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.

20 thoughts on “The Problem With “Western Civ”

  1. When I was in the Army back in the latter stages of the Cold War, my area of operation was Africa and the Middle East. In order to fully understand the challenges, I had to dig deeper than the U.S. vs. Russia geopolitical struggle, farther back in time. And that led me straight to Charles Darwin.

    White Man's Burden wasn't just an unfortunate misread of the evidence, it was the prelude to a colonial free-for-all. It gave European countries a "moral" excuse to partition and conquer the African continent, it gave them a thin veneer of science for their actions, and it washed away the sins of the casual brutality in which they engaged.

    But even more damaging was how that colonization ignored tribal boundaries that had existed for centuries, splitting those tribes into two or more colonies (later nations). Even after the Europeans left, the irredentist struggles have remained, making diplomacy somewhere between difficult and impossible.

    The Origin Of Species was a brilliant leap forward for science. But there are literally millions of skeletons in Darwin's closet, and I often wish it had never been written.

    • The "White Man's Burden" idea came out of the "social Darwinism" movement that claimed to be based on Darwin's theories but wasn't really.  Social Darwinism was a social theory that more or less argued that since white people pretty much ran the world in the late 19th century, this must be because whites were "fittest" and deserved to run it. This is not what Darwin meant by survival of the fittest. See: How Social Darwinism Is Not Darwinism. Darwin himself was a man of his time and had some standard 19th century biases about race and gender, but I don't think there's much of that in Origin of Species. Some of his other work, yes. 

  2. I agree that the Confederate stuff has to go, but…

    The persistence of the "lost cause mythology" should not be surprising, because it has been so baked into the mainstream view of American history. It is not just the wishful thinking of Southern racists. If you read any of the bestselling books of Bruce Catton, the most popular Civil War historian of the 20th century, it is all there – Robert E. Lee was a genius and the American King Arthur, slavery was an unfortunate point of disagreement that should not have come between good-hearted Americans, and abolitonists like John Brown were wild-eyed fanatics who prevented the "moderates" on both sides of the slavery issue from reaching a reasonable compromise. This Fifties era view of our Civil War was largely reproduced in the 1990 Ken Burns series, where he gave such a prominent voice to the lost cause mythologist Shelby Foote. Neither Bruce Catton nor Ken Burns were southerners but they both presented the prevailing view that there were fine people on both sides and the war was just sort of an accidental tragedy that caused much misery but ultimately made us stronger as a nation, or something like that.

    As an old American white guy descended from a Union veteran, I grew up hearing this stuff from grade school on. I enjoyed the Bruce Catton books and the Ken Burns series. It is pretty to think that our history was that noble. But if it were, I think we would not have the racist society we have today. I was surprised in a good way to hear about the destruction of Confederate monuments and statues of conquistadors. It gives me hope. Maybe the kids will do better than we did.

    • It's important  to not turn historical figures into archetypes of either goodness or villainy. People are complicated. Most of the Confederates of history we know about were ordinary people of their time, as were most of the important figures of the Union side. As human beings, they were neither absolutely good nor absolutely evil. So it doesn't bother me if someone like Shelby Foote — who was grappling with what the war really was about, at least — speaks of the better qualities of some on the Confederate side. They weren't cartoon villains, they were human beings. And that has something to teach us about how ordinary people with some good qualities can get mixed into an evil cause. Hannah Arendt wrote some good stuff about that, you might recall. Instead of slapping an "evil" label on them, it's more useful to examine how and why they chose the sides they chose. But let's not romanticize them.

      • Sure, I don't disagree. But I think the Bruce Catton school of history does tend to turn historical figures into archetypes of nobility, heroism, etc.

        • Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote were not nearly the worst offenders. The real problem was with a group of pro-Confederate academic historians of the late 19th and early 20th century whose revisionist ideas about the antebellum South, Civl War, and Reconstruction came to pervade how the period was understood in academia, in textbooks, and in popular culture. "Scholars" such as Edward A. Pollard and William Dunning created  elaborately mythological "histories" that amounted to Confederate apologia, and their views pervaded everywhere. So throughout the U.S. people came to think that the Civil War wasn't exactly about slavery, that Reconstruction was a terrible abuse of the poor southern plantation class, that the noble Confederates were just fighting for their "way of life" and freedom, all of which was hogwash. Even Shelby Foote had figured that out by the time he was interviewed by Ken Burns. 

  3. Don't diss Western Civ. It's also one of the few cultures that actually has worked towards individual rights and against sexism, racism and the like. It has even worked towards economic justice from time to time. Throw in its science and technology, both popular world wide, and there are good reasons to continue teaching it, especially to people who live in societies heavily shaped by it.

    It would be nice to offer a more global view in the schools, but if someone wants to know why we should be trashing pseudo-Civil War monuments, it helps to know some Western Civ.

    • Western civ did some good things, but we need global civ now. And the qualities you ascribe to western civ are not exclusive to western civ.

      • When the Beijing Orchestra plays Beethoven's Fifth, is it colonization? Appropriation? Discipleship? Who wins, China or Beethoven? Maybe both, but that would be a paradox.

        • Please stop being so defensive. Just because there was Mozart doesn't mean White People are always wise and good and should rule the world. White people pretty much screwed up a lot of the world, and that damage is still being felt in Asia, Africa, and South America. There is also a lot about not-western civ that is fine and worthy of respect. 

          • I meant no defense of anyone's tribe. My point, though ineptly put, was that truth, beauty and usefulness, once discovered, become the common property of all humankind.

            What could be more modern than paper, gunpowder, and decimal numeration? But the Chinese invented the first two, and the Hindus and the Arabs cooperated to invent the last.

            Those civilizations also have their light and dark sides. (For instance, the Hindus and the Arabs agreed on the number zero, and on not much else since.) My critique is of the species.

  4. While the "Age of Discovery" began the rise of Western European hegemony over much of the globe, it was the industrial revolution that clinched the deal — the "guns and steel" part of Jared Diamond's Pulitzer Prize winning work. If Empress Dowager Cixi had been successful in her attempts to modernize Manchu China comparable to what was happening in Japan under the Meiji Restoration, the history of colonialism in East Asia would be quite different I think.

    And without the plagues of measles, smallpox, etc. that killed off upwards of 90% of the population of indigenous peoples of the Americas post contact (the "germs"), the history of the "new world" could also have been very different.

  5. It's hard for a lot of us white folks to accept, but when you look at the history of civilizations, we "ain't all that!"

    Somehow or other, before we white folks went to all the many ends of the Earth, people who were already there had their own  civilizations.  They had their own god's and religions.  Their own  histories.  Their own form of governance.

    But when white people came in, through disease and technology, we became like human erasers, wiping-out whatever was there.

     We white folks owe a debt to all of the countries and cultures we wiped off the face of the Earth.

    We need to dump Western Civ, and teach Global Civ.

    Now, let's try to sell that idea to tRUMP's MAGAts!

    But wear Kevlar if you do.

  6. I’ve been studying George Orwell a bit. Turns out his father was a lifelong, faceless bureaucrat in England’s obscure “India Department”. This department’s main task was to manage India’s opium trade, the proceeds of which were immensely important to the UK.

    It’s kind of mind boggling, that one could build an entire career out of subduing a foreign population with drugs, funneling tons of money back to the home country, and then retire happily ever after.

    Them English must’ve thought they were special.

  7. There's a scene in The King And I – The King of Siam (Yul Brenner) imported an English schoolteacher for his children. She proceeds to teach Geography with an accurate map of the location and size of countries. The prince objects because "everyone knows" Siam is the largest country in the world. He demands the King reverse the teachings and Yul Brenner is brilliant trying to reconcile his cognitive bias with the facts. You can see the gears in his head whirring–he opts to confirm the truth, a radical break with the past.

    For Trump and company, they've opted to "require" that the truth be suppressed and their narrative of history be absolute and unquestioned. I can't find the quote that "Wisdom is the unending process of unlearning old falsehoods." Correct me if you know the right wording and author. The series of essays Maha has penned uncover a basic element of our cultural crisis and maybe the path forward.

  8. Southern heritage? Sure, why not, they have plenty to be proud of; but not traitors. I say we pull down all the statues of Confederate generals and replace them with statues of Elvis, Satchmo, and Dolly Parton.

  9. "Might makes right", iron, steel, and gunpowder.  Winners, losers, masters, and slaves. Uncompromising greed and compassionate empathy perpetually clash, sometimes within the same person's mind; and it strikes me that they are both sort of evolved human survival instincts.  

    From time to time I am aware of having stepped on a bug while walking.  If I feel anything at all about what I did to the bug, it is only slight regret.  I do not seek out bugs to stomp, nor do I attempt instantaneously reactive gymnastic feats to avoid injury to bugs; I'm just walking, going about my business, into the office building to provide for my family, just bad luck for the bug – who may have been engaged in the very same purpose.  I'm wearing clothing and shoes made by unknown persons in other parts of the world.  I do not boast that I am superior to all bugs.  I believe that the bug's significance to the universe is equal to mine.  And actually, I am aware that something much smaller than the bug could cause my demise.

    It must have been easy for the European explorer/colonist stepping ashore in the "new world", wearing clothing made of fiber woven on a device by another person, carrying metal weapons made by yet another person, to feel superior to the native who had probably never ventured more than 20 miles from the site of his birth, wearing perhaps bits of animal skin and maybe carrying a weapon made of wood and stone, all fashioned by the native himself.  The native may have gotten sick and died soon after contact with the European, God's will – right?  More proof of the European's superiority?

    I do not believe that the European was superior to the native any more than I was superior to the bug on the sidewalk.  It was just dumb luck that much earlier an ancestor of the European happened to have tossed some shiny hard bits of substance he or she had found among some rocks into a fire and later noticed the bits had melded together to form a new shape.

    So much good thought-provoking reading here from Maha and all the other commenters, very good stuff.

  10. Slavery.  White supremacy.  That's what the South fought for.  That was their "Lost Cause."

    Its a part of "Western Civilization" that should not be overlooked.

    In their own words:

    The Truth About the Confederacy in the United States

    One other thing: the vast majority of those monuments were erected long after the civil war, not so much to honor the confederates as it was to pushback on challenges by the civil rights movement to racism and discrimination.

    • Excellent video, csm. A lot of good information. The one part that struck me as totally insane was the part where Ben Carson is talking about the slave trade in terms that make it seem like the slaves were excited to be on an economic journey full of opportunity. All it needed was a backdrop of music by Neil Diamond singing Coming to America.

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