Cruel Britannia

Radio Open Source
4 min readMay 22, 2022


This week: a conversation with Caroline Elkins about the violence of the British Empire. Listen today at 2 pm, or anytime at our site.

We’re examining empire in our limited-series collaboration with the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, and this week our attention turns specifically to the British Empire. Historian Caroline Elkins’s new book, Legacy of Violence, covers the brutality of that imperial project. She joins us this week and says:

My view is: in order to understand the nature of the violence, the impact it had at the time and on lived experiences and then the legacies it left behind—that we need to look at it head on. We need to feel it. We need to experience it. It’s in no way meant to exploit the horrific circumstances that individuals endured. But . . . to do it in such a way that the reader or the listener truly understands the gravity, the significance of what we’re talking about—in the absence of that, it’s an academic conversation, right? It’s just: we’re talking about it in the abstract. And that does no justice whatsoever to the historical record.

Caroline Elkins.

This hour, you’ll also hear Elkins describe how imperial sensibilities characterize the work of a range of British thinkers, including John Stuart Mill:

When they’re thinking about empire, it’s not about whether empire is going to be, you know, it’s a good or bad thing. They all believe in it. The question is: how is it that they deal with these local populations at a time when you have reformism at home, it’s becoming more of a “democracy of note,” and they’re universally in agreement, Macaulay, John Stuart Mill—others who are further right and authoritarian than they are—that they need to rule despotically? But, here’s the but: But it must always conform to rule of law. It must always conform to process, so you can’t just be out there willy-nilly governing. That good governance is rooted in rule of law.

RIP: Roger Angell

Roger was an American great. A brilliant writer, editor, fan, and friend. Here’s David Remnick’s remembrance.

Read: Riverman

Ben McGrath was Roger Angell’s hand-picked successor at The New Yorker. His first book, Riverman, is a terrific story of a character named Dick Conant who canoed solo over thousands of miles of American rivers — and then disappeared near the outer banks of North Carolina. Ben met Dick and wrote about him in The New Yorker, and then after he disappeared, Ben went in search of the man’s story and discovered some amazing characters along the way. Here’s an excerpt of Ben’s book.

Ben will be reading at Porter Square Books tomorrow night along with Open Source friend Brendan Greeley. Details here!

Read: Berlin Alexanderplatz

And have you read this? It’s overwhelming, but about a familiarly overwhelming reality—and so you’re both not ready and completely ready to read it. Here’s how it starts, in Michael Hofmann’s translation:

The subject of this book is the life of the former cement worker and haulier Franz Biberkopf in Berlin. As our story begins, he has just been released from prison, where he did time for some stupid stuff; now he is back in Berlin, determined to go straight.

Here’s Jeff Tompkins writing in the Chicago Review of Books:

The story comes at you in a flood of words: Each character’s stream of consciousness is just one tributary in an enormous torrent that also includes newspaper headlines, advertising jingles, weather reports, political slogans, and seemingly every other kind of verbal and aural flotsam that would have been bobbing around Berlin in the years 1927–28, when the novel is set. The surge lets up periodically for intervals in which a sardonic, omniscient narrator comments on the action, and alerts us that, whatever Franz’s fortunes may be at the moment, there’s still worse to come.

This week’s ephemeral library

Bill McKibben: Could Google’s Carbon Emissions Have Effectively Doubled Overnight?. The Covid Capitulation. The Hypocrisy of Samuel Alito. Ed Yong on Monkeypox.



Radio Open Source

An American conversation with global attitude, on the arts, humanities, and global affairs, hosted by Christopher Lydon.