The Unbearable Whiteness of the West

Enough dancing around, let's just say it.

It is one thing to say that the peoples who inhabit the westernmost parts of the Eurasian continent--the majority of whom during recorded human history happened to be white or at least what we would now call "white" (although they didn't think of themselves that way until more recently)--have had a disproportionate effect over the past five hundred or so years (give or take a couple of centuries) on the development of the world as we now know it.

It is wholly another thing to say that they have had this effect because they were white.

The former is a statement of historical reality: the world would not look the way it does now--our cities, our industries, our clothing, our populations, our governments, our health care, our technologies, our educational institutions, our transportation systems, our communications, our food--if not for the effects of what economic historian Dierdre McCloskey has called the Great Fact, that somehow, since the eighteenth century, the average human being has gone from living on the historically previous standard of $1-$3 a day to the present astonishing $30-$137 a day in constant dollars, thanks to changes that took place starting in certain countries on the westernmost borders of Europe, most particularly the Low Countries and Great Britain, and from there spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world (a.k.a. the Industrial Revolution, although it involved more than just industry).

The latter is a pernicious and indefensible argument developed after the fact by certain descendants of these "Westerners" to explain an historical phenomenon that we, some of us their descendants, still can't explain, although Professor McCloskey (née Donald) is doing her darndest to try. (The third volume in her attempt is coming out this spring. She has posted a summary preview here. Highly recommended!)

The irony, particularly for those of us who study the centuries of European history before the Great Fact, is that nobody saw it coming.

As my professor of Byzantine history in graduate school used to love to tell us, medieval Europe was a backwater, a dump, the dregs of what was left after the Roman Empire moved east and all the legions left. European Christians (contrary to what our politicians now like to say about the crusades) spent over a millennium in the shadow of dar al-Islam, always conscious of themselves as backward in scientific knowledge (thus the great translation projects sponsored out of Italy and Spain), lacking access to the greatest markets (thus the jealously guarded maritime empires of the Venetians and Genoese), incapable even of following their own Lord's commandments as faithfully as they should (thus all the sermons about how to prepare for the crusades by first doing penance--the crusaders more often than not expected to lose if they didn't shape up, and indeed more often than not, they lost).

Perhaps therefore unsurprisingly, medieval Christians regularly imagined themselves being chastised by Muslims for their failures of faith. As the fourteenth-century English traveller (or pretended traveller) John Mandeville recounted in a conversation he had (or pretended to have) with the Sultan of Egypt "in his personal quarters," the Sultan had said to him: "For indeed we know truly that when you serve God well and he wants to help you no one can counter you, and so we know well through our prophecies that Christians will win back this land when they serve their God more devoutly. But as long as they are of such a foul life as they are right now, we have no fear of them whatsoever, for their God will not help them at all." About which critique Mandeville commented to the reader: "It is no wonder that they call us wicked, for they speak the truth. But Saracens are good, faithful, for they entirely keep the command of their holy book Alkoran that God sent them by His holy messenger their prophet Machomet, to whom they say Saint Gabriel the angel often spoke, and explained to him the divine will."*

As the great Belgian historian Henri Pirenne famously remarked, "Without Islam, the Frankish Empire would probably never have existed, and Charlemagne, without Muhammad, would be inconceivable." By 1453, even Byzantium was no more, as the Christian city of Constantinople fell to its Sunni Turkish conquerors and the Ottoman empire gained control of the seas. The whole history of early modern Europe might be told as a footnote to this Ottoman expansion. Every major European power was affected by it, as the king of France made an alliance with the sultan against the German emperor, and the pope found himself unable for almost a decade even to convene a council to deal with the heretics (a.k.a. Protestants) thanks to the turmoils surrounding the wars with the Turks. Arguably, without Suleiman the Magnificent, the Tudor monarchy would never have existed, or at the very least, Henry VIII would have had rather more difficulty breaking with the pope. Certainly, conflicts in the Low Countries might have gone rather differently if not for the wars that the Hapsburgs were fighting along the Austrian frontier against the Ottomans.**

If you had asked anybody at the turn of the eighteenth century who the greatest power would be in the next millennium, they most likely would have answered--with Lady Mary Wortley Montague (who visited Istanbul with her husband in 1717-1718 and, in the long tradition of English travelers, was much taken with the magnificence of the Ottoman court)--hands down, the Ottomans.*** (In McCloskey's words: "In 1400 or even in 1600 a canny observer would have bet on an industrial revolution and a great enrichment--if she could have imagined such freakish events--in technologically advanced China, or in the vigorous Ottoman Empire. Not in backward, quarrelsome Europe.") And then out of the blue, following the unification of England and Scotland into the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1707, there came the Scots. Okay, not just the Scots. The English and Dutch also had something to do with it. (McCloskey would say, almost everything to do with it. ) But mainly, as Arthur Herman has shown, the Scots. My father always used to say that the Scots Presbyterians invented democracy. According to Herman, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It (New York: MJF, 2001), it turns out my father was right--they did! [Work with me here. OF COURSE it was more complicated than just, "The Scots!" The weak version of the argument I am trying to make is, we need to pay more attention to the Scots, they were more influential than you might think. But clearly Herman's publishers did not think "Some Scottish Contributions to the Industrial Revolution" would be a snappy enough title to get book buyers to pick up the book. --FB]

And not just democracy. As Herman tells it, the Scots invented modern schooling (the School Act of 1696), modern economics (Adam Smith), modern anthropology, ethnography, sociology, psychology, and history (Francis Hutcheson, Lord Kames, Adam Smith, David Hume, William Robertson, Adam Ferguson, John Millar, Thomas Reid), modern architecture (Robert and John Adam), and modern town planning (James Craig), not to mention the modern understanding of the importance of the relationship between technical expertise, the liberal arts, and economic growth (John Foulis). Scots were instrumental in the development of the American colonies, likewise of the Second British Empire. Scottish Highland regiments made up the backbone of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British Army, and Scots led the reforms in Parliament that culminated in the expansion of the franchise to members of the working class. Scots were leaders in the industrial revolution (James Watt), in the development of modern medicine (the Gregorys at Glasgow and the Munros at Edinburgh), and in modern systems of transport and communication (John McAdam, Thomas Telford). According to Herman, it was a Scot who "created the idea of the British Empire" (Charles Pasley), it was a Scot who argued for the active development of India as a modern, "civilized" society (James Mill), and it was a Scot who argued forcibly against the Hindu practice of suttee, with the famous argument: "My nation also has a custom. When men burn women alive, we hang them. Let us all act according to national custom" (Charles Napier). It was Americans of Scottish descent who invented the telephone and telegraph.

I know what you're thinking: those Scots must have been pretty full of themselves, right? Actually, no, which is one of the things that has made me even prouder to learn more about my Scots Irish ancestors this past year. Because, you see, unlike the English, who had had centuries and centuries to become civilized town dwellers, the Scots were relatively new on the urban scene. Indeed, as Walter Scott's novels famously illustrated, they could remember not so very long ago when their ancestors--actually grandfathers--had still been (in their words) "savages," as rude in manners and institutions as "our good allies" the Mohawks and the Iroquois. For Adam Ferguson, the Native Americans were, like the ancient Greeks, heroic warriors like the Highlanders with whom he had served in the Black Watch, manly and honorable, willing to fight for their independence. A quarter of a million of these "savage" Scots Irish immigrated to the British colonies over the course of the eighteenth century, settling in the backcountry beyond the more "civilized" coasts (the divisions in our country persist to this day), where they intermarried as often as they fought with the Americans (as the English and Dutch called the Indians) already living there. Like the Scots who stayed in Scotland but called themselves "North Britons," the Scots Irish who settled in what we now call Appalachia cast off their ethnicity to become, as Colin Woodard notes in American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin, 2011), p. 8, "American."****

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is the way in which the Scots' desire, fostered by their own experience with privation and savagery, to carry the benefits of "civil society" (as Ferguson termed it) to the peoples of the world, has become in the twenty-first century evidence for their vicious intent: to eradicate the customs of the peoples whom they hoped to "civilize" (like suttee) solely in order to assert their own "whiteness." Would you be surprised by this point to learn that the mother of Rudyard Kipling (a.k.a. he of "The White Man's Burden") was a Scot, née Alice MacDonald, herself the daughter of the Methodist minister George Brown MacDonald, or that the Donald clan was one of the great losers in the civil wars that wracked Scotland in the eighteenth century? Kipling was born in Bombay, far from the Highlands of his mother's people, but he, like the Scots who had settled elsewhere in the Empire, carried with him the vision that Smith and Ferguson had articulated: of society defined not by class or race, but by the division of labor by which, as Ferguson put it, "the sources of wealth are laid open." It is irony indeed that this vision of the world in which the benefits of civilization become available to all should now be considered a cause for hate.*****

To be continued...

*The Book of John Mandeville, with Related Texts, ed. and trans. Iain Macleod Higgins (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011), pp. 86-87. Columbus had a much marked copy of this book.
**I have no idea whether anyone has written this version of the story. References would be most welcome! Email
***So there was that embarrassing defeat at Vienna on September 11, 1683, but the Ottoman Empire was at this point at its greatest extent (see map).
****Cf. Jim Webb, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (New York: Broadway Books, 2004), p. 13: "The story of the Scots-Irish has been lost in the common understanding for a variety of reasons. First, due to their individuality and the timing of their migration--roughly the first seventy years of the 1700s--the Scots-Irish never really desired to define themselves by their ethnic identity [but they thing that they knew they were not was "English"--FB]. In their rush to become Americans, the 'hyphens' didn't matter, except in the telling of family histories in the front-porch chronicles that persisted into my own [Webb's] generation. Indeed, although they were the dominant culture of these regions [above all, the backcountry], they were not ethnically exclusive and often intermarried with those who accepted the mores of their communities. A good example of how this phenomenon has affected self-identification is that fully 38 percent of the city of Middlesborough, Kentucky (in the heart of Scots-Irish America), listed their ethnicity on the 2000 census simply as 'native American,' compared to 7 percent nationwide. America's 'ethnocentric retreat' of the last few decades caught this culture unaware and by surprise." On the Scots-Irish intermarriages and wars with the Native Americans, see Woodard, American Nations, p. 106.
*****Oh, right, and if you're wondering, Enlightened Scots like Lord Kames and Robertson explicitly rejected the idea that race had anything to do with what made a society "civilized." In Herman's words (pp. 103-4): "Enlightened Scots had no difficulty in thinking of China or Persia as 'civilized' or even 'commercial' societies, just as they understood primitiveness and savagery to be prominent aspects of their own white European past--or, in the case of the Highlands, in their own backyard. It immunized the Scottish historical imagination against attempts to make race determine culture. Nurture, not nature, explained human behavior and institutions. Kames himself dismissed the idea that Africans and blacks were inherently inferior to whites. Who can say, he wondered, what kind of society they might produce, if they had the occasion to exercise their powers of freedom, as European whites had? Kames and Robertson may have been willing to make 'value judgments' about other societies and peoples, but they did it without concerning themselves with skin color. The fundamental issue for them was not race but human liberty." The proof came in 1777, when the Court of Session ruled in favor of Joseph Knight, an African-born slave who had been brought from Jamaica to Scotland in 1769. The court ruled that the law of Jamaica, under which Knight had been sold, did not apply in Scotland, and set the precedent for all such laws being declared invalid by free countries.******

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