Brendan Whyte obiwonfive at hotmail.com
Fri Sep 15 21:17:08 AEST 2017

A big thank you to Francis for alerting the list to this petition, which should sound alarm bells at the state of debate our discipline.

first off, it should be made clear that the petition’s author is Dr Farhana Sultana of Syracuse University’s geography department, and not Dr Farhana Sultana of Melbourne University’s School of population and global health. 
The Syracusean Sultana seeks a retraction of an article published by a fellow American geographer Bruce Gilley in a respected journal, the Third World Quarterly. She claims the article in question fails to meet “high standards of accuracy, merit, or rigor”, and claims “[th]e article is full of inaccuracies & falsehoods, misqualifies existing scholarship on the topic, lacks proper citations, is poorly written and conceptualized, and morally reprehensible.”
She further demands that the journal “apologize for further brutalizing those who have suffered under colonialism”.
If the article is indeed “full of inaccuracies & falsehoods [and] misqualifies existing scholarship”, then TWQ is indeed guilty of a cardinal academic sin. However, the proper course of action should surely be to write a letter to the editor[ial board], or submit a rebuttal piece pointing out the deficiencies of the article. This would give the editors a chance to either explain whether the piece slipped through the editorial process without the usual inspections (and thus retract, modify, re-referee, or apologise as appropriate); or whether Sultana is mistaken and the piece did undergo the normal reviews, and was deemed legitimate; or simply to reject her counterarguments as themselves full of inaccuracies, falsehoods and misqualifications, and morally reprehensible name-calling. 
This would also have the advantage of giving other TWQ readers, whether scholars or not, a chance to make up their own minds on the basis of the evidence before them. Or at least have a good laugh.
There have been many examples of this rigorous academic argument (in the competitive sense) in the past, which must have made enlightening reading at the time, and often amusing reading in subsequent years. I call as my first witness the sententious squabbling between Mssrs J.H. Round, T.A. Archer and Miss Kate Norgate, across the pages of at least two separate journals (the Quarterly Review, and the English Historical Review), over at least three years 1892-1894, and in bursts of up to 60 dense pages at a time, on the subject of the (then just expired) Prof. Freeman, his legacy, the historiography of the Battle of Hasting (sorry, Senlac), and which of their translations of Wace’s Roman de Rou, if done by an ordinary schoolboy, would have resulted in a damn good whipping. Yes, we can laugh now, but it was highly serious and controversial stuff then. 
Sadly, instead of taking the mature, considered and scholarly approach, Sultana launches a social media petition, seeking signatures from anyone in the world who might consider colonialism to be a Sellars and Yeatmanical “bad thing”. I wonder how many of her 7000 co-signatories have actually read the article in question with an open-mind (as academics should), and then contacted the editorial board themselves in a polite manner (as common courtesy requires)? I wonder how many actually subscribe to the journal and might therefore have a valid (financial) justification for a complaint about the questionable quality of content, rather than simply being passing trawling netizens who can’t resist a good click when they stumble across the word ‘racism’ strewn liberally about. Sultana decries Gilley for ‘click-bait’ but  seems herself to have opened the ‘white-baiting’ season a month or two early, and in what should be a protected area: the drought-afflicted river of academic freedom. 
If TWQ is slipping in its academic standards, then a few letters from subscribers offering themselves and their time as editorial board members should solve the problem. I wonder how many petitioners are willing to put up?
But positivist constructivist approaches appear out of the question. Sultana explicitly rejects any attempt to rebut Gilley’s arguments, on the illogical grounds that it “does not advance our knowledge” or “ serve any purpose”! 
As a journal editor myself, I find her attitude disappointing, and insulting. 
Sultana and her co-petitioners offer no evidence of inaccuracies, falsehoods or misqualifications.  Rather they sink to unsubstantiated name-calling in a disturbingly Orwellian manner, and one that is all too common in current western leftist politics, as we have seen recently in Australia. She seeks to defame the author, and her best argument appears to be that because he “has published white supremacist drivel in the past”, “has written for alt-right websites” and has “published reprehensible material in the past”, anything he writes now or in the future should never see the light of day, whatever its intrinsic qualities. 
Under the reign of the beneficent Sultana, are we all to be judged on the basis of the outlets for our publications rather than the content of the piece? I dare never write a letter to the editor of a Murdoch paper again!
And are we all to be judged on the follies of our youth? Is there no room for personal growth, a change of mind, let alone forgiveness for misguided enthusiasm? I pity any budding poet in Syracuse whose first bad rhyme will forever prevent his subsequent masterpieces from seeing publication under Sultana’s Medusan stare. 
It is also deeply disturbing that our academe knowingly harbours someone who seeks to discredit an author not on the basis of the impracticability, inconsistency or immorality of his idea or argument, but rather on what he might have said in the past or where he might have said it, which factors have absolutely no bearing on the case in hand (and which is why past convictions are not permitted as evidence in a criminal trial).
She further denounces “colonial apologists in academia”, despite apologetics being the discipline of defending or proving the truth of doctrines through systematic argumentation and discourse. She appears to be announcing that as an academic she is against systematic argumentation and discourse! How bizarre. 
McCarthylike, she finds “overt and closeted white supremacists” under every bed, and calls Gilley a “racist, fascist author”. These may be technically accurate descriptions, but she means them as an apocalyptic (and apoplectic) damnation that brooks no further enquiry: “Sultana has spoken!”. This alone should cause any real academic very serious pause for thought.
Whether Gilley’s paper, ideas or past are “racist” or “brutalist” or not, his ideas on how to improve the lives of the millions in the Third World suffering under corrupt indigenous kleptocracies, deserve careful consideration, if not for reasons of academic courtesy, then simply for the sake of the lives they may save or improve. Whether his work has been refereed or not, it was published (as she openly admits) as an opinion piece, a viewpoint, so her demands for a headhunt in the TWQ board are hyperbolic overkill. We need more such opinion pieces, that allow radical ideas and opinions to be stated in a supportive, thoughtful, considerate (in both sense) academic environment, and then tossed around and refined. The best ideas usually come from out of left field. The best inventions often come from cranks in their back garage, or children, and not always from long-established lab-coated scientists with a string of research grants and research publications behind them. To dismiss the invention of a child without due consideration for its merits and potential is dog-in-the-mangerish at best, but at worst is deadly to those whose lives could be improved by the invention. 
As Gilley correctly points out, leftist “anti-colonial’ rhetoric has not improved lives, but has mainly acted as a smokescreen behind which dictators can enrich themselves, enslave their peoples, and prevent critical examination of their rule. Colonialism has brought many benefits to many people in many places. It was not 100% beneficial to all, but it certainly has not proved worse than the alternatives we have witnessed in Angola, Somalia, Biafra, Venezuela and elsewhere. And the argument is not simply historical: millions of African migrants are trying to reach Europe, the fount of colonialism (in Sultana’s unstated definition, which seems to exclude indigenous colonialisms such as the Persians, Moghuls, Mongols, Han Chinese, Indonesians, Zulus, ad infinitum). Why are they fleeing there? Because it is better to be under European rule than that of their own indigenous anti-colonial elites. This is not racism (it has nothing to do with skin colour) and everything to do with culture: the culture of good governance, the culture that rejects corruption, the culture that upholds the rule of law.
Ultimately to stop the world’s refugee crisis, we need to solve the problems in the source countries. Gilley offers some ideas to do this. They are well written, appear well grounded in the literature (though that should not be necessary when one offers a solution to save lives), and deserve consideration. I can find no evidence of racism, brutalism or ethnic-cleansing in Gilley’s article. It makes a very valid point and offers a potential solution to save lives. Sultana offers nothing but invective.  
Farhana’s letter and petition are not scholarship but choler-ship: peevish irascibility, devoid of argument, let alone facts or evidence, all topped with a mountain of personal abuse, and which seeks to prevent debate that diverges from her own narrow-minded worldview.  
As a scholar I reject her "arguments" , as a journal editor I reject her methods, and as a human I reject her inhumanity that “further brutaliz[es] those who have suffered under anti-colonialism” by refusing to even consider a potential way to improve or save lives. 
Brendan Whyte
The young (who am I fooling?) middle-aged curmudgeon.

More information about the Iag-list mailing list