Hot Button Issues, No. 3: Western Civilization

It is surely one of life's more precious little ironies that the only time (thus far, at least) I have featured in an article over at the National Review was some ten years ago when I was being accused (by Stanley Kurtz, no less) of complicity in the "gutting" of our History of Western Civilization core sequence at the University of Chicago.  Glancing over the article now, I well remember my blood pressure going through the roof when I read how I had been the one caught out in lying about the purpose of our changing the title of the sequence from "Western" to "European" so that I and my colleagues could "teach to [our] personal [specialties]," particularly given that the only reason I was serving as chair of the sequence in the first place was because I believed in teaching the history of Western civilization, not just courses in my field. 

Because, you see, and on this I am rock-solid, I believe in Western civilization, and not just as a topic of research.  Gasp!  Horror!  But don't you know all of the evils perpetrated in the name of the West?  The Crusades?!  Colonialism?!  Slavery?!  The oppression of women?!  Yes, but I also know that the only reason that any of these things, along with almost every charge ever brought against the "West," are at all recognizable as "failures" is because we, the West, declared them such.   

The Crusades?  A war of Christian self-defense against Muslim (both Turkish and Arab) aggressors, for which Christians themselves criticized their warriors for going too far (but no further than their enemies typically did) in trying to protect their own.  I have yet to see an example of Islamic regret for the way that they treated the peoples they conquered in the preceding several hundred years or, indeed, subsequently.  (Can anyone say jihad?)   

Colonialism?  Only an evil if you read Joseph Conrad as the last word in Western self-criticism.  Note that even at the time, we Westerners considered Conrad a hero for pointing out the atrocities in the Congo Free State, and that once its administration was taken over from King Leopold, there were concerted (if, to be sure, not entirely successful) efforts by the Belgian government to curb the violence and exploitation.  Plus, India did rather well under the British.

Slavery?  It was Westerners, specifically English and American Westerners, who alone among the peoples of the world were the first to argue against slavery as a human institution.  Americans even went to war with ourselves to make this point.  We may* still be living with the legacy of slavery in our country, but--and take a moment to remember this--we are no longer living with slavery, not something that can be said about all other parts of the world even today.  (Thomas Sowell is excellent on this point; see "The Real History of Slavery" in his Black Rednecks and White Liberals.)

The oppression of women?  Give me a break.  Again, it is Westerners who have championed the ideal that women are the equals of men, so much so that we now take this claim to ridiculous extremes whenever any differences between the sexes threaten to rear their biological or psychological heads.  Westerners, specifically Judeo-Christian Westerners made axiomatic the belief that men and women were created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), and that women were spiritually, socially, legally, and politically worth just as much as men.  If economically, women still seem to be at a disadvantage,** consider that at least we can own and inherit property (and always have been able to, at least since the early Middle Ages in the West), count as witnesses in court, and defend ourselves against rapists without being stoned to death for promiscuity.  Plus wear our clothes and hair however we like.

Which leaves only our (that is, Westerners') reprehensible propensity to believe that the rest of the world's population should believe as we do, that individuals in a free society have a right to life, liberty, and property***; that religious belief should be a matter of conscience, not coercion; and that others who believe and worship differently should nevertheless have the same legal, political, social, and economic rights as those from whom they differ, except insofar as those beliefs infringe upon the liberties of their fellow human beings.  Terrible ideas, I agree, which must be why nobody else in the world came up with them before Westerners did.  (Sorry, I am having a hard time not being a bit snippy here, too.)  Yes, Westerners (at least, Westerners who have not succumbed to the siren calls of postmodern, postcolonial self-defeatism) believe that others in the world should share their values--because they are good ones and enable people to be free.  It is one thing to be good at toleration (I need to do a post on this as well, I think); it is wholly another to shoot ourselves in the foot rather than stand up for our ideals.****

*And this is a big may: Sowell and others have argued that what we are experiencing in our broken race relations now is in fact a legacy not of slavery, but the 1960s.  See Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals; and Ann Coulter, Mugged: Racial Demagoguery from the Seventies to Obama.
**And I am not, in fact, persuaded on this anymore either.  Again, Thomas Sowell has a good discussion of the purported gender gap in wages in his Economic Facts and Fallacies, chapter 3.
***I'm with Locke here rather than Jefferson.  Property rights matter.  If you have liberty, you can pursue all the happiness you like, but it is more difficult if you can't enjoy the fruits of your labor materially.
****In answer to Kurtz, the course that we teach at Chicago as "History of European Civilization" and were teaching under the older title "History of Western Civilization" was never actually a course on these ideals as such because so many of them depend on developments in the United States, which is the subject of a different sequence.  In EuroCiv, we also cover the French Revolution, communism, and fascism, most certainly not sources of what most "Westerners" consider their ideals--not, that is, unless they're liberals.  Ann Coulter has something to say about this in Demonic: How the Liberal Mob is Endangering America.


  1. Hear, hear! To quote Winston Churchill, "I refuse to remain impartial between the fire brigade and the fire." The fire brigade may be imperfect--indeed it may even chop your door down and do an great deal of damage as it goes about its business, but it is infinitely to be preferred over the fire.

    The only reason the children of Western civilization are aware of its imperfections with respect to individual rights is that Western civilization--alone, so far as I can tell, in all of human history--was able to form the concept of individual rights. While it may be capable of further perfection, it is clearly superior to any currently existing alternative.

  2. "Westerners, specifically Judeo-Christian Westerners made axiomatic the belief that men and women were created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), and that women were spiritually, socially, legally, and politically worth just as much as men."

    Which explains why Paul wrote that women should be silent in church, as well as the Anglo-American notion of coverture, in which married women essentially forfeited their property rights on marriage. As a medievalist, you must know that such "axiomatic" beliefs were countered by equally axiomatic beliefs on the other side. In the waning years of the 20th century I attended a marriage ceremony in which the minister said, with no irony whatsoever, that the bridegroom's duty was to listen to Christ, and the bride's duty was to listen to her husband, who would convey (with no distortion, naturally) what Christ intended.

    The egalitarian impulse in early Christianity has been noted for some time, but its playing out in history has taken a hell of a lot of effort. Claiming that "Western Civilization" gets the credit for gender equality is taking an immense shortcut. I wouldn't be surprised if ideologues did it, but I'm surprised that a serious historian would do it.

    As for the Crusades: really, how were the Seljuk Turks aggressors against the "Ferengi" who were the bulwark of the first Crusade? Even the Reconquista in Iberia was driven more by political than by religious concerns; a careful reading of the Cantar del mio Cid reveals that the trans-Pyrenean Franks were far more committed to the crusading mentality than the Christian Iberians. And don't forget the lesson of the Fourth Crusade: schismatic Christians are better victims than the infidel, if they happen to be richer. After all, they rejected papal supremacy, so they were scarcely better than the Turks.

    Personally, I believe that modern Europeans and European-Americans have constructed a pretty reasonable notion of human rights, democracy, and pluralism, and that our collective past, from Hellenic Greece to the present, has given us some decent material to do so, but that most of the people whose ideas we have used to build our world would be shocked at what we have done. (Think of Roman voting by census category, so the wealthier you were, the more your vote counted.) I consider that a badge of courage, not of shame. Recall Sebastian Castellio writing that executing a heretic was not suppressing an idea but, rather, killing a man. It has taken us a surprisingly long time to internalize Castellio's insight.

  3. The Seljuks were the aggressors at Mantzikert.

    I didn't say these ideals developed overnight, I said that Western cilvilization was their source.


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