoconservatives who want to spread democracy in the Middle East are the heirs to compassionate Victorians who sought to civilize India, China, and Africa. While the reader is still choking on the casting of Richard Perle as Lord Macaulay, Roberts is hard at work grafting Bush's head onto Winston Churchill's body. The president's prosecution of the war on terror is "vigorous" and "absolutely unwavering." His and Tony Blair's Iraq war has provided "excellent value for money" to the taxpayer. That Bush has brought "full democracy" to Iraq is stated as unequivocal fact.

Roberts has written several other well-regarded books, including a biography of Lord Salisbury, a Victorian prime minister of the post-Disraeli period. But it is hard to see how the form of ideological assertion that predominates here qualifies as historical scholarship, as opposed to polemic. A true historian explores questions; a great popular one can spin a good yarn while revealing complexities and surprises. Roberts musters a muscular narrative line but examines nothing at all. All charges against his Anglo-American Imperium are quickly dismissed, from the "supposed ill-treatment" of women and children in Boer War internment camps to the prison camp at Guantanamo, which he declares Bush is "right" to keep open. The fire-bombing of Dresden was "justified," the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki positive in various ways. The abuses at Abu Ghraib, Roberts writes, were of course overstated and resulted from "the fact that some of the military policemen involved were clearly little better than Appalachian mountain-cretins."

Roberts is as sloppy as he is snobbish. I am seldom bothered by minor errors from a good writer, but Roberts' mistakes are so extensive, foolish, and revealing of his basic ignorance about the United States in particular, that it may be worth noting a few of those I caught in a fast read. The San Francisco earthquake did considerably more than $400,000 in damage. Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself in 1941, did not write for Encounter, which began publication in 1953. The Proposition 13 Tax Revolt took place in the 1970s, not the 1980s—an important distinction because it presaged Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. Michael Milken was not a "takeover arbitrageur," whatever that is. Roberts cannot know that there were 500 registered lobbyists in Washington during World War II because lobbyists weren't forced to register until 1946. Gregg Easterbrook is not the editor of the New Republic. "No man gets left behind" is a line from the film Black Hawk Down, not the motto of the U.S. Army Rangers; their actual motto is "Rangers Lead the Way." In a breathtaking peroration, Roberts point out that "as a proportion of the total number of Americans, only 0.008 percent died bringing democracy to important parts of the Middle East in 2003-5." Leaving aside the question of whether those deaths have brought anything like democracy to Iraq, 0.008 percent of 300 million people is 24,000—off by a factor of 10, which is typical of his arithmetic. If you looked closely enough, I expect you could find an error of one kind or another on every page of the book.

More disturbing than the mistakes is the sense of "linguistic" superiority that pervades Roberts' triumphal account. Kipling's phrase "the white man's burden"—originally written to urge the United States to take up its imperial obligations in the Philippines—is adopted with little sense of irony, and the racist dimension of colonialism goes unconsidered. "Although the ill-treatment of the Black American has long been held to represent an indelible blot on the escutcheon of the English-speaking peoples … " begins the section on the civil rights movement. Roberts doesn't think those spreading civilization to the benighted have to be Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, or male; he is a philo-Semite and esteems Margaret Thatcher only slightly less than Churchill. But Roberts seldom bothers to hide his biases, raining open hostility on the French and Irish Catholics. In one of the book's loopier passages, he rants about how a supposed Irish mafia in Hollywood has conspired to portray Englishmen as villains. Hannibal Lecter, as played by Anthony Hopkins, stands in for perfidious Albion.

With this book, Andrew Roberts takes his place as the fawning court historian of the Bush administration. He claims this role not just by singing the Bush administration's achievements but by producing a version of the past that conforms to and confirms its prefabricated view of the world. A History of the English-Speaking Peoples feeds Bush's growing preference for the unknowable future to a problematic present, by assuring him that history will vindicate him, as it did Churchill and Truman, if only he continues to hold firm.

Other recent favorites Bush has cited fall into this same, self-justifying category, including Natan Sharansky's The Case for Democracy and Mark Steyn's America Alone. Are we sure we want a president who spends so much time reading? The leader who loves books that tell him he is great and right may be worse than the leader who does not love books at all.

Rob said...

I am a History Teacher and I was appalled when I read Roberts' work.

I have written a response to one of the statements in his 'work' on my blog

Keep up the good work on this wonderful writer of fiction.

MJF said...

Anti-catholic hatred here as well...........

Alan Ireland said...

I have my own Andrew Roberts file at

josephine said...

No matter how old you are, family history is important. While you might not think so at the time, as you get older there will be things you and your grandchildren will want to know. Most of us don't realise it until the older generations are gone and you can't replace first hand comments. Don't just put in about the good times, add in the harder times and how you overcame those trials. Another thing to remember is what caused the deaths of those you loved. There are many things that have been found to continue into future generations that knowing it runs in the family can be helped with now or possible in the future. prevention starts with knowing where to start. I wish someone had taken the time to write these things down for mew to be able to go back to. My Grandmother and my mother told us many stories of what things happened in their lives and about the people in their lives. I now wish someone had written those things down since both have passed now. But I never thought at that busy point in my life that I would one day want to remember all those things. So much family history is lost when the older generations are gone. Please pass it on to your family while you can. You can even just do it digitally so it can be accessed by family later on.Family pictures are something to cherish also. Just be sure to write down who is pictured in them, where they are taken and when. I have found family pictures that no one now even knows who is in them.