Against Western values

Let us not be children about our flawed heritage

European colonizer carried in a hammock by four African porters.
(Image credit: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo)

One increasingly common experience online is being harangued by right-wing racists displaying some Greek or Roman statue as their profile picture. "Why do you support white genocide?" someone called @Tiberius1488 might say. "Don't you know white Europeans built all that is good on this planet?"

As depraved as such sentiments are, they are not wholly divorced from more traditional liberal views about the nobility of Western values. In The Washington Post, Catherine Rampell worries about illiberal trends among millennial voters, arguing that "defenders of the West might want to start working on Plan B."

This common view of Western values — as some singularly noble tradition which must be protected against internal corruption, or encroaching outside infiltration — is a crock. It's long since time the West ditched this ridiculous chauvinism.

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Now, that is not to argue the converse — that the Western tradition is Actually Bad. On the contrary, from Aristotle, Homer, and Euclid; to Livy, Virgil, and Ptolemy; to Christ, Augustine, and Paul; to Aquinas, da Vinci, and Copernicus; to Locke, Shakespeare, and Newton; to Marx, Tolstoy, and Darwin; there is much world-class literature, art, philosophy, and science there.

It is therefore worth studying — and not only because of the quality of those works, but because of the influence the West has had over the world. During what Hobsbawm called the "dual revolution" — the simultaneous Industrial Revolution in Britain, which inaugurated the still-dominant economic world system of capitalism, and the French Revolution, which spread ideas of classical liberalism, nationalism, radical democracy, and a thoroughly rationalized state — a huge fraction of the world "was transformed from a European, or rather a Franco-British, base."

But there is much truly evil brutality in that same tradition. That immense world influence, for example, was achieved through violence and economic coercion on an unprecedented scale. The British economic revolution relied on near-limitless supplies of cheap cotton, which, as Sven Beckert argues, could not have happened without mass enslavement in the American South and the ethnic cleansing of American Indians to get vast new tracts of free land for planting. The vast economic and military advantage Britain thus obtained was used to forcibly flood India and China with dirt-cheap textiles — quite deliberately de-industrializing both countries, throwing tens of millions out of work and making ensuing famines far more severe. (Even close neighbors were not safe from this sort of thing, as British trade policy drastically worsened the Great Famine in Ireland.)

That Africans were the focus of particular oppression is not a coincidence. Influential European thinkers like Immanuel Kant and David Hume espoused a bilious racism often conveniently forgotten today (read Kant on why black slaves should be beaten with a split cane, instead of a whip, so as to cause worse injuries). John Locke owned a large interest in a slave-trading firm. Such views only gained strength in the 19th century, as Europeans reached for bigoted explanations to justify their economic dominance over most of the world.

Colonialism in Africa was generally where deeply racist European empires were at their worst, as they carved up the entire continent while jostling for position. This was one of the worst atrocities in world history, from which Africa is still reeling, featuring an endless parade of killing, theft, and oppression. Belgian King Leopold II killed something like 10 million people in the Congo Basin in the process of pillaging the area's resources. Germany committed genocide in what is today Namibia. European settlers set up brutally racist apartheid states in Rhodesia and South Africa. And so on.

What's more, many of the best parts of the extant Western tradition — universal suffrage, freedom of speech and religion, due process, and so on — are the result of furious contest within Western societies. Votes for the poor, for American blacks, or for women, for instance, were not some natural outgrowth of people carefully studying their Aristotle (who supported slavery, by the way), they were hard-won struggles for power, very often against people piously adhering to the signature Western idea: classical liberalism. Western elites have routinely prioritized property over democratic freedoms, and often successfully so. In the 1870s, to pick one of many examples, racist Liberal Republicans advocated the abandonment of the protection of Southern blacks' voting rights, leading to a century of Jim Crow disenfranchisement and terrorism. Republicans still do smaller-scale examples of the exact same thing today.

Moreover, many of those same best parts can also be found in other cultures — many of which were vibrant and sophisticated while Europe was a struggling, disease-ridden backwater. India has a deep and rich tradition of literature, science, mathematics, and philosophy, as does China, which also developed writing and an efficient, unitary state thousands of years before Europeans did. For centuries, Islamic civilization was the center of the world in science, art, and literature. And so on.

The pure white marble of Greek and Roman statuary and buildings has come to stand in for the supposed noble origins of the Western heritage — thus the austere statuary of the Renaissance, as well as the huge, ornate pillars on the Capitol and the Supreme Court buildings. But it turns out back when they were actually carved, they were painted with brilliant — perhaps even garishly bright, to our eyes — colors. It just flaked off over the centuries.

There is something rather appropriate about that discovery, made with cutting-edge science and technology, naturally. There's nothing wrong with deeply studying the Western canon, nor valuing its parts that are genuinely good. But let us not be childish about it. It is not the source of all that is valuable in world society, nor is it the single source of freedom and democracy. It is one tradition among many.

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