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'Legacy of Violence' documents the dark side of the British Empire

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced last week that he would be resigning. In 2002, in an article in The Spectator about how he thinks people wrongly blame British colonialism for Africa's problems, he wrote, (reading) the continent may be a blot, but it is not a blot upon our conscience. The problem is not that we were once in charge, but that we are not in charge anymore.

Our guest, historian Caroline Elkins, documents the dark side of the British Empire in her new book, "Legacy Of Violence: A History Of The British Empire." That empire became the largest empire in history and by 1920 included 24% of the Earth's landmass. Elkin spoke with guest interviewer Arun Venugopal, who's a senior reporter in the Race and Justice Unit at public radio station WNYC in New York. They spoke before Johnson's resignation announcement. Here's Arun with more.

ARUN VENUGOPAL, BYLINE: This year marks the Platinum Jubilee of Elizabeth II, her 70th year as the Queen of England. It's the first time any British monarch has celebrated a Platinum Jubilee. When Queen Elizabeth II took the throne in 1952, the British Empire encompassed parts of Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the Pacific and included 700 million people. In her new book, our guest, Caroline Elkins, looks at how the use of violence was central to the spread and maintenance of the British Empire, even as it portrayed itself, self-servingly, as a benevolent force. The book is called "Legacy Of Violence: A History Of The British Empire," and it explores how colonial officials from India to Malaya to South Africa hid evidence of their violent practices while building the largest empire in human history.

In the 1990s, Caroline Elkins began to write her dissertation about Britain's civilizing mission during the last years of colonial rule in Kenya, but then she discovered British officials had created a vast network of secret detention camps that housed as many as 1 1/2 million members of Kenya's Kikuyu community. In those camps, officials practiced unimaginably sadistic forms of torture upon Kikuyu men and women, along with sexual violence. Her revelations were published in her first book, "Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story Of Britain's Gulag In Kenya," for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006. Caroline Elkins is professor of history and African and African American Studies at Harvard University and the founding director of Harvard's Center for African Studies. And she joins us now.

Caroline Elkins, welcome to FRESH AIR.

CAROLINE ELKINS: Thank you so much for having me, Arun.

VENUGOPAL: Much of your book deals with the idea of liberal imperialism. What does that mean?

ELKINS: Yeah, liberal imperialism is Britain's civilizing mission, right? It's white man's burden - this idea that it was going to bring democracy and rule of law and free market to, you know, 700 million subjects across a quarter of the world's landmass. And, you know, all empires are violent, but it takes a particular form in the British Empire because coercion isn't just about establishing and maintaining authority over subject populations; it's actually part of reform, this idea that you have to have local populations feel suffering, to feel pain, to experience forced labor, that these, in fact, bring about a kind of developmentalism, a kind of movement into, if you will, adulthood and eventually into independence.

As Britain begins to expand its empire overseas and confronts distant places with so-called backward people with these strange religions and dependent relationships, the question becomes, can these people with different skin colors become like us? And skin color becomes the mark of difference.

VENUGOPAL: Let's talk about the moral effect that you referred to earlier. A leading British military theorist you quote, Colonel Charles Callwell, said, "the enemy must be made to feel a moral superiority throughout" (ph). You say his approach was embraced across the empire, that it helped fuse battlefield strategies with the white man's burden. But what does it mean in practice?

ELKINS: You know, in practice it means untold suffering, Arun. It means that gloves are off and that any kind of sort of coercive tactic, whether it be the use of detention camps, whether it's torture, whether it's scorched earth policy, the level of violence is extraordinary. And what it means for somebody like Callwell is that you can explain the violence by the fact that it has a moral quality to it. It has a moral, if you will, redemptive effect. Battlefields, soldiers, colonial administrators, missionaries, they - many of them believed in the sort of - you know, the nature of coercion and the ways in which it was part and parcel of this civilizing mission.

VENUGOPAL: British legal experts, you write, wrestled with distinctions between civilized and uncivilized. Some went so far as to create categories of civilized, barbarian and savage. These categories, I guess, relied on all the Western anthropologists and other academics who are crisscrossing the empire, measuring skull sizes and whatnot of Natives and deciding how civilized a tribe was. Scholarship was quite critical to the imperial project, wasn't it?

ELKINS: Yeah, it absolutely was. And I think that the nature by which, if you will, academics - people who are, as you're saying, scholars at the time - were complicit in the colonial project, lending credence, lending sort of scholarly heft. And it's also important to bear in mind that this is an era in the 19th century of the upswing of scientific racism. And what becomes the marker of difference is skin color. Whites are at one end and the Brits at the top of that of that sort of - you know, top of the pile. On the far end of the other spectrum are Blacks from Africa, with all other shades in between. And, of course, you know, the Brits and others are capable of racializing subjects such that Afrikaners in South Africa and the Irish also become racialized such that they are seen as being, you know, sort of a lesser breed, if you will, than Anglo Saxons in Britain.

VENUGOPAL: One economist, Utsa Patnaik, who received her doctorate from Oxford, estimated that over the course of 200 years, the British siphoned off an amount of around $45 trillion from India. How did they do this?

ELKINS: You know, look; it's a rather extraordinary arc, right? When we think about the nature of the East India Company is set up back in the early 17th century and endures all the way into - you know, becomes the Raj in 1857 and endures until 1947. So you have a very long period of time. And there's all sorts of ways in which this takes place, and some of which is by establishing taxation policies, squeezing local peasants. We see the - frankly, the - you know, some of the diamonds that are sitting in the - that are part of the monarchy's crown jewels, as you well know, are being demanded, you know, to have them returned. And these are - we're talking massive sums of money.

And then, of course, you know, the East India Company and then eventually the Raj is a huge, you know, enormous cash cow for the British Empire in a whole range of ways, whether it's from exports, whether - certainly, during the Second World War, many would argue that the contribution to the war effort in the Second World War by India really tipped the scales for Britain, holding back, you know, the Japanese coming into the region and, again, costing dearly. And in fact, Britain becomes a borrower from India during wartime. And so it is of no surprise to me that we see that kind of number. And the question, of course, that it raises is, you know, what accounting has to take place in the here and now for that? And arguments are made from other parts of the empire in a similar fashion.

VENUGOPAL: It's not unusual even these days to hear about, I guess, the benefits of empire upon a place like India - oh, you know, we gave them the railroads, the gift of English - when, in fact, the British - or, rather, the Indian economy was something like 25%, I think, of the world's GDP in the 18th century and then about 3% when the Brits left. It's enormous disconnect from the reality of what happened, right?

ELKINS: Absolutely. And, you know, we can take that and once - and, you know, Britain, you know, quote-unquote, "loses" India in '47, Malaya steps in and becomes the cash cow in the post-war period. And, you know, I just think that the - you know, the degree to which we, you know, understand this period of time and the degree to which these colonies are extremely important, you know, to, as I said, both the material and the social and nationalistic views of empire. And - but, you know, I think we also have to step back for a moment. If we think about empire as a balance sheet - right? - we add it up on both sides like a ledger, all the good, all the bad, at the end of the day, the conversation doesn't get us very far, in my view. And I think where we need to sort of move ourselves in the direction of is to accept, to be frank, as historical fact that this was a course of empire, that it drained enormous resources. And I think this question about liberal imperialism, the nature of reform and coercion, it makes it very hard to have arguments about violence and exploitation stick if we don't see that we have both coercion and reform as two sides of the same coin. And that's really what I think I'm trying to get at in what is a rather lengthy but troubling story that unfolds over about 800 pages or so.

VENUGOPAL: Our guest is Caroline Elkins. Her new book is called "Legacy Of Violence: A History Of The British Empire." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GERALD CLAYTON'S "ENVISIONINGS")

VENUGOPAL: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Arun Venugopal, back with Caroline Elkins. Her new book is called "Legacy Of Violence: A History Of The British Empire."

The U.S. essentially becomes the dominant world power in the 20th century. Did it also practice similar sort of, I guess, a paradox of, you know, upholding freedoms, certain liberties, while at the same time, you know, maintaining in the same way the British Empire had a coercive tactic against nonwhite populations?

ELKINS: Sure. I mean, we can certainly see this. We can take it in turn - right? - both internationally and domestically. Internationally with our counterinsurgency policies, we quite literally took the book from Britain. So Robert Thompson was sent over from Malaya to advise the Johnson-Kennedy-Nixon administrations in Vietnam. Strategic Hamlet is taken directly from the villagization policies with all of the kinds of terror and dislocation and suffering that come along with it. And we can go all the way to - all the way down to the present day to Iraq and Afghanistan, right? When we think about the ways in which the Petraeus report looks to Britain, looks to Britain and say they got counterinsurgency right in places like Malaya, what I'm saying is it depends on what you mean by right. But certainly these are incredibly, incredibly coercive systems. So this notion of hearts and minds campaigns that the United States ostensibly brings to the rest of the world today - we call it freedom and democracy, whatever the case may be - comes directly from Britain.

And then, of course, domestically, when we also think about the ways in which we deal with so-called, quote-unquote, "subject populations" in the United States, those who are not some of the original sort of, if you will - if you're an originalist with our Constitution, thinking about those who sort of wrote that and were benefiting from it back at the founding of our own nation. And we certainly see the similar kinds of ways in which exclusion and inclusion happens under the banner of liberalism, and they're able to get away with it. And we see that happening all the way down to the present day.

VENUGOPAL: Something that seems to go completely unremarked upon is that the U.S. went from fighting for its freedom from Britain and fought it again in the war of 1812 and yet eventually these two countries become extremely close allies. We refer to the special relationship between the U.S. and Britain. What's special about this relationship?

ELKINS: Let's start our story, for now, sort of around the time of World War II and obviously, you know, legendary relationship between Churchill and FDR. And FDR always sort of looked a little askance at Churchill, you know, thought he was a Tory - a real Tory of the old sort.

VENUGOPAL: What does that - what does that mean?

ELKINS: Well, that means, you know, really in many ways sort of believing in sort of the hierarchical nature of rule, of the exceptionalism of Britain, of the ways in which, you know, white population should be dominating throughout the world. And FDR, we so often, you know, associate him with the four freedoms and the like. And he was dogmatic about wanting to dismantle the British Empire after the Second World War. Now, what we see is that Second World War comes to a close, and the opposite happens. And in part, this happens because the United States needs Britain in the emerging Cold War. And so eventually, we see the United States not only allowing Britain, turning a blind eye to what's going on, but actually co-opting them and having them assist the United States for - British Guiana would be a great example where, you know, Britain is basically doing the dirty work for the Americans. And we see this playing out over time.

And we can then fast-forward it all the way up to, you know, New Labour under Tony Blair and George W. Bush and folks scratching their head about how could - you know, how could these two be such bedfellows? And it's no surprise whatsoever. And literally the language that Tony Blair uses at the time is that we're - or his government does - is that we were executing a, quote-unquote, "new liberal imperialism". And they are joined at the hip with the United States. And so the special relationship is such that it - and make no mistake. It's uneasy at times. Certainly, there are times when the United States is really pushing hard to dismantle the sterling area, to really - to insert itself as sort of the dominant economic force in the world. But this special relationship continues, and much of it - some of it at least - rests on these shared notions of racial hierarchy, on these shared notions of global dominance and certainly of maintaining a stronghold against the rising Cold War in the Soviet Union.

VENUGOPAL: In recent years, the debate over Western history and colonial sins has broken out of academic circles, and it's pretty much gone mainstream. I'd like to play a clip. It's a little raucous, but it's from the TV show "Good Morning Britain," and it primarily features a Black historian, Kehinde Andrews, engaging in a back and forth with Piers Morgan and other hosts - all of whom, I should add, are white. Let's hear that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING BRITAIN")

KEHINDE ANDREWS: The reality is that the history of this country is built on racism. And therefore, everybody involved in it, it probably has a really racist past.

JAMES WHALE: What makes you think that's a problem we have?

ANDREWS: And it is a problem - I admit this is a problem for you.

WHALE: Look, look...

ANDREWS: I admit it. I said it.

PIERS MORGAN: You know what? My problem...

ANDREWS: (Laughter) But it's the truth (inaudible).

MORGAN: My problem - I'll be honest with you. Kehinde, you're a smart guy. My problem is with...

WHALE: He's a professor.

MORGAN: ...Smart people like you basically saying this country was built on racism...

ANDREWS: It was.

MORGAN: ...Is full of racism, and remains racist, right?

SUSANNA REID: Do you mean because it is built on colonialism?

MORGAN: Right, I know. I have a problem...

ANDREWS: Yeah, that's a really good argument, yeah.

MORGAN: I have a problem with that position. I think it's a load of old baloney when you say that.

ANDREWS: What?

MORGAN: I think it's a great country, right?

ANDREWS: You have to - I know. And you have to say that (ph).

MORGAN: A great country with great people.

ANDREWS: I understand why you're saying it.

MORGAN: But I'm not going to be...

WHALE: (Inaudible) this country?

ANDREWS: (Inaudible).

WHALE: Aren't you?

MORGAN: I'm not going to be told to feel ashamed of my country just 'cause you say we're a bunch of racists.

WHALE: Hang on, Piers. Just a minute, Piers, just a minute. Otherwise, I don't get to say anything (ph), Piers. Just calm down, all right? Why don't you like living in this country?

ANDREWS: Why don't I like living in this country?

WHALE: Yeah, because I think you're not...

MORGAN: Why do you live in this country?

WHALE: Piers, Piers.

ANDREWS: You know what? The unfortunate truth...

WHALE: What?

ANDREWS: ...Is that my parents - my family were taken in slavery to the Caribbean.

WHALE: Yeah.

ANDREWS: And they had to migrate here 'cause they were so poor in the Caribbean.

WHALE: But one of my best...

ANDREWS: Not my choice. Nobody's believing (ph) me.

MORGAN: But why do you still live here when you've been a successful man?

ANDREWS: Because...

MORGAN: You've got enough money to live somewhere else.

ANDREWS: Yeah, because...

MORGAN: Why do you live in this country you loathe?

ANDREWS: Because. And this is the problem with Churchill. Like, this colonialism...

WHALE: Yeah.

ANDREWS: ...Imperialism has ruined the other parts of the world, or I'd go and leave.

MORGAN: But that's not my question.

ANDREWS: Ruined them.

MORGAN: My question is, if you're going to hate...

ANDREWS: (Inaudible).

MORGAN: Do you hate everything this country stands for?

ANDREWS: I don't hate this country. But I do...

MORGAN: But you said that you believe we're a racist country...

ANDREWS: Yes.

MORGAN: ...Built on racism...

ANDREWS: Yes.

MORGAN: ...And remain racist.

ANDREWS: Yes. Hundred percent.

MORGAN: Why would you...

REID: And our heroes are racists.

ANDREWS: Yes, that's a good summary.

MORGAN: So why would you, a Black man who has the means to leave the country - why would you stay here?

VENUGOPAL: "Good Morning Britain" for you.

(LAUGHTER)

ELKINS: Defensive much (laughter)?

VENUGOPAL: Not at all. I mean, what struck me first thing was that they - on a morning show like this - I guess it's similar to "Good Morning America" - here, the hosts use a Black historian's criticism of imperialism as an excuse, basically, to ask him, why doesn't he just go somewhere else?

ELKINS: Well, that in and of itself should tell you something, right? And I think - look. I think all joking aside, it's a perfect clip. And even that statement, why don't you go somewhere else? Beginning in 1948, Britain instituted a set of policies to basically create a kind of imperial citizenship as they were beginning to lose their empire. Over the course of several decades, that does a complete turnaround - right? - 180 degrees such that immigration laws become tighter and tighter in Britain. We see a deliberate effort to, if you will, under sort of the banner of the Tory party at one point, you know, to keep Britain white.

And I raise this question in my book about this throughline - right? - and this question going back, Arun, to our conversation about developmentalism, the idea that one day, you too, brown and Black subjects, will be like us. But I raise this question of saying, for many in Britain - not all, but for many - the question remains, can these brown and Black subjects or former subjects really be British? And you just heard the answer to that, which is no, right? If you don't like it here, go somewhere else. And I think in that sense, it's a real, if you will, colonial reckoning. It's a kind of reckoning that we see in Britain. It's a kind of reckoning - and is similar to drawing the parallels that we see happening in the United States.

In this developmentalist model, are - you know, can these populations be like us? And, of course, developmentalism is always built around this principle of, they'll be like us one day, but not yet. Just not yet. And you know what, Arun? Not yet never comes. And recently, there was a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, 2021. And, you know, look. It's - it found in the report that, quote, unquote, "there's no systematic or institutional racism." He went on - the report goes on to describe empire and the rest.

And it talks about how, you know, there's - and it says that there's a new story about the Caribbean experiences that speaks to the slave period of not only being about profit and suffering but how, culturally, African people transformed themselves and remodeled themselves as African to Britain. And, I mean, think about what that report says. It's saying that slavery was kind of a good thing because it made them British. And this is happening in 2021.

VENUGOPAL: When did Britain become first involved in colonizing Kenya?

ELKINS: Yeah, I mean, Britain became involved in colonizing East Africa at the end of the 19th century, and it's really in the 20th century that it establishes - moves from the East Africa Protectorate and establishes Kenya as being sort of a standalone colony. And Kenya became the quintessential settler colony. Settlers were brought in. It was on their sort of backs and sort of their privilege that large plantations were established for the growth of tea and coffee. And land was taken from local Africans in order to do that. What became very famous was the White Highlands. And the White Highlands were some of the very best land in Kenya, which, of course, became exclusively white. None of the local population could own or cultivate this land outside of of the plantations owned by European settlers.

And, of course, Britain remains in Kenya from that period of time all the way until 1963, when it gains its independence after what was one of the bloodiest wars in the history of the British Empire, the Mau Mau Emergency. It's during that period of time that Britain detained nearly the entire Kikuyu population of nearly 1.5 million in order to suppress this uprising that was demanding (non-English language spoken), or land and freedom. And it was during this period of time, of course, that we see some of the most horrific, systematized violence unfold, as I said, in the history of the British Empire.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview our guest interviewer, Arun Venugopal, recorded with Caroline Elkins, author of the new book "Legacy Of Violence: A History Of The British Empire." We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And TV critic David Bianculli will review tonight's return of "Better Call Saul," which has just a few episodes before the series finale. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY WESTON'S "GANAWA IN PARIS (INSTRUMENTAL)")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I am Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview our guest interviewer Arun Venugopal recorded with Caroline Elkins. She's a professor of history and of African and African American studies at Harvard University and the founding director of Harvard's Center for African Studies. Her new book, "Legacy Of Violence: A History Of The British Empire," is about how violence was central to how the British expanded their empire and maintained control over it. It was the largest empire in human history.

VENUGOPAL: When you were a graduate student setting out on your dissertation project back in the 1990s, you thought you'd be writing about the success of Britain's so-called civilizing mission during the last years of colonial rule in Kenya. It sounds like you once held the British Empire in fairly high regard. Did you?

ELKINS: You know, certainly, the - you know, I guess we're all young and naive at one point. Right, Arun?

(LAUGHTER)

ELKINS: And, you know, but I think it gets back to - and certainly, I wasn't so naive as to not - to think that there weren't one-offs, that there wasn't violence in empire. And that's how Kenya had always been written about, right? When there were violent episodes, you explained it as an aberration, as a one-off, as a bad apple of a colonial officer. And what I came to find at the end of my research was that, no, this - not only, in fact, was that not the case, but it was completely systemic. It was part and parcel of the structures of colonial rule, the ways in which coercion was infused within the civilizing mission that these played out with dramatic and just consequential effects in Kenya.

And that was a - you know, that was a sort of an eye-opener for me, obviously. It was about 10 years of doing research. And then the question became, which was raised with me, of - you know, is Kenya an exception? And that's how it was explained. And, (laughter) you know, I don't want to get off topic, but I debated Nigel Farage around this. And Nigel Farage is - as you know, is a leader of the UKIP (ph) Party...

VENUGOPAL: I've seen the clip (laughter).

ELKINS: ...And very far right.

VENUGOPAL: Yeah.

ELKINS: And he just went on and on about how Kenya was the exception - so sorry, hands up, we did terrible things. Let's move on. And so I spent, you know, about 15 years doing research, creating and writing "Legacy Of Violence," to really answer that question - was Kenya an aberration? And the answer to that is no.

VENUGOPAL: For your first book, "Imperial Reckoning," you didn't just wade through these old, dusty historical archives. You actually got to know members of the Kikuyu community. You had meals with them decades after they'd been imprisoned by the British, tortured by them as well. You also spent time at country clubs and in the suburbs of Nairobi with white settlers and missionaries and former colonial officials who would openly discuss, I guess, what happened in the detention camps with you as you wrote over tea or a gin and tonic served by African houseboys or waiters. What did they tell you?

ELKINS: It was extraordinary. You know, I think that - at that time, I was doing research in the 1990s. And the normative framework was still very, if you will, white colonial. And I would sit, as you said, and have their African waiters in white gloves sort of serve me a gin and tonic as the sun was setting. And they would talk about horrific forms of violence.

When I say torture that was just stomach-turning - extraordinary, like it was yesterday's weather. There was no sense that - from these individuals recounting these stories to me - in this thing in particular, some former colonial officials - that they'd done anything wrong, that this was part of what they were supposed to be doing in this so-called civilizing mission, and that when they were all finished, it was declared a triumph.

Many of these same colonial officers received OBEs, orders of the British Empire, from the queen. Some - you know, not in Kenya, but elsewhere - were knighted. And so the sense of confirming, creating a sort of historical fact out of political fiction maintained itself whether it was in Kenya or, you know, back in London.

VENUGOPAL: Your findings served as the basis for an unprecedented legal claim filed by five Mau Mau detention camp survivors against the British government. You also served as an expert witness in the legal proceedings. And in 2013, the British government announced a settlement with the Mau Mau claimants, offered an official apology expressing sincere regret, provided a 20 million-pound financial payout for several thousand survivors, helped establish a monument in Nairobi dedicated to all those who were tortured during the uprising.

I was struck though by the fact that some of the Kenyans who traveled to London for the court proceedings against the British government, they really wanted to meet the queen, Queen Elizabeth, and they seemed to be fans. What do you make of that?

ELKINS: It's a great question. And I was so - I was there with them in London during the context of - the trial happened at a few different moments in time. And they desperately wanted to have an audience with the queen. And when they were given an opportunity to visit around London and the rest, they wanted - the first place they wanted to go and see is Buckingham Palace.

Now, recall - her portrait hung in every detention camp in Kenya. They were forced to sing "God Save The Queen." And I think it gets to sort of - some of the very - the real complexities about the impact of colonialism and British imperial rule, which is the internalization of British power structures - the reverence for the monarchy and the sense in these claimants' case that they were coming to London to seek justice from Her Majesty.

Now, obviously, it's Her Majesty's government who they are suing. But really, for some of them in their minds, it was to the queen herself who was going to be the arbiter of justice. Yes, there were terrible things that were done. And at the same time, Her Majesty is still who we look to as our symbolic head of state.

VENUGOPAL: Do you yourself watch these costume dramas like "The Crown" or "Bridgerton"?

ELKINS: Oh, all the time. I can't get enough of them.

(LAUGHTER)

ELKINS: I'm a Netflix junkie (laughter).

VENUGOPAL: How do you explain their appeal - I mean, the enduring appeal of British royalty and the monarch? I mean - and that, too, across the world, really.

ELKINS: Make no mistake, there is not a single thing that came about with empire, monarchy and nation and the role of monarchy and projecting it that was not carefully choreographed, stylized, projected. The monarchy's power flows from two main sources - the Church of England and the empire. And so I think in that sense, this sense of an establishment, if you will, an institution that is greater and higher than all of us, and the degree to which we as viewers internalize this, the degree to which, you know, the claimants in that Mau Mau high court case that you referenced internalized it - and I think in that sense, I think we're at a crossroads when we think about sort of ultimately the queen passing in future years and what happens to the monarchy behind that.

But make no mistake, the monarchy has been exceptional in reinventing and inventing itself and maintaining its hold on these two sources of sort of the two wellsprings of power. So when you watch, you know, "The Crown" - loved it, watched it. I watched "Queen Victoria" (ph). I watch all of it. I'm actually looking for how these things are choreographed and how we understand and how the monarchy is projected. And it's - you have to respect it for being an incredible operation in maintaining its alure, maintaining its mystique and most importantly, of maintaining its sense of symbolic power.

VENUGOPAL: As someone who studies empires - I know you focus on the British Empire, but where would you place the U.S.? Where are we in our arc?

ELKINS: Well, you know, I think, as somebody who sees empires, the story is not good. We are certainly - I would see us in decline and rapidly declining, you know? Obviously, we've got one of the largest - you know, the largest economy in the world. And yet, at the same time, there are certain markers that we can look for, Arun. If we look at the nature of, for example, the educational level and health of our workforce, you know, do we have skilled and healthy labor? If you look at the nature by which our literacy rates, our math literacy rates, you know, if you look at all these kinds of benchmarks, we are so far behind. We're behind countries in the Global South.

When we think about sort of the move towards sort of socioeconomic rights, what we know - and this kind of sort of brings us in the realm of business, you know? Colleagues of mine at the - at Harvard Business School, Michael Porter and Jan Rivkin, write about, you know, how do countries stay competitive? Well, they stay competitive through growth and shared prosperity. And if you look at the nature in which we are missing the ladder dramatically in the United States, it begs the question of, where are we as an empire? We're certainly an informal empire. We had been for many years. You'd be hard-pressed not to see us in decline. You'd also be hard-pressed not to see us as tacking behind, if you will, certain Global South countries on certain benchmarks.

VENUGOPAL: Caroline Elkins, thanks so much for being here with us today.

ELKINS: Thank you so much, Arun.

GROSS: Caroline Elkins is the author of "Legacy Of Violence: A History Of The British Empire." She spoke with our guest interviewer, Arun Venugopal. Arun is a senior reporter for the WNYC Race and Justice Unit. After we take a short break, David Bianculli will review the return of "Better Call Saul." The final handful of episodes begins airing tonight. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON SONG, "SHAKE 'EM UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.