Don’t Blame Everything on Imperialism

The lessons we draw from the past often do more to shape the future than the past itself, even if they are the wrong lessons. Most of our errors and exaggerations contain more than a grain of truth. We are highly capable of taking a valid insight and pushing it a bit too far, or maybe blowing it out of all sense of proportion. In these cases, an incomplete reading of history can be worse than no reading at all.

In this post, I will examine a particularly pervasive “lesson” in world history circles: the idea that almost every problem ailing the world today is the product of western imperialism. This argument has been on my radar for the last week or so as various authors look back on the Sykes-Picot Agreement, that infamous document where France and Britain divided the Middle East during World War I into their respective spheres of influence, a move that would contribute to the “arbitrary” borders of Syria and Iraq. Later agreements also slighted the Kurds, leaving them without a state. To say that Sykes-Picot was a self-interested move that neglected the will of the Arabs and Kurds is obvious. To blame two diplomats – one French and one British, both trying to preserve their country’s alliance against the Central Powers – for everything that ails the Middle East today is madness.

The blame-imperialism thesis fits into the larger “blame the West” narrative that has profound consequences for our politics. There’s almost no problem some people will not pin on imperialists of yester-century.

Global inequality between the western and non-western world? Blame imperialism.

Genocide and civil war in Africa? Imperialism.

Economic collapse in Latin America? Imperialism.

Paris terror attacks? Imperialism, obviously.

When people bemoan “imperialism,” they often mean western imperialism, of the sort practiced by white guys (American or European) in non-white places (Africa, Middle East, Asia) in the relatively recent (though not directly experienced) past. Sometimes this first category is enlarged to include the non-white Japanese, but with the added explanation that they must have gotten the idea to invade other people from the Americans, or else it would have never occurred to them.

But the West no more invented imperialism than it invented slavery. To cast problems of greed and selfishness as uniquely Western, as opposed to simply human pathologies, is to employ a double standard in historical judgment.

We don’t tend to blame Russia’s present-day problems on the fact that it experienced Mongolian imperialism in the 13th century. We don’t explain the U.K.’s current crises with the fact that they have been conquered or invaded by Romans, Angles, Saxons, and Normans. Somehow the Russians and the English survived their experiences with imperialism in ways Latin Americans, Africans, and Asians have not.

Why is western imperialism such a popular explanation?

First, because there is a large measure of truth to it. Belgian imperialism in Central Africa certainly contributed to the ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis that exploded into genocide in the 1990s. The Sykes-Picot Agreement did help set the stage for the somewhat-illogical division of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

But while it is important to recognize the influence of imperialism on more recent or ongoing tragedies, it would be a mistake to overstate the explanatory power of this argument. The Belgians were not the ones ordering bands of rage-filled Hutus to kill Tutsis. Poor Mssrs. Sykes and Picot did not draw up the plan for ISIS back in 1915, nor did they conspire to ensure that despots and tyrants would gain control of the Middle East. Nothing in history is inevitable. To blame Group A’s problems on Group B can have the unintended effect of turning Group A into passive victims of Group B’s villainy, depriving them of their agency in the past, present, and future. When people really don’t like their current borders, they act to change them. Sometimes attempt to redefine borders more “logically” can have the perverse effect of leading to more genocide and strife. Just look at South Sudan today.

Second, Western imperialism has a long history. In many ways, it has dominated the last 500 years of world history. It began in the late 15th century, when the Portuguese started seizing ports in the Indian Ocean and Spain started colonizing the Caribbean. At the time, however, Europeans were still suffering under the imperialism of the Ottoman Turks, who seemed poised to extend their control across the entire continent.

Western imperialism held off the Turks, but suffered a temporary setback in the 18th and early 19th centuries as large parts of North and South America broke free from European rule (thought they remained dominated by European descendants). It reached its peak in the 19th century, when European and American adventurists achieved a level of dominance over Africa and Asia, powered by industry and motivated by a potent blend of global capitalism, nationalism, and a newfound sense of moral and cultural superiority. Imperialism suffered two more setbacks in the First and Second World Wars, after which most colonized people gained independence. However, the blame-imperialism crowd will speak today of neo-colonialism, by which they mean the continued exploitation of the Third World by western business interests, international organizations, and even humanitarian agencies.

Again, there is some measure of truth to this. When the U.S. and U.N. try to impose a population control agenda on developing countries, this is neo-colonialism. When the U.S. criticizes African countries for failing to conform to the LGBT or abortion agendas, this is cultural imperialism of a particularly noxious variety.

But once again, there are limits to this argument, especially when explaining the origins of global inequality.

Why does the West still dominate “the rest” on many indicators of wealth and health? Why have China, Japan, and Russia imported far more elements of western civilization than we have borrowed from theirs? The blame-imperialism crowd would have us believe that this global imbalance in wealth and power is the cumulative effect of five centuries of plunder, while defenders of the West credit superior institutions. It’s probably not all one or the other, but what is the right combination?

If one believes the West predominates because it stole from the non-West, then the solution is for the western nations to “give back” the wealth they unjustly stole through some form of reparations, as some Caribbean nations have suggested. At the very least, westerners should feel very guilty for their ill-gotten advantage and non-Westerners should seethe with resentment. However, if one believes the success of the West is due to its superior institutions of private property and intellectual property protections, human rights, the rule of law, and the democratic process, then the non-West should be encouraged to emulate the West, to “westernize.”

But there is a certain degree of arrogance among the blame-imperialism crowd. No matter how distant the injustice, the West is always to blame. “It has to be our fault for their problems!” they insist. As if African and Asian societies did not have their own problems before the first white men arrived with their treaties or guns.

The truth is, imperialism has a complicated legacy. Some members of indigenous societies actually benefited from European colonization. Just ask the Native Americans not subjected to human sacrifice, or the Indian women not forced to commit sati. Several sources from Indians themselves attest to both the benefits and drawbacks of their experience with British colonization. On a big-picture scale, imperialism resulted in the diffusion of modern science and technology to peoples eager to exploit them. India and China once fell victim to European capitalist expansion. Today, they use the global free market and many western innovations to increase the standards of living for their people.

In the history of humanity, one would be hard-pressed to find a group that has never suffered injustice, never been defeated in battle, never been encroached upon by territorial rivals. The fact that we are all alive today can be viewed as a sort of historical “privilege,” to use the popular buzzword. We all descend from the people who did not die before they could reproduce. But we likewise descend from a mixture of conquered and conquerors, invaders and invaded. The Peruvian mestiza may have a hard time determining whether to blame or praise their European ancestors on behalf of their Native American ones, as might the Brazilian mulatto. The Spanish conquistadors who subjugated the Americans likely carried the blood of Moorish invaders who once subjugated Iberia.

But the blame-imperialism crowd suffers from a pervasive double standard. Somehow, everything must be the fault of the lighter-shaded group, while darker-shaded people must remain blameless. In this paradigm, the Crusades were a terrible case of Europeans trying to take over lands that didn’t belong to them, but little is said of the Arab conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries that devastated the earliest Christian communities. Israel is loathed as an illegitimate state built on the theft of Palestinian land and culture, while the ancient claims of the Jews are dismissed. The Atlantic Slave Trade is rightly criticized, but the Muslim-dominated trade that predated and out-lived it is ignored.

A more complete and honest reading of history would acknowledge the challenges imposed by past imperialism without laying all the blame at the feet of long-dead colonizers. We should be able to acknowledge the damage the slave trade and imperialism did to Africa, while also examining the roles of indigenous slavery, lack of women’s rights, and cruel dictators like Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin. We can acknowledge that Sykes-Picot did little to help the Middle East, while also examining the problem of extremist violence within Islam.

By blaming the West for everything, we let off the hook many of those directly responsible for present-day atrocities. It is an odd reality that much of the rhetoric of extremist groups like ISIS is virtually indistinguishable from left-wing accounts of history. Young Muslim radicals in Europe gush over the film-making of Michael Moore, while left-wing intellectuals seem to argue that if non-Western groups hate us, we must have done something to deserve it.

It’s a cliché that “those who do not study the past are doomed to repeat it.” A less-acknowledged truth may be that those who draw the wrong lessons from the past are doomed to never move beyond it. If someone were to confess to an unhappy or even abusive childhood, we would not look at them and say “what a pity you will never get ahead.” Instead, we would encourage them to not let their past define them, to seek out new opportunities, and to accept personal responsibility for their future. The same should be the case for peoples with unhappy histories, as most histories at some point are.


What’s Really at Stake in the Bathroom Wars

On February 22nd, the city of Charlotte passed an ordinance allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice, regardless of biological sex. North Carolina’s state legislature responded on March 23rd by passing a law requiring individuals to use the restroom corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. Since then, our country has been engaged in a national debate over who should pee where. But the real debate is about much more than that, and the outcome matters more than one would think.

First, it’s not about stigmatizing transgender people, or making it easier for them to perform necessary biological functions throughout the course of their day. Yes, transgender people often struggle over the issue of which restroom to use, especially if they look like one sex but have the parts of another. But as many have noted, transgender people have been using the facility of their chosen gender for decades. It’s not like there’s a gender policeman stationed at each bathroom checking birth certificates.

Second, the debate is not primarily about sexual predators, though the safety and privacy of women and children is certainly at stake. Policies like the one recently announced by Target will make it easier for sexual predators to gain access to women and girls. Several men have already been caught trying to film women under the stall dividers. But bathrooms – both men’s and women’s – have always been places where predators could lurk, as they feature people at their most isolated and vulnerable. This is why girls pee in packs. This is why I don’t let my eight-year-old son use the men’s locker room without a male relative present.

The great bathroom debate, like the marriage debate, comes down to this – will our culture and our laws recognize the fundamental truth that men and women are different in important and immutable ways, and that this difference structures much of human society? Or will we abandon reason, tradition, and common sense in our attempt to deny the obvious and assert the opposite?

Claire Chretien recently made this argument in Lifesite News:

The battle over men accessing women’s bathrooms and vice versa has little do with bathrooms or even transgenderism, a well-known LGBT activist admitted last week.  It has everything to do with re-working society and getting rid of the “heterobinary structure” in which we live—eliminating distinctions between “male” and “female” altogether.

But these distinctions are not matters of opinion. People are born male or female. This is a scientific fact. Sex is binary. Men have XY chromosomes, male genitalia, and higher levels of testosterone. Women have XX chromosomes, female genitalia, and higher levels of estrogen.  There are very rare exceptions where an intersex person may not fit neatly into male or female categories, but these exceptions do not disprove the rule that sex is binary. Some people are born without arms, but this does not mean that arms are just an arbitrary thing that some people have and others don’t.

Your sex is assigned to you before birth, at the moment of conception. It cannot be changed. No amount of hormonal therapy or surgery can transform someone to the extent that they are indistinguishable from a person born as that sex. A man that seeks to become a woman will never bear a child. A woman that seeks to become a man will never impregnate anyone. The best that can be accomplished is a crude imitation, a farce.

During childhood, males and females must develop healthy gender identities as men and women. A biological male must figure out what it means to be a man, and a biological female must figure out what it means to be a woman. This is where “nurture” enters an equation that has previously been dominated by nature. Not all biological males like getting dirty, playing with trucks, or tackling other boys. But they must all accept their role as men so that they can become tomorrow’s fathers, uncles, and husbands. Not all biological females like playing with dolls, wearing dresses, or doing other “girly” things. But they must all accept their role as women so that they can become tomorrow’s mothers, aunts, and wives. Sexual difference is born out in numerous statistics, but where we mainly see it is in the disproportionate success of children raised by their biological mothers and fathers.

Long-term success and happiness can only be found in the truth, never in a lie. It may be initially liberating for a man to try out a new identity as a woman, or for a manly woman to quit trying to be feminine and just “be a man.” But statistics and personal testimonies show that transgender people are far more likely than just about any group to suffer from depression and to commit suicide. This heightened risk is not due to a lack of social acceptance. Even transgender people in liberal areas with tons of social support are more likely to take their own lives than a random “cis-gender” person.

Across numerous statistical measures, gender dysphoric disorder is more harmful to a person’s long-term health than alcoholism. What is the compassionate response to alcoholism? Obviously, it is not to accommodate the alcoholic by installing beer kegs in bathrooms and workplaces. A combination of counseling and support are required to help the alcoholic cease engaging in destructive behaviors and create a new identity as a non-alcoholic.

I have noticed an abundance of Facebook statuses seeming to extoll that person’s tolerance and compassion for transgender people by criticizing HB2 or voicing support for men being allowed in women’s restrooms. “I am happy to share a bathroom with a biological male who identifies as female,” many have suggested, “I would even hand her the toilet paper if she needed it.”

While the intentions of such posts may be noble, they do not consider the long-term consequences of promoting gender confusion. Many people today act like hurting someone’s feelings is the worst thing you can do to another person; thus all subjective beliefs must be validated by society as “real” lest some irreparable emotional damage occur. But what about the confusion this debate is causing children who are still in the delicate stage of developing a gender identity that fits their biological sex? What about the pain and frustration and regret that will be suffered by more boys who decide they are really girls, and more girls who decide they are really boys? As with so many other issues, we celebrate the short-term emotional satisfaction of supporting a certain policy with no regard to the long-term damage it will inevitably produce.

Gender is binary. Men and women are different. We complement each other in important ways. We are not just people, not just interchangeable individuals. We are men and women.

What happens to us when we deny this basic truth?

For starters, we forget what marriage is. We used to understand that marriage requires both sexes, a man and a woman. Sexual difference was essential to the definition of marriage. Now this understanding is gone. Marriage has been redefined as just another relationship, just two people who love each other and get sexual satisfaction from each other’s bodies (though not of the sort that creates and nourishes new life).

Now that marriage has been redefined, it is only a matter of time before it is legally destroyed. People in polygamous and incestuous relationships will demand that their love be recognized as marriage. Singles will defend their “rights” by demanding that all laws privileging people in relationships are discriminatory. People will soon tire of the endless controversies and debates that result when such a core truth is abandoned. Finally, both sides will embrace a “compromise” – get the state out of the marriage business altogether. Gone will be parental rights, gone will be the rights of children, and gone will be the legal recognition of the family unit, all in an attempt to be “tolerant” and “inclusive” of the small minority threatened by the traditional understanding of marriage.

The truth is, marriage has never been especially compatible with the homosexual lifestyle, especially for gay men, who have much higher rates of promiscuity than their heterosexual peers. Even “married” gay men are likely to have multiple sexual partners and agree to open relationships. Now that the male-female component of marriage is gone, the expectation of fidelity will not be far behind. Why should married straight men be expected to be faithful to their spouses when gay men are free to explore other options?

Numerous sources can be found from gay rights activists admitting that they seek to transform or just outright destroy marriage, not simply access it as they claimed. While the transgender movement claims it only wants to broaden the definition of what it means to be a man or a woman, the end game is to abolish these labels entirely. Chretien quotes Stella Morabito, an expert on cults and propaganda who writes for The Federalist:

“What we are really talking about is the abolition of sex. And it is sex that the trans project is serving to abolish legally, under the guise of something called ‘the gender binary.’  Its endgame is a society in which everyone is legally de-sexed.  No longer legally male or female.  And once you basically redefine humanity as sexless you end up with a de-humanized society in which there can be no legal ‘mother’ or ‘father’ or ‘son’ or ‘daughter’ or ‘husband’ or ‘wife’ without permission from the State.  Government documents are already erasing the terms.  In such a society, the most intimate human relationships take a hit. The family ends up abolished… A sexless society is ultimately a totalitarian society because it erases in law the most basic human relationships, particularly the mother-child bond.”

When most people support gay marriage or trans bathroom access, they don’t understand that they are really working toward the abolition of male and female identities; they just think they’re fighting for equal rights. But others know exactly where the train is headed. Just this morning, John Sutter published an opinion piece for CNN calling for a “restroom revolution.” He starts by highlighting the plight of James Sheffield, a transgender man, who looks far too manly to be allowed in a ladies restroom without causing alarm. Sutter writes:

But you know what else is absurd? The idea that Sheffield — or anyone else — should have to choose a male or female restroom at all. And, beyond that, that any of us would feel entitled to decide someone else’s gender for them — and, consequently, where they can and can’t pee.

This isn’t a binary gender world. People don’t fit neatly into the “M” and “F” boxes. It’s time our public restrooms reflected that. The fairest way to do so is to desegregate restrooms by sex, and that means eliminating the men’s and women’s rooms in favor of “all gender” restrooms.

According to Sutter, “the only justification” of refusing to let a biological female in a men’s restroom “is bigotry and ignorance.” Forget reason or common sense; gendered bathrooms are now “absurd.” Sutter notes that several buildings have already removed gender identification from restrooms. The restroom revolution is already underway; we just haven’t noticed it yet.

While the worst may be yet to come, there is hope for those who would like to see a return to reason in our culture. Writing in 1938, the great Catholic historian Hillaire Belloc noted the anti-rational nature of what he labeled the “Modern Attack” on the Faith:

Being Atheist, it is characteristic of the advancing wave that it repudiates the human reason. Such an attitude would seem again to be a contradiction in terms; for if you deny the value of human reason, if you say that we cannot through our reason arrive at any truth, then not even the affirmation so made can be true. Nothing can be true, and nothing is worth saying. But that great Modern Attack (which is more than a heresy) is indifferent to self-contradiction. It merely affirms. It advances like an animal, counting on strength alone.

The contemporary reader will find this description all too familiar. Recall PayPal’s hasty decision to pull out of the entire state of North Carolina over HB2. The message is clear: get in line– or else. After all, when one attempts to deny objective truth, one must get everyone else onboard. If the emperor is truly to parade around in no clothes, even the voice of a child may expose the whole charade. However, Belloc offers this glimmer of hope:

Indeed, it may be remarked in passing that this may well be the cause of its final defeat; for hitherto reason has always overcome its opponents; and man is the master of the beast through reason.

In the bathroom wars as in the marriage wars, our culture may yet return to its senses, triggering a change in our laws. Even better, the triumph of reason may yet inspire a return to the Faith, allowing our society to recover its moral center.