Bruce Gilley’s essay argued that countries that were colonized by Western powers “did better” than those that were not. He also said that colonialism was generally “beneficial” and “subjectively legitimate.” The essay’s abstract said: “For the last 100 years, Western colonialism has had a bad name. It is high time to question this orthodoxy.”
Some scholars immediately decried the article as racist and others disliked it because they said it was based on faulty data. It was published at a time when several cities, including Los Angeles and Minneapolis, have opted not to mark Columbus Day because of its colonialism overtones and instead celebrate indigenous people. There’s also a push in some cities for the removal of Columbus statues.
In its coverage of the controversy over Gilley’s essay, the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote: “A full-throated defense of colonialism would stand out almost anywhere; it was especially surprising at Third World Quarterly. How did the paper find a home in a journal described by some of the scholars closest to it as ‘anticolonialist’ . . .?”
The article recently disappeared from the journal’s website with an explanation that it was withdrawn “at the request of the academic journal editor, and in agreement with the author of the essay, Bruce Gilley.” The journal’s publisher, Taylor & Francis, cited “credible threats of personal violence” against the journal’s editor as the reason for the removal.
“Taylor & Francis has a strong and supportive duty of care to all our academic editorial teams, and this is why we are withdrawing this essay,” the statement said. The publisher acknowledged that during the peer review process, at least one reviewer recommended rejecting the article.
Gilley made waves in academic circles before the article published for leaving the American Political Science Association on the grounds that it didn’t accept right-wing viewpoints. He explained his decision in an August essay on Minding the Campus: “APSA has become barely distinguishable from the Democratic Party and its far-left wing. Its web page runs a constant stream of anti-Trump or anti-Republican news.”
After Gilley’s colonialism essay appeared, University of Winnipeg English professor Jenny Heijun Wills, who began one of the petitions on Change.org, called the article “appalling” and “racist.” Wills said it contained “white supremacist and Eurocentric” viewpoints.
Brandon Kendhammer, the director of the International Development Studies program at Ohio University, said in a commentary for The Washington Post that Gilley’s argument for the benefits of colonialism ignores “a vast body of research and analysis that demonstrates just the opposite.”
Others argued it was a public relations stunt. Swati Parashar, a senior lecturer at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, said Gilley’s article was “a perfect career move to generate publicity” and to “draw attention to himself as the academic provocateur.”
The article’s publication also led to turmoil within the journal itself. Fifteen editorial board members submitted a joint letter of resignation on Sept. 19, saying they were “deeply disappointed by the unacceptable process around the publication” of the article.
The letter said the essay was published without consultation from the editorial board. It added that the journal previously rejected the piece from a special issue.
Even Gilley himself asked for the piece to be withdrawn, writing on his website, “I regret the pain and anger that it has caused for many people,” according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
But some remaining members of the board argued against retraction.
Noam Chomsky, an MIT professor emeritus of linguistics who serves on the editorial board, argues vehemently against colonialism. But he told Inside Higher Education that although the journal may not have followed the proper procedures, “retraction is a mistake – and also opens very dangerous doors. … Rebuttal offers a great opportunity for education, not only in this case.”
“I’m sure that what I publish offends many people, including editors and funders of journals in which they appear,” he added.
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