The Civilization That Soared and Enlivened the World
I like Western Civilization. No, actually I revere it. I think it represents one of the great chapters in human history and a gift not just to the peoples of the West but to many others throughout the world. I know I’m not supposed to feel this way. I know I’m expected to join the queue and embrace the idea of Western history as a sordid tale of white male oppression and the exploitation of other peoples. I know I should applaud when yet another university abandons the teaching of Western heritage in favor of a curriculum that marginalizes and belittles it.
At the same time I don’t think Western culture is universal. In fact, I think the concept of the universalization of Western values is not only wrong but pernicious—and in some manifestations a form of liberal racism. After all, how can you respect the peoples of other civilizations if you assert that they are essentially benighted wretches who need to abandon their own cultural sensibilities and impulses in favor of far superior Western ones?
I know I’m supposed to embrace the view of liberals who deny any serious Western essence beyond a simple commitment to “freedom” and democracy, which they consider not really Western values at all but universal ones.
I know I should think back with warmth and appreciation on the Reverend Jesse Jackson leading chants at Stanford in the 1980s that went: “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go.” But in fact—I can’t help it—I look on that with scorn. The aim was to get the university to abandon its commitment to teaching Western history and culture, and it worked. The standard Western Civilization course was discontinued. Thus did Jackson and those protesters set in motion an ongoing assault on the Western tradition, now rampant on campuses across the nation and manifest in the popular culture.
Novelist Saul Bellow took a dim view of that Stanford revolt. He had not encountered, he wrote, “the Tolstoy of the Zulus, the Proust of the Papuans.” This was considered outrageous. Reported the New York Times, “His remark provoked the ire of some professors, who charged him with insensitivity to the feelings of non-whites.” I just don’t get that. Why should Bellow concern himself with those feelings when the civilization of his heritage is under attack and nobody evinces even the slightest concern about his own feelings?
I also don’t understand why so many liberals go bonkers at the mere mention of Western civilization or the Western heritage. When Donald Trump in his Warsaw speech last year referred repeatedly to “the West” and “our civilization,” he was castigated by two writers for The Atlantic, Peter Beinart and James Fallows, who found it “shocking” that an American president would connect his country’s values to the civilization of its heritage.
I wrote about that controversy at the time, but it’s worth noting again that it’s actually the Beinart-Fallows outlook that is shocking, in that Trump’s nod to his heritage reflected conventional thinking throughout the West for centuries right up until quite recently, whereas the denial of heritage is a late phenomenon—and one that is quite rare in the history of civilizations.
What is the West? Its fundamental elements include the theology of Christianity, an artistic expression that reflects an instinctive cultural restlessness, and an intrinsic regard for the individual, freedom, relatively unfettered enterprise, and carefully crafted government designed to preserve these important human imperatives. The West’s artistic expression, distinctive from that of all other civilizations, pushes always outward against the confines of nature. It wasn’t by accident that the West invented the architectural flying buttress, making possible the Gothic cathedrals that soar into the sky. In painting, Western man employed light and shadow to burst through space and time, bringing dimension to the canvas and making the background a symbol of the infinite. And just when Dutch Baroque painting was reaching its fullest flowering with Rembrandt and his contemporaries, the West’s cultural momentum was picked up by the soaring new expression of Baroque music, reflected so powerfully in the cantatas and fugues of Bach.
In literature, the West developed a penetrating “biographical” approach, dealing with the entirety of a life, as opposed to the Greeks’ “anecdotal” approach, which concentrated on a single moment. This gave added dimension to the Western concept of tragedy, as seen so starkly in Shakespeare’s Othello and Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge. Western artistic expression probed deeply into the psychology of life and ultimately found its way to a preoccupation with the individual and with the fundamental concepts of contrition and personal absolution. These reinforced the West’s development of civic arrangements meant to protect citizens’ freedom of conscience from arbitrary government.
Western science similarly pushed outward through a preoccupation with the horizon and eventually outer space. The West moved beyond the confining Euclidian geometry of Classical times and developed the soaring mathematical constructions of calculus and physics, eventually quantum physics. The invention of the telescope, manned flight, the push to the moon—all were distinctly Western developments. Nearly all the major inventions of the past two centuries were Western—power generated by steam, electricity, internal combustion, and nuclear fission; telegraphy; the cinema and television; rocketry; the computer and the Internet.
And various forms of weaponry. With the discovery of the New World (by a Western adventurer in 1492), the West’s expansionist impulse soared to ever higher levels. The modern world is generally pegged by historians as beginning in 1500, which is also the beginning of the West’s push for global dominance. As the late Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington once wrote, “The West won the world not by the superiority of its ideas or values or religion (to which few members of other civilizations were converted) but rather by its superiority in applying organized violence. Westerners often forget this fact; non-Westerners never do.”
The West’s impulse towards pushing out into new realms led to the Age of Discovery, the period of conquest, colonial overlordship, and eventually the era of Western global dominance. And yes, that system was unquestionably exploitative and often abusive, characterized frequently by cultural insensitivity and attitudes of superiority. People were crushed by the West’s relentless expansionism and push to dominate. Further, the West’s devotion to individualism, giving rise to concepts of representative government, began as a narrowly defined commitment. It was expanded to more and more people only over time and after hard struggles by the excluded to get their rights recognized and honored.
About this dark underside of the Western story, a number of points merit expression. First, it is altogether appropriate and proper that this part of the story should be told, that the human costs attending the West’s rise should be recognized and discussed. But second, this is not a distinctly Western phenomenon. Welcome to History 101, which teaches that the story of mankind is not of exploited good guys and abusive bad guys. It is of civilizations struggling for cultural expression and fulfillment against forces and pressures from others who would thwart them. And exploitation and abuse are persistent staples of the story, along with the idealism, human striving, and civic success also sprinkled through the story of humankind. This mix can be seen in all the civilizations and societies of world history.
Third, much of this assault on the Western heritage is really a political maneuver to favor the so-called victim class (anyone whose ancestors suffered at the hands of the West) against the so-called privileged class (those whose ancestors imposed the suffering). It’s a brilliant ploy, and it’s working in many quarters, particularly on college campuses. But it has little to do with any reasoned interpretation of history.
So I’m just not going to join the effort to undermine our civilization’s cultural identity from within. The West has my respect and devotion. I don’t care what anybody says.
Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is editor of The American Conservative. His latest book is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.