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.

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Dear Western Civilization, Please Stop Hating Yourself

The challenges confronting America and the West are manifold and well-documented, but the biggest problem we face today is a crisis of confidence. Any problem is surmountable if you have the courage to look at it with clear eyes and act on principle. This is how we built the Hoover Dam, defeated the Nazis, secured civil rights for all races, and put a man on the Moon. But if you lack this resolve – if you are determined to blindfold yourself to the truth and wallow in apathy and self-doubt – then even the simplest task becomes nearly impossible. A gust of wind could blow you over, a pinprick result in paralysis.

This crisis of self-doubt is not confined to one country; rather it afflicts western civilization as a whole. According to Samuel Huntington, a civilization is the largest unit by which people can be divided. Beyond civilization, we all belong to the human race. Within civilization exist various nation-states and ethnic groups. Even within these states and groups, we divide further by party and ideology.

Historically, western civilization has rested on two pillars: Greco-Roman rationalism and Christianity. The first gave us the confidence to use reason to understand the world, thus freeing ourselves from superstition and fatalism. The embrace of reason led to the most advanced classical civilization in the world, and then the most powerful empire. It gave us democracy and the rule of law.

But it was not enough. For despite the technical, military, and legal prowess of both the Greeks and the Romans, such evils as infanticide and slavery were widespread. It took the dawn of Christianity to take the moral ideals first developed in Judaism and make them universal. Christianity offered protection to the weakest members of society – the disabled, the young, the ill – but it did even more than that. Christianity put forth the powerful and previously unimaginable idea that the poorest members of society were actually the most beloved by God. Women and slaves understandably flocked to this new creed. More surprising was the fact that even the powerful, who had the most to lose and least to gain, were also attracted to its teachings. The triumph of Christianity was near total in the West. Today it is the world’s most popular religion, while virtually no one still worships Jupiter or Zeus.

While some might have predicted a conflict between the Christian faith and Greco-Roman reason, the two were beautifully synthesized in the Middle Ages by such intellectual geniuses as Saint Thomas Aquinas. Classical scholarship and legal traditions endured, despite the fall of the Roman Empire and near-constant invasions from Muslims, Vikings, and other groups. Beginning in the Late Middle Ages, Europe became the birthplace of modern commerce, science, and industry. Europeans went from being relatively poor and insignificant vis-à-vis their Asian and Middle Eastern neighbors to dominating the globe by 1900, when 90% of the world was controlled by Europeans and their descendants. The twentieth century continued to see advances in technology and science, as diseases were cured and standards of living rose. But it also witnessed two destructive world wars, both originating in Europe, and the ascendancy of communism as a global threat to freedom.

Still, considering its many gifts to mankind, one would expect people in the West to be proud of their civilization’s accomplishments and eager to secure its blessings for their posterity. Instead, we see the opposite. Westerners are made to feel guilt and shame for the misdeeds and alleged shortcomings of their ancestors. Violence and greed – once understood to be flaws inherent in human nature – are now viewed by many as uniquely western, while non-western societies past and present are mythologized as utopian Edens.

European colonial powers certainly had their share of injustices. The Atlantic Slave Trade, the destruction of Native American tribes, and the use of forced labor in Africa were all inexcusable. But so was the indigenous slavery and warfare practiced by both Africans and Native Americans, by no means the “noble savages” of the romantic imagination. It has become routine every October to charge Christopher Columbus with crimes against humanity, but not Tlacaelel, the Aztec leader who sacrificed at least 4,000 and as many as 84,000 victims to dedicate a new temple.

The fact that someone is born into western civilization is no guarantee that each individual will accept or practice all of its values. Every human society has its share of deviants and criminals, as well as its heroes and saints. Consider the examples of King Leopold of Belgium and Bartolome de las Casas. The former was responsible for as many as 10 million deaths in the Congo, while the latter famously defended the human rights of Native Americans in Spanish colonies. Much less noted than the crimes of certain individuals and groups is the fact that the West was the first civilization to abolish slavery and give all people equal protection under the law.

But things are different now. We have lost ourselves. People who still champion the superiority of western values are accused of bigotry, racism, and intolerance (ironic for sure, as tolerance and equality are some of the western values its proponents seek to protect). Europe is told it must fling open its doors to millions of immigrants who do not share their values, some coming with the stated goal of replacing western civilization with Islam. Yet we would never demand that Saudi Arabia, China, or Pakistan open its doors to European immigrants (not that many westerners would want to live under sharia law or communism).

None of this makes any sense unless one understands the depths of western self-doubt and self-loathing, the roots of which are brilliantly traced in an article by Jonathan Pidluzny. The actions currently being taken or avoided by western governments appear suicidal to the outside observer. But suicide is the only rational outcome of irrational self-hatred.

Open borders and mass immigration are perhaps the clearest signs of disdain for the West by Western elites. Women in European countries are now being instructed to change the way they dress for fear of provoking harassment. Free speech is censored. Unspeakable crimes are brushed under the rug.

Where else do we see this self-hatred? First in our schools, where both world history and U.S. history curricula downplay western achievements while dwelling on their faults. This is not to suggest that we whitewash the past or replace serious inquiry with cultural propaganda, just that context is important. Yes, European colonial empires witnessed many abuses. So too did the United States, the first nation to break free from European control and the current leader of the West. But so did the Mongols, the Aztecs, the Mughals, and the Turks. These empires saw the slaughter of entire cities, the sacrifice of innocent victims to appease angry gods, and the terrible torture of rivals. Women in western civilization had to fight long and hard for equal rights. But women in Chinese, Indian, and Islamic civilization were considered little more than the property of their fathers and husbands. They are still undervalued and marginalized today.

We see this self-hatred in the climate change movement. Forget the fact that industrialization has lifted millions of people out of poverty and eradicated diseases that once decimated entire communities. Forget that western nations have done much in recent decades to reduce pollution and conserve the environment. We are made to feel irrationally guilty over our “carbon footprint.” We are offered different ways of atoning for our sins, few of them rational. We may purchase green products like electric cars that are in fact no better for the environment than traditional ones. We are told we must transfer billions of dollars from western taxpayers to corrupt governments in developing countries to help them mitigate the effects of climate change. It makes sense to blame the West for imperialism in the Philippines, but not a typhoon.

We see this self-hatred in the restrictions placed on our natural rights to speech and religion. We are not to criticize other cultures or religions, even when they explicitly call for violence against non-believers, apostates, and blasphemers. We are not to notice when people of other cultures commit crimes or propagate injustice. Instead, we are to search our speech for microaggressions and our subconscious for unrecognized biases. Even if we disavow racism and come from modest backgrounds, we are told to feel guilty over the “privilege” bestowed by our skin color.

We see this self-hatred in the fight against Islamic terrorism, the greatest external threat to freedom today. We are told by our leaders that if the terrorists hate us, we must have done something to deserve it. It is not the terrorists who are to blame, but rather our past foreign policy mistakes, our reluctance to open our borders, or our perverse attachment to the Bill of Rights. Or maybe it’s just an 800-year grudge over the Crusades. It couldn’t possibly be anything to do with Islam, and to suggest as much would be bigoted. Instead of killing the terrorists who wish us harm, we are told to shut up and disarm. Hillary Clinton blamed the murder of four Americans at Benghazi on an amateur YouTube video criticizing the prophet Muhammad (who, to anyone who has ever studied his life, certainly merits criticism). This blaming of the West for terrorist attacks on the West is tantamount to blaming a victim of domestic violence for provoking her attacker, or the rape victim for her short skirt. In fact, it seems impossible for critics of the West to find blame anywhere outside of the West.

We must understand the roots of this crisis if we are to have any hope of reversing it. Jonathan Pidluzny identifies five causes of western self-doubt and self-loathing: modern science, which made us doubt anything that could not be empirically demonstrated; romanticism, which elevated subjective feeling over objective reason, democratic egalitarianism, which led to excessive individualism and isolation from the body politic; democratic materialism, which transformed us into mundane pleasure-seekers; and the erosion of the liberal arts, which no longer satisfy man’s thirst for higher knowledge and meaning.

How can these forces be countered? How can the West regain its confidence? These are difficult questions, but there are certain things we should not do. We do not need to export our civilization to foreign lands through Iraq- and Afghanistan-style nation building. Clearly this does not work well. We do not need Donald Trump-style populism. One real danger of elite disdain for the West is that it pushes people to embrace just such demagoguery. We should also not forget the real contributions made by other civilizations, or dismiss their potential to contribute to our future advancement. Having confidence in ourselves does not mean putting others down, or forcing them to change.

Pidluzny hopes for a revival of the liberal arts as a starting point. I agree that such a movement is needed, though the recent reaction on college campuses against freedom of speech leaves me doubtful that it can be spearheaded by the university. Our culture needs nothing short of a modern renaissance, a rediscovery of the habits and values that made our civilization great. I know such revitalization is possible. The only question is, will we have to endure another Dark Age to reach it?