The Problem With “Western Civ”

I’m still thinking a lot about history and how we tell it. Charles Blow today recalls a Columbia University sophomore who went on an infamous rant about how white people created the modern world.

“We invented science and industry, and you want to tell us to stop because oh my God, we’re so baaad. We invented the modern world. We saved billions of people from starvation. We built modern civilization. White people are the best thing that ever happened to the world. We are so amazing! I love myself! And I love white people!”

Blow says that these are the sentiments “at the root of patriarchal white supremacist ideology.

To people who believe in this, white men are the heroes in the history of the world. They conquered those who could be conquered. They enslaved those who could be enslaved. And their religion and philosophy, and sometimes even their pseudoscience, provided the rationale for their actions.

It was hard not to hear the voice of von Abele when Trump stood at the base of Mount Rushmore and said, “Seventeen seventy-six represented the culmination of thousands of years of Western civilization and the triumph not only of spirit, but of wisdom, philosophy and reason.” He continued later, “Our nation is witnessing a merciless campaign to wipe out our history, defame our heroes, erase our values and indoctrinate our children.”

To be clear, the “our” in that passage is white people, specifically white men. Trump is telling white men that they are their ancestors, and that they’re now being attacked for that which they should be thanked.

The ingratitude of it all.

I don’t know if world history is still being taught this way, but back in my day world history was “western civilization.” We skipped from ancient Egypt to Mesopotamia to Greece and Rome to the rest of Europe and, eventually, the European conquest of the New World. Period, end of the story of world history. Nothing about Africa after ancient Egypt, nothing about Asia after Mesopotamia except through the eyes of the Crusaders, nothing at all about East Asia, nothing about the indigenous civilizations of the Americas except that they were conquered.

One of the challenges I faced when writing The Circle of the Way was that I had to get up to speed on Asian history. Indeed, most of what I know about Asian history I’ve learned, in bits and pieces, over the years while studying and writing about bits of Buddhist history. I stumbled into what European colonialism did to the people and civilizations of India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, etc. This is dark stuff, and I don’t know if Europeans have ever reckoned with it. Americans are nearly all blissfully unaware of it. Then, to get Circle right I had to dig deeper into the histories of China, Japan, and Korea. I developed an appreciation of what “western civ” might look like to an Asian, which is, um, not nearly as flattering as how “western civ” sees itself.

19th century cartoon of western powers fighting over the spoils of China.

That the period of European exploration and conquest had a huge impact on what we call the “modern world” is beyond doubt, but if that had never happened it is not at all a given that we wouldn’t now have a modern world that is just as technology-rich and “enlightened” as this one. I’ve come to realize that a whole lot of the acrimony and tensions in the world today can be traced back to cultural and societal destruction caused by European colonialism and other episodes in which Europeans, and Americans, messed around with other people’s countries. The partitioning of the Middle East after World War I comes to mind.

If you look at all of world history, you see that there’s nothing innate in Europeans to make them uniquely advanced. If anything, through most of world history Europe was, relatively, a cultural backwater. In the 12th century China was light years ahead of Europe in technology and other advances, from movable type, compasses, and timepieces to architecture to the earliest development of commercial farming. During the period of the European crusades the Islamic world was at a cultural peak, and was way ahead of Europe in science and mathematics. From the 11th to 14th centuries many Europeans traveled to the Middle East to study, and in part from this infusion of not European scholarship eventually the Renaissance was born.

So, white folks, we ain’t that special. Deal with it.

Charles blow quotes Trump as calling attempts to correct the historical record a “defilement” of history. Is it a defilement to state, correctly, that several of the founding fathers were slave owners and that even Abraham Lincoln said some things that come across today as blatantly racist? “It is not a defilement, but deprogramming,” Blow writes. “It is a telling of the truth, and the time for it is long overdue.”

Getting history right is important, because a skewed version of history leads to a skewed version of how we got to be where we are now. Keeping up the pretense that western civ brought nothing but bounty and blessings to the world is keeping us stuck in an untenable present.

And it should terrify all of us that Trump, who knows nothing of history and probably associates Confucius with Charlie Chan movies, is responsible for dealing with China. I assure you that China understand us a lot better than we understand them. As Sun Tzu said, “If you know the enemy and you know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt.”

And then there’s U.S. history. I’ve already written quite a lot about the damage done by the Lost Cause mythology that romanticizes the Confederacy. But here’s an anecdote that hammers home the denial we are in about it. This is by Tom Wheeler at the Brookings Institute.

A few years ago, I was making a presentation in a former slaveholding state based on my book “Leadership Lessons of the Civil War.” When I referred to those who fought for the Confederacy as traitors, you could feel the air being sucked from the room. Afterward, some who had been in the audience confronted me over the statement.

But the judgment is unassailable. To take up arms against your country is a traitorous act.

This is one one might call a bare-assed fact, but people refuse to look at it. That’s programming.

Erecting statues is just a way to obfuscate that reality while celebrating what caused it. In a similar manner, naming American military bases for generals who fought against America helps keep that traitorous tradition alive.

The Confederate stuff has to go. Other historical monuments we can debate on a case by case basis, but the Confederate stuff has to go.

At the New Yorker, Isaac Chotiner interviews historian Susan Neiman on How to Confront a Racist National History. Neiman has written quite a bit on postwar Germany and how Germans, slowly, came to process the Third Reich. She said,

I think it is very natural for everyone to want to see their ancestors and their nation as heroic. And if you can’t do heroic, then the move is to see yourself and your nation as a victim. But the move from seeing oneself as a nation of victims to a nation of perpetrators is one that the Germans finally and with great difficulty made. And that’s a historical precedent.

White southerners have been programmed to understand the Confederate legacy as a victimization of the South by the northern industrial states. And they see the Confederates as noble and heroic. But they were traitors, their cause was ignoble, and they bleeping started the bleeping war. We’re not going to be done with this hideous “heritage” until white southerners or anyone who romanticizes the Confederacy fully acknowledge that the Confederates were perpetrators. Not heroes, not victims. Perpetrators. At times in our history other Americans played the role of perpetrators. And some of that part of our history — see: Native Americans — is ongoing. It’s time we grew up about it.

Something of a postscript: Recently Jeff Sharlet posted something on Facebook I’d like to share here —

Again, what we see here is that this skewed, heavily mythologized version of history that remains embedded in school curriculum and popular culture just feeds notions of white supremacism and other right-wing wackjobbery. In this case, Sharlet describes the veneration of Stonewall Jackson among some white Christian conservatives. Jackson is held up as a “soldier of the Cross,” the ideal of the Christian warrior. Here’s just a bit —

In All Things for the Good: The Steadfast Fidelity of Stonewall Jackson, the fundamentalist historian J. Steven Wilkins opens a chapter on Jackson’s belief in the “black flag” of no quarter for the enemy with a quotation of Jackson’s view of mercy toward Union soldiers: “Shoot them all, I do not wish them to be brave.”

Earlier, in the Mexican War, Lieutenant Jackson defied an order to retreat, fought the Mexican cavalry alone with one artillery piece, and won. General Winfield Scott, commander of the U.S. forces, commended him for “the way [he] slaughtered those poor Mexicans.” Many of the poor Mexicans slaughtered by Jackson were civilians. His small victory helped clear the way for the American advance, and Jackson was ordered to turn his guns on Mexico City residents attempting to flee the oncoming U.S. Army. He did so without hesitation—mowing them down even as they sought to surrender.

This is commended in Christian popular history as proper Christian warfare. And these are the same alleged Christians who support Donald Trump. Knowing how they understand history does shed some light on their devotion to Trump. But along with his cold-blooded fanaticism for the Cause, Jackson was a flawed man who harbored a host of “eccentricities” that would have been labeled “neuroses” in later times and “psychological disorders” nowadays. He is not exactly a healthy role model. But in decades past even standard histories and textbooks, never mind Christian ones, made him out to be a great American. Enough.