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A Euro-African West?

It’s no secret how much I admire the work that Ross Douthat is doing at The New York Times, and one reason is that, more than most columnists, he’s willing and able to write things that you have to chew on for a bit before you quite get them. His recent column about Africa and the West [1] is one of those. It’s worth reading in full, but here’s the setup:

[T]he years of decolonization that followed World War II, are the subject of a book [2] by the anthropologist and historian Gary Wilder, “Freedom Time: Negritude, Decolonization and the Future of the World.” Wilder follows two black intellectuals and politicians, Aimé Césaire of Martinique and Léopold Sédar Senghor of Senegal, who shared a striking combination of anti-imperialist zeal and desire for continued political union with the French Republic.

Césaire’s tiny Martinique did indeed become a French département. But in Senegal and Africa and the once-colonized world writ large, their project never had a chance. Once the age of empire ended, political separation became inevitable.

Yet against critics who deemed both men sellouts and self-haters for desiring to remain in some sense French, Wilder argues that their vision was complex and potentially prophetic.

They were Western-educated Francophones who read deeply in the European canon, who believed in the “miracle of Greek civilization,” who drew on Plato and Virgil and Pascal and Goethe. At the same time, they argued for their own race’s civilizational genius, for a negritude that turned a derogatory label into a celebration of African cultural distinctiveness.

And finally they believed that part of the West’s tradition, the universalist ideals they associated with French republicanism and Marxism, could be used to create a political canopy — a transnational union — beneath which humanity could be (to quote Césaire) “more than ever united and diverse, multiple and harmonious.”

This vision was rejected by both the colonized and the colonizers. But in certain ways it was revived by global elites after the Cold War’s end, with neoliberalism substituted for Marxism, and a different set of transnational projects — the European Union, the Pax Americana — taking the place of the pan-ethnic, multicultural French Union envisioned by Césaire and Senghor.

Of late, though, this project has run into some of the same difficulties that made theirs an impossibility. The cultural reality that Césaire and Senghor grasped — that civilizational difference is real and powerful and lasting — has a way of undoing the political unity for which they fondly hoped.

But, after a detour into descriptions of our burgeoning populist-nationalist moment, Douthat winds up in an interesting place:

[The] nationalist argument comes in racist forms, but it need not be the white nationalism that Trump’s liberal critics [3] read into his speech. It can just be a species of conservatism, which prefers to conduct cultural exchange carefully and forge new societies slowly, lest stability suffer, memory fail and important things be lost.

As such, it’s a view I endorse. But in the European case I don’t necessarily believe that it will prevail. I certainly don’t believe in Trump as its paladin — not when his entire career makes a mockery of faith, family, tradition, virtue. Nor do I have much confidence that the present burst of European nationalism is more than a spasm, a reflex — not when religious practice is so weak, patriotism so attenuated, the continent’s birthrate so staggeringly low.

What’s more, I can read the population projections [4] for Europe versus the Middle East and Africa, which make ideas like “managed migration” and “careful cultural exchange” seem like pretty conceits that 21st-century realities will eventually explode [5].

Which brings me back to Césaire and Senghor, men who loved their African heritage and yet also knew European civilization better than most educated Europeans do today. Their fantasy of a post-imperial union between north and south, white and black, was in their times just that.

But as a striking sort of African-European hybrid, as prophets of a world where the colonized and the colonizers had no choice but to find a way to live together, the West’s future may belong to them in some altogether unexpected way.

That feels not so much like an ending as a beginning, and I hope Douthat returns to it. Because ultimately, what he’s talking about isn’t a question of political structures but of cultural self-conceptions. The thing about the West is that it’s an exceptionally malleable concept. But it’s not infinitely malleable. A civilization — like China’s, say — with a long history of its own, an acute consciousness of its own distinctiveness, and the power to maintain that distinctiveness is not ever going to think of itself as Western. So the effort to recast Western civilization as simply “civilization” or “liberalism” or even “modernity” undermines our relationship with our own heritage without truly embracing a universal humanity.

But it’s not obvious to me that all of that applies equally well to Africa and its relationship with the West, for a host of historical and cultural reasons. Which is the subject of my latest column at The Week [6]:

President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron could have talked about any number of topics over dinner last night [7]. In many ways, they are perfect complements to one another, each grasping opposite ends of the same stick. Both leaders took unlikely and previously-untrodden paths to their respective countries’ highest office, and they have a shared Napoleonic appreciation for the role of spectacle and performance in the establishment of authority.

They’ve both also recently made provocative comments about “civilization.” I doubt they talked about it over dinner last night, but I hope they did. Because this is another area where the two leaders have grasped the same stick from opposite ends.

Trump’s Warsaw speech proclaimed the urgent need to defend Western civilization from threats from the “south” and “east” — but most especially from within, from a lack of will to defend it and pass it on. Critics from the left [8] expressed alarm, as if any defense of specifically Western civilization was necessarily a variety of white supremacy [9]; critics from the right objected that the problem was not so much the message as the messenger [10]. But regardless, the question was put on the table: Is there such a thing as Western civilization. If so, does it need defending? And of what would that defense consist?

Macron, meanwhile, got into trouble [11] talking not about the West but about another civilization. Asked by a reporter from Côte d’Ivoire about the prospect of a Marshall Plan for Africa, Macron said that the Marshall Plan was a bad model because Europe already had stable structures and just needed to be rebuilt, while Africa [12]?

The challenge of Africa, it is totally different, it is much deeper, it is civilizational, today. What are the problems in Africa? Failed states, complex democratic transitions, demographic transition, which is one of the main challenges facing Africa, it is then the roads of multiple trafficking which also require answers in terms of security and regional coordination, trafficking drugs, arms trafficking, human trafficking, trafficking in cultural property and violent fundamentalism, Islamist terrorism, all this today mixed up, creates difficulties in Africa. At the same time, we have countries that are tremendously successful, with an extraordinary growth rate that makes people say that Africa is a land of opportunity. [Macron [12]]

Macron went on to talk about high birth rates as another source of instability, all leading to a conclusion that a simple cash transfer would be ineffective without first tackling these pervasive social, political, and governance problems.

Of course, the Marshall Plan itself did much more than transfer cash; it tackled important social, political, and governance problems too [13]. But leave that aside, and the question remained: Could Africa’s problems be plausibly described as “civilizational?” Or is it problematic to even talk of “African civilization” as opposed to distinguishing between the many, highly distinct countries and cultures on the continent of Africa?

One might say that both men spoke out of a history of Western fear and disdain for non-Western peoples. But I see something different, much more interesting and, in a way, more hopeful.

The rest of the column goes rather far out on a limb. I wonder on some level whether it isn’t informed by a kind of nostalgia for the time when the most important country in the West was led by an African. But: read the whole thing there and let me know if you think I went too far, and came crashing to the ground.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "A Euro-African West?"

#1 Comment By collin On July 14, 2017 @ 10:32 am

In my mind, I don’t understand why the US is so interested in the Europe/Africa Immigration issue unless it is a projecting our opinions about Europe/Africa for true opinions on US/Mexico&Latin America concerns. (I think Ross is doing this a little bit here.) And since illegal alien issue has been significant since WW2 when the WW2 labor shortage increased a lot of foreign seasonal agricultural picking jobs, our nation seems to be ahead of the curve in many ways. (Look it up it is not new reality here and Ronald Reagan spoke of it often as Governor & President.) Additionally, Africa is much better shape than 30 – 40 years and I would suggest China has been more successful in their investments than Europe/USA so I think African “Marshall Plan” is not the right direction

Living in California, I can say:
1) Immigration is a bumpy ride for a nation.
2) Both sides exaggerate their arguments.
3) In the long run, any Immigration for today jobs does mean their children become citizens.

#2 Comment By Slugger On July 14, 2017 @ 10:49 am

Maybe you should rewrite that last paragraph. Obama with his faults and with his virtues was an American.

#3 Comment By good old days that weren’t On July 14, 2017 @ 10:56 am

“I wonder on some level whether it isn’t informed by a kind of nostalgia for the time when the most important country in the West was led by an African. “

I don’t know many people who feel nostalgic for what was, after all, a time of constant war and terror attacks, financial collapse followed by economic malaise, institutionalization of assassination and mass surveillance programs (with concomitant loss of civil liberties and personal privacy), sharply growing racial divisions, and a general loss in the prestige and authority of important institutions. Indeed, nostalgia for a time long before that helped elect our “African” president’s successor.

#4 Comment By The Anti-Gnostic On July 14, 2017 @ 10:58 am

a universal humanity

No such thing. Humans are diverse and distinct in many important ways.

Africa’s “problem” from the perspective of the West is that it is not Western, and can never be. You acknowledge the ancient Asian peoples are what they are and will never be otherwise, thee African peoples have lived on their continent even longer. Why do you think that inside all of them is a Francophile or Anglophile just waiting to get out? What a patronizing view!

#5 Comment By Meet Me In St. Louis On July 14, 2017 @ 11:04 am

These days a Sino-African East seems at least as likely as a Euro-African West. China has been making big inroads in Africa, it’s heavily invested there and in it for the long haul. In many ways China is better suited to a cultural, political, and economic partnership with Africa than “the West”. Less baggage, for one thing, such as never having killed off or enslaved millions of Africans.

#6 Comment By Centralist On July 14, 2017 @ 12:24 pm

I mean the “Western” Culture of the Americas both north and south have a lot of African influences from food, music, woods, and even religion. It only seems strange when you focus on a limited aspect of history opposed to the whole of it. The United States is nation built of extremely different cultures from Germans, English, Scots, Irish, Swedes, Africans, Poles, Russians, and Latin Americans. The question is what is culture?

Is it something that changes and grows or is it static?

I often feel that Conservatives get a bad reputation for disliking cultural change, when I think it really comes down to the fact that the cultural changes happening in the cities had not happened to the rural making both feel the other is alien. It is made worse by the fact both view the other not as just alien but as immoral for different reasons.

#7 Comment By OMM 0910 On July 14, 2017 @ 1:12 pm

Is this just about cultural exchange between Africa and the West, or population exchange too?

#8 Comment By German_reader On July 14, 2017 @ 1:46 pm

“But it’s not obvious to me that all of that applies equally well to Africa and its relationship with the West”

It’s not obvious to you because you’re American, and like all too many Americans you seem to believe that a) Europe consists of France, rest doesn’t matter, b) European nations should be just like the US (a propositional nation, with a large African-descended population, because somehow that’s supposed to be an essential part of “modernity”).
And all this pontificating about “The West” just proves one thing: “The West” is a retarded cold war-concept that nowadays is totally devoid of any meaning. Time to drop it.

#9 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 14, 2017 @ 2:15 pm

I am going to make one observation at the outset,

the process of decolonization was merely, the Europeans taking their toys and going home. And by doing so after having completely reconstructed african civilization it left Africa as a continent in a lurch.

it is my opinion that

1. upon demolishing numerous societies and let’s be honest what went on in Africa was not colonization, its hard to describe it, but it was something far more brutal.

2. they made promises of equality and citizenship that were never given except by very few and only after some significant push back.

3. as resistance to their broken promises grew, they took on the task of killing more and also endorsing more into the educational system.

4. but the more educated the native peoples became the more they wanted to cash in on the promise.

5. In the end the Europeans just abandoned the countries taking with them all of the constructs, physical, economic and social required to have the promise – they took their balls and went home.

What I never realized until I read Africa, and King Leopold’s Ghost and don’t think I have the strength to get through The Fortunes of Africa just yet that what was left were make shift societies cobbled together and remnant pitted against each other in a spoils system of power. When the Europeans disappeared what they left in tact was the spoils system.

The French, British, Danish, Belgians, Germans Italians and others are responsible for what we see in Africa today. And despite the assessment of Mr. Douthat and others about African fantasies, I prefer to consider to consider those aspirations as dear to Africans as the dreams held by our founders. I am not a big fan, of the revolutionary war, but the victory was a fantasy come true.

Africa remains a resource rich continent. And despite the loss of as many as one hundred societies under “colonial”. I am not so arrogant as to deny that they too have visionaries and dreamers who can and will remake the country in their visions of that means.

If the Europeans have carelessly managed redressing the matter as to their conscience as sloppily as they managed the promises, it explains a lot. I think it is foolish to believe you can merely import people and say,

“Ha, there ya go. Repaired”

No European country should be importing anyone as citizens without a careful and intense plan of indoctrination as to what that means. To be French is not to be Senegalese, or Kenyan or Nairoban, or Sudanese.

I would agree that ‘Marshalization’ is a bizarre response, not just unworkable.

#10 Comment By mrscracker On July 14, 2017 @ 4:13 pm

I’ve read that under-employed Portuguese & other Europeans have been looking at relocating to former African colonies for work.
There was a BBC article about it recently I think.

#11 Comment By Lee On July 15, 2017 @ 1:17 am

Western Civilization? aka Judeo-Greco-Christian civilization? That’s a bill of goods that’s been peddled for a relatively short period of time.

I am not Judeo. I am not Greco. My ancestors had their own indigenous ways of being, before Christianity invaded Europe… I am not Western.

Who is? Or, is it simply an institutionalized myth?

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 15, 2017 @ 4:07 am

excuse the delay . . . wholly unintentional. I am duking it out with my car.

Well, I think there is amazing promise in Africa. It’s one of the places I would like to visit before I leave the planet.

In some places the anti-colonial ferver was pretty intense. in others there was a keen sense that if the colonials left abruptly there would be backlash, the colonials thought it just deserts for having pressed for the equality they were offered. The constant deferments just never reached an end.

I think that Africa should be cautious with China. But I agree with another commenter who noted that China which has been fostering African relations since the 1970’s do not have the colonial baggage. I may look up that BBC program, on you tube.

Unlike Mr. Douthat, I am very positive about China. And a little fearful. If by some chance they ever became a United Continent as the US, they will be frightful force to deal with —

#13 Comment By Nate On July 15, 2017 @ 9:32 am

Stop talking about Africa as if it were a single country. It is far larger and more diverse than any continent except Asia.

#14 Comment By connecticut farmer On July 15, 2017 @ 10:47 am

“It can just be a species of conservatism, which prefers to conduct cultural exchange carefully and forge new societies slowly, lest stability suffer, memory fail and important things be lost.”

Edmund Burke would have nodded in agreement to this.

#15 Comment By Oakinhou On July 15, 2017 @ 3:59 pm

For what it’s worth, to speak of a Caribbean and and African colony as if they are in any way similar betrays little understanding of the world beyond our borders.

Basically, the similarities end in the average temperature and the melanin content in the skin of most inhabitants.

Snark aside, the descendants of slaves in the Caribbean colonies, like those from the American South, lost most of their African cultural roots, particularly with respect to political and social organization. Faute de mieux, as they would say, Martinicans, like Latin Americans, or the American Blacks, belong to the Western culture, some musical expressions notwithstanding.

In Africa, Europeans never eradicated the original cultural/social substrate. The European colonization of Africa wasn’t long enough to do that, nor were Europeans at any time a significant percentage of the population (South Africa, Argelia and Tunez excepted). Europeans just mingled the historical borders, bringing together populations that had been warring for centuries and separating families via artificial borders, imposed a parallel administrative network on top of the traditional one, and created artificial “capitals” that distorted the traditional economic landscape.

#16 Comment By Ellimist000 On July 15, 2017 @ 5:01 pm

“Stop talking about Africa as if it were a single country.”

“Europe” and “The West” aren’t a single country either. I think the issue of how to talk and think about them in light of this and other notable traits was kinda the point.

Great article, Noah. Good luck getting the Deplorables to consider Africa-West relations in such an honorable fashion.

#17 Comment By Rossbach On July 16, 2017 @ 1:04 pm

I don’t believe that Africa can be Europeanized. If it could, it would have happened already, given its the legacy of its European colonial past. Europe, on the other hand, can be easily and irreversibly Africanized. This has already happened to Paris and it required less than 2 generations with the help of mass, uncontrolled immigration and the anti-national policies of a coercive globalist government.

Europeans have very little time in which to preserve their children’s patrimony. The end of Europe is already in full view. Judging by the events of the last 10 years, it seems likely that my grandchildren will speak of Europe only in the past tense.

#18 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 16, 2017 @ 1:26 pm

Hmmmmm . . . excuse me.

Big corection: Unlike Mr. Douthat, I am very positive about Africa. And a little fearful. If by some chance they ever became a United Continent as the US, they will be frightful force to deal with —

“In Africa, Europeans never eradicated the original cultural/social substrate. The European colonization of Africa wasn’t long enough to do that, nor were Europeans at any time a significant percentage of the population”

The second portion of your comment juxtaposed against the above indicates that one doesn’t need numbers to accomplish a deep social change. Despite the reality that African societies had major conflicts as have societies on all the continents they also had societies which engaged in mutual cooperation, cultural and economic exchange, as have all peoples regardless of differences on all other continents. Africa never recovered from what the Europeans did. Their resilience will probably never undo what communities were in the destruction and the re-knitting and subsequent subjugation.

Uhh no point playing fast and loose with reality. It was far more than mingling birders — they redrew them. The borders were not the sole or even the larger tool in what can be described as a brutal demolition of families and cultures. And the record on slavery makes Muslims look like amatures. Once they controlled a people they then began a process of pitting them one against the other for survival and power. What we comprehend “white power” means today is child’s play as to the use of force during most of the colonization.

But in view of empire, it was the lie that they had any intention of incorporating blacks as equal human beings in their societies, save but a rare few who got to look through the veil but for a entry fee of steep price. The dream and promise deferred. Whites with their constant press that blackness was a sign of less humanness even as they continually came into contact with very complex societies, who not only had language but written language as well. What they did for a time was a darker heart not because it harsh and brutal, but because it contradicted everything the Europeans claimed they stood for. And rest that stand on scripture and christian ethos — if there be a god that level of hypocrisy will not stand forever.

Its the unredressed hypocrisy that haunts the west. And it is here that conservatives that makes conservatives a real pain. The strive to be ethically consistent. How so any bought into blacks as non-humans would be a unique literary work.

Let’s just call it the

Thomas Jefferson Syndrome.


Thomas Jefferson Enigma Syndrome

#19 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 16, 2017 @ 1:43 pm

“In Africa, Europeans never eradicated the original cultural/social substrate.’

Just to be clear, the Europeans did manage that. Certainly not to all societies, but apparently many. There is no single African cultural substrate, I if understand what you mean by this.

#20 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On July 17, 2017 @ 10:52 am

German Reader,

+1000 to your comment. I have great respect for Noah’s writing in general, but this comment was fatuous at best.

Mass immigration from Africa would end European countries as we know them quite as much as mass immigration from China or the Middle East would. For that matter even mass immigration *within* Europe will terminally damage European societies as we know them.

#21 Comment By EliteCommInc. On July 18, 2017 @ 4:30 am

“Mass immigration from Africa would end European countries as we know . . .”

Not so fast, because if they managed the process differently than their history suggest, they could preserve their unique histories.

#22 Comment By OMM 0910 On July 19, 2017 @ 8:44 pm

But: read the whole thing there and let me know if you think I went too far, and came crashing to the ground.

Noah, when I previously posted my [14] with the [15] of SCTV’s satire of The Jazz Singer, I knew the combination of humor and touching emotion was powerful, but I didn’t realize that it would have this profound of an effect on you.

#23 Comment By TheSnark On June 2, 2019 @ 12:13 pm

The worst legacy of the European colonization of Africa was not the brutality and destruction it caused, bad as they were. The worst legacy was the Socialist ideology that dominated the European elite in the 1950’s, and they passed on to the new African leaders. That resulted in 50 lost years of African economic stagnation, even retardation. Now that Africans are realizing that mistake you are seeing their natural entrepreneurial spirit emerging and taking off. While their progress will be rocky, there is a very good chance that Africa will be the continent of the future.

The Europeans, above all, need to embrace this. Africa is large and right next door.