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.

Interpreting Obama’s History Lesson on the Crusades

President Obama recently made headlines with some off-the-cuff historical commentary at the National Prayer Breakfast. In discussing the challenge posed by terrorist groups like ISIS, Obama cautioned: “Lest we get on our high horse and think (violence in the name of faith) is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.”

The responses to this statement from both the Left and the Right were predictably divergent. Liberals considered the statement unremarkable. (Religion has often led to violence and extremism no matter which group wields it; who could object to such an obvious truth?) Conservatives, however (especially Christian ones) took offense to the comparison as both historically inaccurate and irrelevant to the present conflict: what could be gained by the President of the United States appearing to draw a moral equivalency between the obvious present evil of ISIS and the possible sins of a handful of Christians committed almost a thousand years ago?

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Of course, it is always useful to recognize that no one person or group of people has a monopoly on morality; I have never met a Christian who would argue otherwise. We know Jesus’ message of humility and forgiveness was more often directed at hypocrites like the Pharisees who went about proclaiming their good deeds, unlike the prostitutes and tax collectors who made no such pretensions. There is plenty of biblical and historical evidence that good and bad individuals (or if you prefer, behaviors) exist in all groups.

However, if this was Obama’s intended point, it failed for several reasons.

First, the Crusades were morally ambiguous. They provide neither a clear-cut case of Christian vice and Muslim virtue, or the reverse. The Crusades were also not a single event, but rather a series of rather disorganized and disparate military campaigns that occurred over a period of centuries. This makes them especially difficult to teach, and even more difficult to employ as straight-forward lessons in morality.

Contemporary historians have often failed to understand what motivated individual Crusaders. Many western Christians sacrificed their fortunes to go and do battle against the enemies of Christendom, believing wholeheartedly in the rightness of their cause and the promise of receiving indulgences for their sins. Though some have imagined them to be harbingers of 19th century European imperialism, the Crusades were not motivated primarily by economic and political greed dressed up in religious justifications.

Some Crusaders did commit atrocities, most notably the slaughter of Jews in the Rhineland Massacres. But according to Wikipedia:

The massacre of the Rhineland Jews by the People’s Crusade, and other associated persecutions, were condemned by the leaders and officials of the Catholic Church. The bishops of Mainz, Speyer, and Worms had attempted to protect the Jews of those towns within the walls of their own palaces, but the People’s Crusade broke in to slaughter them. Fifty years later when St. Bernard of Clairvaux was urging recruitment for the Second Crusade, he specifically criticized the attacks on Jews which occurred in the First Crusade.

The Fourth Crusade was the most infamous failure, as Latin Christians sacked, pillaged, and plundered the already-Christian Constantinople. The full story is a lot more complicated than that, but it is important to realize that there was no single leader, not even the pope, directing the actions of the Crusaders. In fact, they were so disorganized it is almost a miracle that they even arrived at their destination, much less established short-lived Christian kingdoms.

Adam Gopnik writes a thought-provoking article in the New Yorker about the nature of history, though I disagree with some of his conclusions. History simplifies, he observes, but “restoring complexity doesn’t always make things clearer.” Gopnik writes: “the forces in history are always multiple, complex, and contingent, much more so than the fables make it seem. The forces in any particular historical event are always almost infinitely divisible into smaller and often contradictory parts, with a lot of fuzzy cases and leg room.” The Crusades are a perfect example of this.

Second, historical context is especially important here. If one is determined to use the Crusades to illustrate some contemporary political point, one must first understand where they fit into the larger pattern of interaction between Christians and Muslims that has been unfolding for the past fourteen hundred years.

For over four centuries prior to Pope Urban II’s call, Christians had been fighting a series of defensive battles against Muslim expansion, and losing more often than not. Charles Martel did lead the French to victory at the Battle of Tours in 732, halting the Muslim advance into Europe, but only after all of Spain had been lost (Over 700 years would pass before it was reclaimed.). When the recently converted Seljuk Turks (and not the original Arab carriers of Islam, who had controlled the Holy Land for centuries) began threatening the safety of Middle Eastern Christians and the survival of what was left of the Byzantine Empire, this prompted Pope Urban II to call for Roman Christians to assist their brothers in the East, reclaim the Holy Land, and make the birthplace of the Christian faith safe once again for Christians. They failed on nearly all accounts.

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It is hard to see why a failed Christian campaign to retake their faith’s holiest sites could continue to anger present-day Muslims, as most Christians that I know have forgiven Muslim victories in the Middle East, Spain, the Balkans, and Anatolia, to the extent that they were even aware of them.

While Christians and Muslims have coexisted peacefully at several times in history (usually under Muslim rule, with Christians paying for the privilege), Islam has more often than not acted as the aggressor. Even after the threat of the Seljuk Turks abated (the ones who provoked the Crusades), the Ottoman Turks continued to threaten and enslave European Christians for centuries until a couple key defensive victories halted their advance, most notably at Vienna and Lepanto.

It is beyond the scope of this post to adequately expand on this point, but Islam and Christianity have very different beliefs and histories. Jesus never led men into battle or governed an empire, while Mohammad did both. Jesus famously instructed his followers to “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” while Mohammad established a caliphate with no distinction between religious and political authority. Early Christians were severely persecuted for their beliefs with many dying as martyrs for their faith, while Islam from its inception spread by the sword and attracted converts seeking political, social, and economic advancement. While Christianity developed within the cultural context of Judaism and the Roman Empire, Islam incorporated many of the pre-existing traditions of the Arab people. All this context matters if we are to really learn from the past. We can’t just cherry-pick isolated events, neglecting the bigger picture.

Third, when attempting to draw lessons from history, it is important to ask whether this is the right time to bring that back up. Is Past Event A really the right parallel for Current Situation B?

Imagine a married couple having a fight. A wife has just discovered that her husband is having an affair. He counters that yes, he has been cheating on her for years, but remember that time a decade ago when she forgot his birthday? The wife’s oversight might be true in the historical sense, but clearly not helpful at the present moment and no excuse for his greater misdeeds.

So is Obama the right person, the Prayer Breakfast the right place, and our current conflict with radical Islam the right occasion to bring up the sins of a relatively small number of Christians operating largely independently of any central control over 800 years ago? I would have to answer no on all accounts. In fact, that Obama did so shows a great lack of understanding of our present crisis.

Do we think ISIS cares about all the times in history that Muslims have murdered Christians and Jews, or even other Muslims? Of course not; they are too busy beheading all enemies of their radical totalitarian ideology.

Can we imagine FDR bringing up America’s past sins of slavery and broken treaties with Native Americans, just as he was trying to inspire Americans to fight the Japanese and Germans? Didn’t think so.

President Obama is the wrong messenger to get Christianity off its supposed “high horse,” just as Mitt Romney proved an ineffective messenger in championing the middle class. Here are just a few other statements from the president that provide the context by which Christians now judge his remarks.

Obama on Islam:

“The future must not belong to those who slander the Prophet of Islam.”

“Islam has always been part of America.”

“As a student of history, I know civilization’s debt to Islam.”

“Islam has a proud tradition of tolerance.”

Obama on Christianity:

“Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation.”

“We do not consider ourselves a Christian nation.”

The list goes on. After so many statements downplaying or criticizing Christianity, with so many others appearing to celebrate and excuse Islam, many Christians aren’t cutting him any more slack.

My fourth and final point about the failure of Obama’s Crusades comparison is this: bad historical analysis runs the risk of obscuring truth by promoting cynicism and moral relativism.

Gopnik claims:

We welcome complexity because it makes the moral points stand out more clearly against their background… The President’s point turned out to be not just exactly right but profoundly right: no group holds the historical moral high ground, and no one ever will. But this is not because a moral high ground doesn’t exist. It’s because we’re all still climbing.

Again, I would counter that while no group has an absolute monopoly on morality, there is such a thing as a historical moral high ground. No one is perfect, but this does not mean we are all the same.

During World War II, the United States was not perfect. We dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing tens of thousands of civilians, and humiliatingly interned in camps thousands of Japanese-Americans thought to be untrustworthy simply because of their race. Even as we fought dictatorship abroad, we denied African-Americans and women equal rights at home.

Did we still occupy the moral high ground? Absolutely. We were fighting an enemy in Japan that carried out the infamous Rape of Nanking and had imperial designs on all of Asia. In Nazi Germany, we fought an enemy that systematically killed eleven million innocent people, including six million Jews. After the war, instead of exacting revenge, we invested millions of dollars in rebuilding both countries to help the Japanese and German people whose soldiers had just claimed thousands of our own.

Despite all our mistakes during the Cold War, we most certainly occupied the moral high ground in our fight against the Soviet Union and its dehumanizing communist ideology. Only one side of this fight had to build walls to keep their people in.

Despite all our mistakes in the Middle East, we most certainly occupy the moral high ground in the current struggle against ISIS, which isn’t saying much, as they seem determined to discover ever deeper lows.

Yes, we are all “still climbing,” but some of us have come further than others, and it is important to recognize this. Societies that still condone female genital mutilation, pedophilia, torture, and draconian limitations on individual freedom have much further to go. We should assist them so far as we can, while resisting any and all attempts to erode the liberties we have fought so hard to secure.

Occasionally, calling to mind the sins of our ancestors provides a valuable inoculation against self-righteousness, as well as hope for those who would like to make similar social and political progress. But sometimes it does nothing more than provide our enemies with ammunition to use against us. It creates ambiguity and doubt, when what we really need are moral clarity and resolve.

Finally, some parting thoughts on recent events:

Even as I wrote this post, two things have happened that tragically serve to illustrate some of my points. First, ISIS beheaded 21 Egyptian Christians. In the official Obama administration statement, these brave martyrs were identified merely as “citizens.” The fact that they were Christians who died for their faith was not mentioned.

Second, more information has come out about the man who killed three Muslim young people in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. While many in the media were eager for a story featuring a Christian extremist as the bad guy and clamoring for a hate crime investigation, the killer has been identified as a militant liberal atheist. This counters the pervasive fallacy that religion is the primary cause of violence both past and present, one that will require a separate blog post to refute.

How Much Can We Really Learn from History?

“Why do we bother to study the past?”

Like many other teachers, I sometimes begin the new school year by putting this question to my eager young pupils. It could be considered The Great Challenge of All History Teachers Everywhere—getting kids to see the relevance of something that happened a thousand years ago, when they (like most of us) are much more focused on what happened fifteen minutes ago. To make things more difficult, fifteen years is all most of them have in the way of life experience. It’s a small window of context.

Most students dutifully respond with some version of the old cliché that “We study the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them again in the future.”

For me, this answer does nothing to elicit the little bubbles of history teacher joy that some might expect. On the contrary, it often shows just how far we have to go.

This is not because I necessarily share Hegel’s pessimistic counter that the only thing “we learn from history (is) that we do not learn from history.” The problem is, different people draw different lessons from the past. The Great Depression is often cited as proof both that government intervention in the economy works, and that it doesn’t. In more recent history, some claim Obama’s economic policies helped to avert a second Great Depression, while others counter that they needlessly prolonged the Great Recession and continue to hinder robust economic growth. Who knows which view historians will ultimately choose.

Even when we attempt to avoid the mistakes of the past, we often focus on the last mistake and not the ones that precipitated it. The satirical magazine The Onion succeeds brilliantly in illustrating just how short-term our memories are in this hilarious article, entitled: “Obama Assures Americans that This Will Not Be Another 1456 Siege of Belgrade.” Enjoy the following delicious morsels:

“I can promise you this: My administration and I will not repeat the mistakes of Sultan Mehmed II,” Obama continued. “Believe me, we have all learned the lessons from the campaign to subjugate the Kingdom of Hungary following the fall of Constantinople.”

“When I heard we were getting involved in Syria, right away I thought, ‘Well, here we go, it’s 1456 Belgrade all over again,’” said Seattle resident Matt Haggerty, 42, who, like millions of Americans, says he “in no way supports the idea” of getting entangled in any military campaign even remotely similar to the Ottoman invasion of the Catholic Balkans. “Look, we all know what happened in Belgrade: Mehmed II thought he had everything under control, but Hungarian nobleman John Hunyadi organized a peasant army of roughly 50,000 soldiers and relied on the strength of the city’s castle to breach the Ottoman’s formidable naval blockade, which prevented any further imperial advances into Europe for roughly 70 years. And frankly, like most of my friends and neighbors, I see very little separating what we’re about to do in Syria and what the Anatolian corps did during their all-out assault on the Belgrade fortress from the Danube River. ”

For more serious evidence of the limits of learning from history, look no further than the World Wars. Hitler “studied” the causes of German failure in World War I and arrived at conclusions so disastrously flawed that they resulted in an even more destructive war. World War I provides a cautionary tale against rushing into war; World War II against appeasing aggressors. If we really learned from the lessons of the past, World War I would have remained “The War to End All Wars,” instead of just the first act in a blood-drenched century featuring total warfare and genocide.

A basic understanding of human nature assures us that greed, mistrust, and pride are not going extinct anytime soon; thus, neither is war or the immeasurable human suffering it causes. Those who predict that a better understanding of history will lead to its end are fooling themselves.

I think a better answer to the question of “Why study history?” is that the past is capable of providing a broader context in which to better understand our own lives. Most of us will walk the earth for at most a hundred years, while mankind has been around for perhaps 100,000. Many of the challenges of our times are not unique, but paralleled at various points in history. While we may not succeed in avoiding the same mistakes as our ancestors, we can still learn from them, but only if we are very careful.

Whenever history is called upon to settle present debates, it is important to remember that the people of the past were real people just like us, with all their desires and fears, shortcomings and virtues. We too often resurrect their ghosts just to be used as mouthpieces for the advancement of our own agendas.

Mark Twain insightfully observed that there are only three types of lies: “lies, damned lies, and statistics.” This quote illustrates that sometimes stating a supposed “fact” can often obscure a larger truth. It is just this sort of danger in which amateur historians (which includes most politicians and commentators) can find themselves.

We need real historians to correct our narrow misconceptions and short-sightedness. Even then, we can never fully escape the limits of our own time and perspective, not that this invalidates the effort. If I didn’t believe in the many benefits of a responsible study of the past, I would have chosen a different line of work.

In my next post on the topic of the usefulness of history, I will discuss what this means in light of President Obama’s recent comments about the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast.