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Does the West Have a Civilization?

I’m frankly flabbergasted by this Peter Beinart article [1] about Trump’s speech in Warsaw. Specifically, I am flabbergasted that he wants to let the alt-right define Western Civilization:

The West is not a geographic term. Poland is further east than Morocco. France is further east than Haiti. Australia is further east than Egypt. Yet Poland, France, and Australia are all considered part of “The West.” Morocco, Haiti, and Egypt are not.

The West is not an ideological or economic term either. India is the world’s largest democracy. Japan is among its most economically advanced nations. No one considers them part of the West.

The West is a racial and religious term. To be considered Western, a country must be largely Christian (preferably Protestant or Catholic) and largely white. Where there is ambiguity about a country’s “Westernness,” it’s because there is ambiguity about, or tension between, these two characteristics. Is Latin America Western? Maybe. Most of its people are Christian, but by U.S. standards, they’re not clearly white. Are Albania and Bosnia Western? Maybe. By American standards, their people are white. But they are also mostly Muslim.

Ok, then! So, India has a civilization. Japan has a civilization. China has a civilization. And inasmuch as the West has a civilization, it can only be defined in racial and religious terms.

There are really only three ways to take this that I can think of:

You don’t have to believe that Western Civilization is under any kind of serious threat to believe that it exists. Nor do you have to believe that Western Civilization is readily defined  and delimited within borders to believe that it exists. I mean, ask someone from China or Japan or India or Egypt if they believe Western Civilization exists. I’m confident they will say yes.

But they won’t define that civilization in exclusively or even primarily racial or religious terms. Indeed, a major point of debate for much of the 19th and 20th centuries in the non-western world was whether modernization required westernization — that is to say, did you have to adopt the institutions, cultural habits and lifestyle of Europe to become modern, industrialized countries able to compete with the countries of Europe in economic and military terms? The modern history of countries like Japan and Turkey is dominated by this debate, a debate that is still not over. And that debate was never about whether they needed to convert to Christianity, much less alter their genes.

Western Civilization aspires to universality precisely because it is not limited to a particular race or religion — and it was that way from the beginning, as Alexander and his successors  sought to forge a new Hellenistic civilization out of the combination of Greek, Persian and Egyptian civilizations. But this universality is aspirational, not actual. “The West” is not coterminous with “the developed world” or “the global community” — and we’d get along better with countries like China if we didn’t behave as if it were.

Will Europe still be “Western” if it becomes a quarter African, or a quarter Muslim? I don’t know — and neither does Beinart. I imagine the answer is path-dependent, that is to say: how that demographic transformation takes place will have a great deal to do with what the continent looks like on the other side of it. There is a great deal of difference between replacing the boards of a ship one by one until none of the original boards remains, and simply building another ship from scratch and asserting it’s the same as the original — much less deciding that “ship” is an oppressive term! That’s one of the reasons we are having a debate about immigration, globally: because the sheer scale of migration is appropriately causing people to ask these kinds of questions. But why on earth should anyone with Beinart’s political commitments concede that the alt-right is correct, and that the answer is unquestionably “no”?

I thought Trump’s speech was awful, because it is based, like his politics generally, entirely on fear. But so is Beinart’s article, only with the values reversed. And nothing — not Western Civilization nor liberalism — will be saved by stoking fear and calling for the will to resist. The only call with any power to save is the call to love.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "Does the West Have a Civilization?"

#1 Comment By John Gruskos On July 7, 2017 @ 3:22 pm

Imperialists who aspire to make European civilization universal, including king Alexander III of Macedon, are fools of almost unimaginable hubris.

Arminius deserves to be remembered as the greatest hero in the history of European civilization. He preserved a portion of Europe free from the diseased dreams of Alexander and Caracalla, a base from which the rest of Europe would one day be liberated from stagnant Roman cosmopolitanism, ushering in the truly European Middle Ages and, eventually, the glories early modern European civilization.

#2 Comment By mrscracker On July 7, 2017 @ 4:47 pm

Sure the West has a civilization. So does the East & I don’t see why Mr. Beinhart has to mix race into the issue. But it seems like everyone else does these days. I guess it’s a quick way to be noticed & reprinted.

#3 Comment By Mdc On July 7, 2017 @ 5:20 pm

Does ‘preserving western civilization’ mean preventing it from being supplanted by something non-western, or by something barbarous?

If the latter, than the term ‘western’ is not really doing any work: the point is just to sustain civilization. If the former, how do we tell whether the invasive forces are western or not?

#4 Comment By OMM 0910 On July 7, 2017 @ 5:39 pm

Will Europe still be “Western” if it becomes a quarter African, or a quarter Muslim?

What it becomes both a quarter African, and a quarter Muslim?

#5 Comment By The Wet One On July 7, 2017 @ 5:40 pm

I think what you’re missing Noah, or misunderstanding, is that Beinart is describing “the West” as that term is used by Trump and his underlings, not as how he himself sees it.

You write:

“Western Civilization aspires to universality precisely because it is not limited to a particular race or religion.”

This is something that “the West” as understood by Trump and / or his support, most certainly do not believe. Just ask them (for example in Dreher’s comboxes. They’ll set you straight).

I mean, you did read all of Beinart’s article didn’t you? Towards the end, the fact he’s distinguishing Trump’s concept of “the West” with what’s traditionally been the case (at least post Cold War anyways) is made fairly clear.

Or is it that I am missing something obvious?

#6 Comment By Kurt Gayle On July 7, 2017 @ 5:51 pm

You put the question succinctly, Noah, and you concede that you don’t have a ready answer:

“Will Europe still be ‘Western’ if it becomes a quarter African, or a quarter Muslim? I don’t know…One of the reasons we are having a debate about immigration, globally: because the sheer scale of migration is appropriately causing people to ask these kinds of questions.”

President Trump’s Warsaw speech answer to your question was actually quite open and welcoming:

“…We will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people…”

But President Trump immediately pointed to the limits we must place upon our welcome:

“We cannot accept those who reject our values…Americans, Poles, and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty. We must work together to confront forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are. If left unchecked, these forces will undermine our courage, sap our spirit, and weaken our will to defend ourselves and our societies.”

I think most Americans would agree with what President Trump said about this issue.

#7 Comment By Vitaly Purto On July 7, 2017 @ 6:01 pm

“Ask someone from China or Japan or India or Egypt if they believe Western Civilization exists. I’m confident they will say yes.” Mahatma Gandhi, founder of Indian Union, was not so sure as Noah Millman. Instead on the same question he replied that Western Civilization would be a good proposition. The very visible decay of object under discussion since Gandhi time only show futility of continuation of current race to the bottom.

#8 Comment By IowaGreg On July 7, 2017 @ 6:02 pm

Excellent article!

Too clear, sadly, and nuanced (vs easy answer) to get attention. The old boat analogy is a great illustration here.

Even stranger, Beinart just wrote the long article explaining the left was playing with fire with unquestioned and unlimited (or unenforced) immigration…

#9 Comment By OMM 0910 On July 7, 2017 @ 10:14 pm

#10 Comment By tomtom50 On July 7, 2017 @ 11:39 pm

Is Latin America Western? Obviously yes. Japan and S. Korea? Pretty much, more so than Russia or Transnistria, which are both white and Christian.

#11 Comment By Greg On July 8, 2017 @ 12:40 am

Noah, I think you did a great job in this article. There is much I could agree with in Trump’s speech, but I think you’re right; his motivational approach is fear and I think much of the more moderate things he says are code for what he really thinks. Unfortunately a lot of folks on the left have contempt for Western Civilization. It’s not limited to Peter Beinart. I wish, as one of the commenters suggested, that he was simply using the term as Trump might, but I don’t think so. I think a lot of folks are embarrassed by the concept of Western Civilization. Thanks for a thoughtful via media approach.

#12 Comment By Roe On July 8, 2017 @ 5:53 am

My Dear, you missed the point completely.

“India is the world’s largest democracy. Japan is among its most economically advanced nations. No one considers them part of the West.”

The features used to characterize “The West” have traditionally been used to describe nations or large regions who hold these things to be self-evident: democracy, aggressive economic growth, and Judeo-Christian values.”

Beinart asks a great question: “Wait, if India is the largest democracy in the world, do we consider it a part of the Western Nations or is it still ‘Oriental’? Japan is one of the most technologically and economically advanced economies in the world. Is it Western now or is it Asian? One more question: The region of Latin America holds the largest number of practicing Christians in the world. Is it…Western…or….?”

His invitation is to be specific about what being “The West” means, its location, and what values are actually shared so that it could warrant this distinction.

My gut is yes; The West can be defined. I have a few good theories that have to do individualism and an enligtenment philosophy of self-determination and ethic and believe whatever we think the West is can keep its integrity as different peoples migrate to the West and adopt the worldview– but that’s the point he was making there.

#13 Comment By Adriana I Pena On July 8, 2017 @ 7:03 am

By the way, if we embrace the idea of Western Civilization, what happens to American Exceptionalism?

#14 Comment By JonF On July 8, 2017 @ 9:51 am

Re: Is Latin America Western? Obviously yes.

Or not, if you consider the influence of Native American civilizations in Latin America creates a distinct cultural mix that promotes Latin America as its own civilizational unit. That applies more so in Mesoamerica and the Andes than in, say, Argentina.

#15 Comment By JonF On July 8, 2017 @ 10:00 am

Re: Imperialists who aspire to make European civilization universal, including king Alexander III of Macedon, are fools of almost unimaginable hubris.

And yet without Ho Megalos Alexandros our civilization would not even exist. Alexander ended the threat of the Persian empire and his conquests opened the Mediterranean fully to trade and commerce– and even extended trade all the way to India and eventually China. And what would have become of Christianity had Judea not been incorporated into a Hellenized oikoumene?

Caracalla came late to the Roman game; I’m not sure why you single him out rather than Augustus (or Caligula/Nero if you want someone depraved). What would have happened had Augustus succeeded in pushing Rome’s borders to the Elbe? Well, probably Rome would have declined and fell eventually regardless– the Huns would not have been stopped certainly, and the Goths originated in Scandinavia by way of the Ukrainian steppe. Still, later history would have been different in unpredictable ways.

#16 Comment By Charlieford On July 8, 2017 @ 10:40 am

If there was no “Western Civilization,” Conrad’s Kurtz would make little sense and have no illuminating power. But he does. The flip side of all the great things we appreciate about it is the periodic frenzy to “exterminate the brutes.” Whatever else we want to say about it–and we should say those positive things–we should never forget that you don’t get to approach Western Civilization a la carte. The treatment of indigenous peoples, imperialism, the world wars, are all integral.
Harry Truman thanking God for giving us the atom bomb is perhaps its apotheosis.

#17 Comment By Just Dropping By On July 8, 2017 @ 11:46 am

I’m mostly surprised by Beinart’s contention that Haiti isn’t part of “the West,” because I personally would automatically categorize all New World countries as being “Western.”

#18 Comment By Brian Hoff On July 8, 2017 @ 12:02 pm

There is no wrstern civilization at all it base on religion or skin color. Than black person born in japon and raised in japanese culture is japanese. The Islamic religion is growing alone native japanese people they are still japanese but of the Islamic faith.

#19 Comment By ControlE On July 8, 2017 @ 2:28 pm

Noah, I typically love your work, but I feel you are very off base here. Let’s be honest here, Beinart in right when he says that Poland is considered part of the West but India isn’t. What is the differentiating factor between those two countries? For better or worse, the truth is that for a long period of history the things that differentiated the West from the East HAS been race and religion.

Now, before everyone jumps up with their instant knee-jerk defensive reactions… it has nothing to do with racism and everything to do with demographics. The West is made up of countries full of European descendants. So obviously, most of the people in the West are white and Christian- and that is what the rest of the world sees.

That doesn’t mean the values that West has come to hold dear are any less noble. That doesn’t inherently mean Western values trump similar values in non-Western societies. For example India is the worlds largest Democracy. It is not Western because it is not made up of people primarily of European descent.

India’s Democracy is still valid. It can still share values with the Western world. The idea of what is Western being tied to a race or religion isn’t some inherently evil thing.

And I’m a left-leaning atheist.

#20 Comment By Jeep Bohatra On July 9, 2017 @ 12:04 am

Western people don’t want to perform mass-immigration to other parts of the world. Other parts of the world want to mass-emigrate to the West. Understand?

#21 Comment By Dan Green On July 9, 2017 @ 8:27 am

The Social Democratic Welfare State model has untold influence in Western Democracies. A model managed by the so called political elite. The model makes for good reading. It offers something for everyone supported by massive debt. The so called political elite ruling class who manage the model are obviously planning to get rid of Trump and his administration, who incidentally had no GOP support.So the left continues to pursue the model which is mostly fantasy. However well intended the social democratic welfare state model is unfortunately not sustainable. So while western Democracies chase the fantasy, Russia and China are pursuing their own model.

#22 Comment By Snippet On July 9, 2017 @ 11:52 am

Ironically, one of – of not “THE” – most important characteristic of Western Civilization is the successful pursuit of information that is totally independent of race and ethnicity.
Pythagoras’ theory doesn’t care what your race is, and neither does penicillin.

#23 Comment By Carolinatarheel On July 9, 2017 @ 1:10 pm

President Trump gave an eloquent speech in Poland!

He reaffirmed our nation’s commitment to be a leader in the free world!

He stands behind what’s good for America and we should stand behind him!

America First!

#24 Comment By tomtom50 On July 9, 2017 @ 11:05 pm

The Wet One is right. Beinert is discussing Trump’s intended message. He is not defining the term, he is discussing Trump’s particular usage.

Beinert’s first sentence:

“In his speech in Poland on Thursday, Donald Trump referred 10 times to “the West” and five times to “our civilization.” His white nationalist supporters will understand exactly what he means. It’s important that other Americans do, too.”

Beinert should have repeated this distinction throughout his article. He was unclear enough that these threads were written.