There have been a few kids’ books that have kept nudging me lately to think about how we talk about the West, especially with our children. I wrote recently about the Percy Jackson books that my son enjoys. In these books the Greek gods move their geographical reference points as the center of Western culture shifts. One character explains that, after divine Olympus was actually located above the physical Mount Olympus, it shifted to Rome, then northern Europe, and eventually reached its current location in the sky above the Empire State building, where the gods live today. Left out in this description were the few hundred years where the Classical Mediterranean legacy, and indeed the most vibrant, vital bastion of Western culture, was in Baghdad or Fatimid Egypt or Muslim Spain somewhere. It may seem like a small oversight, but when a book is repeatedly telling kids about what counts or doesn’t as Western Civilization, I’m going to be looking very carefully at any ethnocentrist messages it may be sending (in this case, I think entirely inadvertently, but still). Leaving the medieval Muslim world out of any discussion of what the West is is historically inaccurate, and speaks more to modern-day interpretations of who does or doesn’t count as part of a Western “us”.
We also recently read a book called World History in 25 Stories, that (unsurprisingly, given its conservative Spanish authorship) is also unabashedly Western-focused and West-promoting. The book has a cool premise of telling kids about the major events in history through the lens of quirky individual stories. For the most part the main characters are made-up people that participate tangentially in these major events. Of 25 stories, maybe 3 feature non-European or non-US protagonists (an obligatory nod to Chinese imperial history, an ancient Egyptian story, and I think an Inca thing). The rise of West African empires around the Niger River, or South Asia’s long and colorful history, don’t merit a mention. This omission of non-Western viewpoints is pretty standard, so it didn’t surprise me.
But even for the few stories that are unavoidably about East-West encounters, non-Europeans are not really given a central part. There is one about the Andalusian conquest in which a Christian king opens a treasure chest he had been prohibited from opening, thus setting in motion a prophecy that he’ll be defeated by invaders (a prophecy fulfilled when a jealous neighboring king collaborates with the Moors to give them the secret to overrunning Spain). By this account, the Muslim armies that conquered most of Iberia in a scant few years owed their victory not to astute strategy and superior technology, but rather to a magical prophecy and inter-Christian jealousy. A story about the Crusades is told by a Syrian soldier, but it is entirely focused on Richard the Lionheart and how much Saladdin revered him.
The book also rehashes the old idea of the Spartan resistance to Persians at Thermopylae as a fundament of Western history, a standoff of the West against decadent invaders. But the Spartans were not really Classic idealists, upholders of a grand intellectual tradition. They were themselves pretty barbaric and non-Western, at least by our modern standards or as compared to the Athenians. Conversely, Persia wasn’t some awful, barbaric kingdom totally alien to the larger culture and dynamics of the Mediterranean world. If Persia had prevailed after Thermophylae and definitively invaded Greece, I wonder if it really would have drastically changed the overall arc of history. It might have simply moved up a hundred years or so the timeframe on the Alexandrian and Roman establishment of a cosmopolitan, undemocratic Mediterranean empire extending beyond Greece.
Earlier this year (oddly enough, it was perhaps the day before my mother died), I was in a hotel room in rural Honduras, where I read this very weird article about the simultaneous Insane Clown Posse and Trump supporter rallies in late2017. There was a passing reference in the article (as if it were something everyone knew about already) to the Proud Boys, which I initially assumed was a gay Trump supporter group or something. But it intrigued me, so I looked them up online, and learned that they are a group dedicated to promoting the idea that Western Civilization is superior to all others. Initially this inspired a flurry of snarky thoughts on my part. Things like, “as if Rudyard Kipling and a few centuries of Euro-American literature and politics hadn’t done that already”. The article cited above has a great line, that social media has “made a culture out of every preference”, and the Proud Boys seem a prime example.
But I wanted to engage more seriously with this idea of Western vs. non- Western culture. I already did so a bit in a prior blog, whereI argued that the distinction between East and West is not only hard to makebut also essentially meaningless, since in the 21st century (and forlong before now, in fact), there has been so much cultural exchange and overlapbetween different cultures in the world that most things can no longer beascribed to one culture as opposed to another.
The Proud Boys, who are loudly unashamed of being Western in an age when there are supposedly all sorts of voices trying to make them ashamed of their heritage, bring up another facet though of this discussion.
Let me offer a quick comment about people of today being the inheritors of Western accomplishments. I read an article that I can’t find anymore (maybe it was just a snarky comment on an online article) that had a funny line saying that it’s not like some white dude sitting on his couch in the US had anything to do with Aristotle’s writings, or Newton’s discoveries. I agree with this. I (as that proverbial white guy on the couch) am no more linked to Aristotle or Newton than some random guy in Malawi is, and certainly much less so than would be a mathematician or a philosopher from Malawi who is actively engaging with and extending their legacy.
But if you are going to argue that you as a Westerner are to be especially congratulated for those accomplishments, then the logical extension would be that you’d also especially own up to the crimes of the Atlantic slave trade, the world wars, or colonialism. If we do concede that the West exists (which, as I’ve argued in my above-cited blog, is a shaky affirmation in itself), then those who are part of the West (like any people in the world) are the inheritors of both glorious and heinous legacies. If the West exists, and certain people we define as Westerners have more of a claim on its culture and history than do other people, then they would in fact have a greater claim to (responsibility for?) the crimes of the West as well, right? If you ‘bout it, then be ‘bout it.
Even if we overlook this issue of accomplishments vs. crimes of the West, and we want to engage in good faith with the Proud Boys’ claims of Western superiority, we still come back to the paradox of what is or isn’t Western, and what makes the West great. If it’s the current power distribution that defines the West and makes it great, then we would have to admit that the West today is probably located in Asia (or soon will be), where a disproportionate share of the world’s population and economic activity occur. “Hold on though”, you might argue, “what defines the West is not the specific arrangement of power right in this historical instant, but rather the impressive accumulated heritage of thought and technology that has come out of Europe, and that the rest of the world benefits from today”. But the problem there is that this heritage is just as non-Western as Western. Gunpowder, vaccinations, moveable type, most of the crops that feed the world, and certainly the land and slave labor that fuelled the rise of Europe in the early modern period, came from outside of Europe, and the West’s contribution in many such cases was not to invent something original but rather to combine it in new ways that gave Europe an advantage over other regions (just as Asia is doing today with lots of manufacturing technology that may have originated outside of Asia).
To get out of this rather sterile dichotomy, I would advocate that “Western-ness” in such discussions comes really to mean modernity as opposed to a clear geographic designation. But we’re all modern now—no one region has a priority claim on modernity or the superiority that it implies. There are few places in the world today that are not clearly, firmly situated in the 21st century, with a shared cultural, technological, and intellectual heritage extending from the Fertile Crescent to Mesoamerica to Qin China to the Vikings to Mansa Musa to Gandhi to Chinua Achebe.
Continuing then the argument from above, if within this modern order the mark of genius or superiority is the ability to put together inheritances from elsewhere in a novel way, then today’s Asian factories assembling computer components and researching artificial intelligence, or young African writers redefining the modern novel, are at the apex of our development as a world society. If, conversely, the mark of genius is whoever first invented or worked on these things, then the apogee of the West is still just as much Asian, African, and American Indian as it is European.
To summarize, there is no coherent argument that the West even exists, and certainly not that it’s innately superior to any other part of the world. In the end the Proud Boys’ self-labelled “Western chauvinism” becomes a species of ethno-nationalism with a light airbrushing over the “ethno” part. To convincingly argue that one region or culture is superior to another, you have to narrow your lens so much to a specific period and place (in this case, the few hundred years that Europe and its satellites prevailed militarily and economically over other regions, but before the present when they are eclipsed by these regions) that your claims of superiority are either meaningless or pointless, designed more to justify a foregone conclusion as opposed to a sincere search for which culture is the “best” (which is a stupid thing to spend your time thinking about, anyway).