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Sunday, June 20, 2021

Whither western civilization?

 I thought about giving myself the weekend off for Father's Day, but as so often happens, some current journalism provided the texts for this morning's sermon, in the form of two book review essays.  The first, by a Princeton historian named Fara Dabhoiwala, from a recent issue of the New York Review of Books, deals with three books on the history of colonialism and decolonization: Time’s Monster: How History Makes Historyby Priya Satia; Neither Settler nor Native: The Making and Unmaking of Permanent Minorities by Mahmood Mamdani; and Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination by Adom Getachew.  Unfortunately only subscribers can follow the link.  The second, by the  journalist and Yale Law lecturer Emily Bazelon in today's New York Times, reviews recent books on the state of American politics and thought by George Packer (The Last Best Hope) and Jonathan Rauch (The Constitution of Knowledge.)  The first review illustrates, and the second one directly addresses, the profound changes in western intellectual life over the last five or six decades, which now amount to a repudiation of the western political and intellectual tradition, and raise the question of whether we are on the verge of an historical turning point comparable to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Dabhoisala's review begins with a lengthy discussion of British justfications for imperial rule, especially at Oxford University.  He does not attribute either to any of the books he is reviewing or to any other text. although it may come from his third book.  His many quotes show that much the British establishment devoutly believed in its civilizing mission in India, Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, as indeed they did. Time's Monster, the first book under review, apparently echoes these themes, and points out that figures as influential as Rudyard Kipling and Winston Churchill also came to believe that only British rule saved territories like India from endless internecine warfare and bloodshed.  (I have known that, for the record, since I read Churchill's own memoirs in 1966.)  Instead, Satia, the author, seems to argue that British rule was responsible for heightening divisions between Muslims and Hindus (who had contended for the rule of India in previous centuries), and thus was responsible for the enormous post-independence violence that generated millions of deaths and refugees in Pakistan and independent India.  This argument, we shall find, is becoming popular.

The next book, Mahmood Mamdami's Neither Settler nor Native, apparently argues that the west's concept of the ethnically and religiously homogeneous nation-state is responsible for enormous violence not only in the west but all over the world.  "The pathologies of postcolonial civil wars and genocide," Dabhoisala paraphrases, "are directly connected to the history of what 'civilized' nations have long done at home."  Mandami cites at least two examples: the treatment of the Indians by colonists in what became the United States, which Dabhoisala calls "willful extermination," and the decision at the end of the Second World War to move millions of ethnic Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe into Germany proper, to eliminate sources of political conflict.  Like virtually everyone who writes about American Indians today, Mandami apparently fails to put their history in a broader metahistorical context, which would show that no hunter-gatherer society has ever survived in direct contact with an agricultural or industrial one.  As for the European example, I wrote at great length about that episode in my own book Politics and War more than thirty years ago, noting, tragically, that the Europeans had found no other solution to longstanding ethnic conflicts in Eastern Europe, in particular, except population transfer and mass murder.  When I completed that book, three multinational states--the USSR, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia--were also about to disintegrate amidst more violence, suggesting that the problem has not yet been solved.  That hardly means, however, that such ethnic or racial conflicts only existed in Europe, or that, as Mandami apparently argues, the west taught the rest of the world about them.

The third book, Adom Getachev's Worldmaking after Empire, performs an even more striking historical gymnastic, arguing that 20th century anti-colonialism in the west was really disguised imperialism.  "Woodrow Wilson, the reviewer paraphrases, "the great champion of the new League of Nations after World War I, is often portrayed as having been motivated by an egalitarian, essentially anti-imperial conception of national self-determination. But as Adom Getachew argues in her astute and incisive first book, Worldmaking After Empire, that is pretty much the opposite of the truth.  In Wilson’s eyes, preserving 'white supremacy on this planet' was the ultimate postwar goal. Just as African-Americans were unworthy of national citizenship, so, too, for colonized and other lesser peoples across the world self-government was not a right but a stage of development for which they were inherently unfit or, at best, woefully underprepared."  Having been reading Wilson's speeches on this subject recently myself, I must say that this is a critical distortion.  Wilson certainly believed (and helped impose) racial segregation in the US, and also believed that nonwhite peoples were at that time at an earlier stage of development than the Europeans.  Yet he believed that the only justification for colonialism was to educate and prepare other people for independence.  It is possible, although I do not know, that Getachew regards teaching western forms of self-governance to non-western peoples itself constitutes "preserving white supremacy on this planet."  That's a popular view nowadays in many contexts. Many colonized peoples, however, eagerly adopted western ideas of democracy and human rights, and welcomed Wilson's initiative.  Wilson also, it might be noted, advocated the earliest possible independence for the Philippines, which the United States had acquired in 1898, and because of other Americans like him, Congress in 1932 established 1946 as the date for independence, and the United States in 1946 carried that plan out.

And the independence of the Philippines is just one episode in a much bigger story that both Getachev and Dabhoisala seem determined, bizarrely, to ignore.  "A project of anticolonial worldmaking," Dabhoisala writes, overcame colonial "structures of domination. . .  In 1960, despite the resistance of the United States, Britain, France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, and South Africa, UN Resolution 1514, “Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples,” established that “the subjection of peoples to alien subjugation, domination and exploitation constitutes a denial of fundamental human rights” and was contrary to the UN Charter. Despite its specification of “alien” rule, which seemed to exculpate settler colonialism, this was a legal watershed."  I don't know why the representatives of all those nations opposed that General Assembly resolution, but I do know that by 1960 Britain had given up India and its Middle Eastern Empire, de Gaulle was on the point of liquidating the last major French imperial territory in Algeria--having already pulled out of the rest of Africa--and Belgium had pulled out of the Congo.  All that took place partly because of revolution and resistance in the colonies, but also because of the triumph of anti-colonialist forces in the European states, except in Portugal, where that did not occur until 1975.  Like the authors of the 1619 project, however, Getachev appears determined to deny that white people have every willingly done anything to benefit nonwhites, and to claim that their ideas of equality have never been anything but a mask for their own supremacy.

These books, in short, try to refute the whole idea that western civilization represented a step forward for humanity and that many aspects of it spread around the world for that very reason.  To make this argument, it seems, they find it convenient to ignore any serious discussion of violence in colonized territories before the West arrived, just as woke activists in the US never mention that slavery was flourishing in Africa long after it had been abolished in Europe.  It is quite clear, however, that violence was endemic and often cruel among different tribes in the Americas before the Europeans arrived, and that India was the scene of huge wars for empire long before the British became a political factor.  The idea that ethnic conflict is a western invention imposed by westerners on the third world is, in my opinion, without foundation, but such is the general skepticism about western civilization in the academy that these books are now mainstream.  I do not know if the fall of the Roman Empire was preceded by the publication of books in Rome claiming that Roman expansion had been a horrible catastrophe for the peoples of the Mediterranean world, although I know at least one scholar has interpreted Tacitus's Germania as an early piece of political correctness.  The greater irony, I think, is that all the ideas that books like these are using to undermine our view of western civilization came from the western academy--from angry younger generations, originally--and have essentially tried to overthrow western political thought from within.

 Emily Bazelon's review spends most of its time on George Packer's book, which has been excerpted at length in a freely available article in The Atlantic. Packer identifies four different Americas--or four concepts of America--two each on either side of the political spectrum.  The Republicans combine Free America, based on the libertarian fantasies of men like Newt Gingrich and Paul Ryan and Alan Greenspan, with Real America, the constituency of Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.  The Democrats combine Smart America--the second- or third-generation meritocrats who have become an educational and cultural elite--with Just America, the new activists who have abandoned "the universal values of the Enlightenment: objectivity, rationality, science, equality and freedom of the individual."  They argue that "“all disparities between groups result from systems of oppression and demand collective action for redress, often amounting to new forms of discrimination — in other words, equity. In practice, identity politics inverts the old hierarchy of power into a new one: bottom rail on top.” None of these groups, he argues, focus primarily on our most serious problem, increasing economic inequality--and I agree.   Packer does not point out, at least in the Atlantic article, that while the Republican split is mainly an economic and cultural one, the Democratic split is mainly generational.

Bazelon notes that Packer, like myself, is particularly concerned with Just America's dominance of academia and major media outlets, who emphasize the impact of emotional trauma inflicted on minorities by speech and texts, and shame and ostracize colleagues who do not toe the line.  As recenty as last September, Bazelon herself wrote another long New York Times article questioning our traditional devotion to free speech, lamenting that the best ideas do not always prevail in a marketplace of ideas.  Now she is having some second thoughts. "As a journalist and a part-time lecturer at a university," she writes, "I would have shrugged off these claims a few years ago. I still think a minority of academics and journalists are driving the shift Packer is talking about. But they have real influence."

Their influence, she continues, is the subject of Jonathan Rauch's book, which deals with the attack upon traditional western intellectual values head on.  She quotes him about the novel features of cancel culture: "“Criticism seeks to engage in conversations and identify error; canceling seeks to stigmatize conversations and punish the errant. Criticism cares whether statements are true; canceling cares about their social effects.”  Given the power of the new ideologues in universities and newspapers--where they are bureaucratically entrenched now--few people dare to challenge them.  Rauch, who has been a gay activist, also has contempt for leftists who refuse to recognize opponents as worthy of debate. “Every time I hear a minority-rights advocate say that she should not have to debate haters who question her very right to exist," he writes, "I say: On the contrary, that is exactly who you need to debate.” Yet Bazelon, like the vast majority of journalists and academics to whom Rauch refers, will not abandon the new orthodoxy.  "I also wanted both Rauch and Packer to consider why the Enlightenment figures and values they love don’t speak to everyone," she writes. "They are sensitive to the concerns of people who have lacked power in American society, but they don’t engage with the full scope of their critiques and frustrations. These books are a launching pad for debate, not the last word."

I don't know Packer or Rauch and I haven't read all of either book, but I suspect they might agree with me that critical theory's approach to the problems of women, minorities and gays is both inaccurate and harmful--because the ideals of the Enlightenment, even if they have never been perfectly applied, are the only really effective weapon those groups have ever had.  The increasing contempt for those ideals holds these two reviews together.  If you believe that the violent and non-violent spread of western ideas around the world caused far more harm than good, then you will see no reason to defend western ideas of equality and free speech.  Those are dominant intellectual trends of our time.  They could lead us into a new dark age.


noribori said...

This questioning of Western civilization seems to me to be related to the forces that brought about the Brexit. Since the end of the Cold War, a fear has crept in that progress toward supranational entities like the UN and EU will burst like a bubble. Conservative forces see a return to national entities as the solution, but overlook the fact that once the retreat is initiated, there is no stopping it.

Boris Johnson has demonized the European Union; now he must see that the UK is not demonized in the same way. Can Scotland declare itself independent by majority vote? Could pro-England areas then break away from Scotland and usher in Scotland's disintegration as a nation? There is no stopping to this game of fear.

The ultra-conservative forces of the U.S. have demonized internationalism, now they must see ultra-left forces demonize the glorified nation-state in the same way, questioning the common standard for all groups and thus invoking further disintegration into ethnic subgroups. You spit on our ideals, we sh*t on yours.

Bozon said...

Great post
These two reviewers' articles and topics are the meat and potatoes of intellectual pundits of color and Western Civ liberal white Stokelys as well, in all fields, not just history or politics. Your recent post re Lisa Wilkerson is a locus classicus re accusing the British for really fixing the caste system in India firmly in place as part of colonial rule.

With David Reich's paleogenetics, following in the spiritual footsteps of Gimbutas, blaming the Yamnaya Steppe Indo Europeans for subjugating India, W. and Central Europe, the Mideast, and even a return to Africa to dominate it, the stage has now been set to blame white westerners and their forebears, only, among the worlds paleo populations, as the original sinners, for everything wrong with human prehistory, not just slaughter and slavery everywhere the modern West has dominated in recorded history.

But it is now a widespread calumny to claim that racism and violence came only out of the white West against the colored Rest. As DK says, "...That hardly means, however, that such ethnic or racial conflicts only existed in Europe, or that, as Mandami apparently argues, the west taught the rest of the world about them..." DK.

This may be a slight exaggeration: "...no hunter-gatherer society has ever survived in direct contact with an agricultural or industrial one." DK
Although some Western colonial power tried to Westernize and Christianize more primitive people, that was not always the main theme.
Colonialism in Africa turned out to be a dog of an idea, if one does the research; most powers quickly realized this, and attempts to Westernize and Christianize Africans faltered of their own weight. India was a different story. Asia, different yet again.
I only got halfway through this post so far...
All the best

Bozon said...


noribori can remain in technicolor panavision liberal Western internationalism La La Land, but as you point out, the decline of Western Civilization, not just Brexit nonsense, has long now been a self inflicted wound that the colored Rest have also now been freed to cause to fester further.

The only thing ever truly available to put in place of nation states has been glorified armed guerilla camps.

All the best

Bozon said...


These are the ideals of the Enlightenment:

"Paradoxically, the men who trusted so highly in the powers of intelligence regarded the mind as essentially vacant and inert; the idea of the passive mind was indispensable to their system. it was the guarantee that the truths of nature might be perceived without distortion. It was the basis for the distinction, then so important and so clear, between enlightenment and prejudice. It was the metaphysical groundwork for the belief that men were equal, and that they possessed the quality of perfectibility, that is, susceptibility to progress. Minimizing the effects of will, denying original predisposition, refusing to see any inevitability in human nature, the doctrine was flatly contrary to the Christian idea of sin; and by representing man as a passive child of circumstances, easily abused by his environment, it slipped sometimes into a notion that human nature, when crude, is good; and that order, restraint, discipline, and suppression are affronts to man's dignity and freedom." Palmer, Catholics and Unbelievers, p 133, 134

All the best

Energyflow said...

In Europe assimilation has occured also. Lots of immigration for instance of Germans to the East everywhere over centuries who became largely assimilated and of Slavs and others who became Germans over time. Immigration was due to economic need. Industrialism drawing Poles to Germany in 19th century or overpopulation leading Germans to move eastward in previous centuries( basis of pied piper story). I read of how many central and East Germans moved to Hungary and assimilated when Austro- Hungary was wealthy centuries ago. I think history and headlines are made by crisis situations like the 15 millions of German ethnics driven Westward after WWII. Good news fdoes not make for News. I have a multi volume history of technology. It explains a lot about middle to latemiddle ages manufactures, small factories in various German states. This is like the USA with lots of accents, cultural differences between the regions, even body types, etc( my father in laws family was from what is now France and my wife retains very Soutjern German characteristics, much different than Northern types where I reside in Hamburg). At any rate many people would emigrate for work to say Leipzig to do factory jobs, from rural Bavaria or so and go back home after a time, feeling homesick or unwelcome. One can imagine a Southern US resident, particularly in less modern times, when culture in terms of food, manners, etc. realy meant something and prejudices were deep seated, going to Chicago or New York just to do a job.

Modern life standardized a lot through mandatory school education, literacy, Press, TV, radio. I have a German dialects book which is quite varied. In European countries this is common as in USA also. Tower of Babel story comes to mind. Teens develop own lingo, slang and in 100 years or so, Shakespeare as example, people have difficulty reading own older language. So this is all very fluid. Modernization however overrides a lot of this. Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather and a standard American accent was one thing. Now culture is getting more varied due to internet media flourishing. This could explain a lot of cultural disintegration everywhere. Centralization of media control over language, ideology controlled the population for central governments. Losing control of that media like nowadays is dangerous economically, socially and militarily. So Facebook and co. make censorship decisions. A letter to the edior of NYT in 1960 would have been allowed or ignored on certain criteria of professionalism. Chatrooms, online discussions were kitchen, church, watercooler or locker room talks, all informal, personal and not recorded, controlled by a central instance.