[dehai-news] The West’s Selective Reading of History

New Message Reply About this list Date view Thread view Subject view Author view

From: wolda002@umn.edu
Date: Mon Feb 02 2009 - 21:53:54 EST


Critical Analysis
The West’s Selective Reading of History
By Alain Gresh
Jan 31, 2009, 14:19

Shortly after the first world war, the French literary critic and historian
Henri Massis (1886-1970) preached a crusade against the dangers threatening
European values and thought – largely identified with those of France, in
his mind. He wasn’t entirely misguided: across the world, colonised
nations were in revolt. He wrote:

    “The future of western civilisation, of humanity itself, is now under
threat... Every traveller, every foreigner who has spent any time in the
Far East agrees that the way in which the population thinks has changed
more in the last 10 years than it did over 10 centuries. The old,
easy-going submissiveness has given way to blind hostility – sometimes
genuine hatred, just waiting for the right moment to act. From Calcutta to
Shanghai, from the steppes of Mongolia to the plains of Anatolia, the whole
of Asia trembles with a blind desire for freedom. These people no longer
recognise the supremacy that the West has taken for granted since John
Sobieski conclusively stemmed the Turkish and Tartar invasions beneath the
walls of Vienna. Instead they aspire to rebuild their unity against the
white man, whose overthrow they proclaim” (1).

These fears are resurfacing today in a very different context, also marked
by a series of cataclysmic events: the end of the cold war, 9/11, the wars
in Iraq and Afghanistan and above all the restructuring of the global order
in favour of new powers, such as China and India. Various authors, many of
them highly regarded, have picked up on the Manichean view of history as an
eternal confrontation between civilisation and barbarism as they excavate
the roots of what Anthony Pagden calls the “2,500-year struggle” now
bathing the world in blood.

Pagden has taught in some of the world’s most prestigious universities,
including Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. The picture he paints of world
history is a crude one:

    “A flame had been lit in Troy which would burn steadily down the
centuries, as the Trojans were succeeded by the Persians, the Persians by
the Phoenicians, the Phoenicians by Parthians, the Parthians by the
Sassanids, the Sassanids by the Arabs, and the Arabs by the Ottoman
Turks... The battle lines have shifted over time, and the identities of the
antagonists have changed. But both sides’ broader understanding of what
it is that separates them has remained, drawing, as do all such
perceptions, on accumulated historical memories, some reasonably accurate,
some entirely false” (2).

Despite this minor reservation about “entirely false” memories,
Pagden’s vision is a binary one whose founding event was the
confrontation between the Greeks and Persians as described by the Greek
historian Herodotus.

According to Pagden:

    “What [Herodotus] is concerned to show is that what divided the
Persians from the Greeks or the Asians from the Europeans was something
more profound than petty political differences. It was a view of the world,
an understanding of what it was to be, and to live, like a human being.

    “And while the cities of Greece, and of ‘Europe’ more widely,
were possessed of very different personalities and had created sometimes
very different kinds of societies, and were all too happy to betray each
other if it suited them, they nevertheless all shared the common elements
of that view. They could all distinguish freedom from slavery, and they
were all committed broadly to what we today would identify as an
individualistic view of humanity.”

Paul Cartledge, professor of Greek history at Cambridge University, takes a
similar view of “the battle that changed the world”: Thermopylae
(480BC). “This clash between the Spartans and other Greeks, on one side,
and the Persian horde (including Greeks), on the other, was a clash between
freedom and slavery, and was perceived as such by the Greeks both at the
time and subsequently... The battle of Thermopylae, in short, was a
turning-point not only in the history of Classical Greece, but in the
world’s history, eastern as well as western” (3). In the mid-19th
century, the economist John Stuart Mill described the battle of Marathon,
fought some 10 years earlier, as “more important than the battle of
Hastings, even as an event in English history”.

In his preface, Cartledge makes no secret of his ideological perspective:
“The events of ‘9/11’ in New York City and now ‘7/7’ in London
have given this project [understanding the significance of Thermopylae] a
renewed urgency and importance within the wider framework of East-West
cultural encounter.” Not so much an encounter as a clash between
despotism and freedom.

‘No prisoners!’

A popularised version of this academic view is presented in 300, a film
depicting the battle, directed by Zack Snyder and based upon the graphic
novel of the same name by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. The two-hour film,
which was a hit at the US box office, resembles a video game in which
chiselled musclemen, high on amphetamines, square off against effeminate
barbarians (black or Middle Eastern in appearance) whose deaths nobody
would regret. “No prisoners!” (4) shouts the hero, King Leonidas of
Sparta, who has already killed the Persian ambassador at the beginning of
the film: savages are excluded from humanity’s most sacred laws.

So basically civilisation means exterminating barbarians. As early as 1898,
the German political scientist Heinrich von Treischke stated what many of
his contemporaries would have regarded as the obvious: “International law
becomes meaningless when any attempt is made to apply its principles
equally to barbarian nations. The only way to punish a black tribe is to
burn their villages; it is the only sort of example they understand. For
the German empire to apply international law in cases like this would not
be either humanity or justice; it would be shameful weakness.”

The Germans showed no “weakness” between 1904 and 1907 when they
exterminated the Herero in Namibia. This first genocide of the 20th century
was one of a series of colonial policies that served as model and precursor
to the Nazi genocide against the Jews.

According to Cartledge, there is no Persian source – no native Herodotus
– for the Greco-Persian wars. But we now know enough about the Persian
empire to modify traditional views. Touraj Daryaee, professor of ancient
history at California State University, Fullerton, points out that slavery,
widely practised in Greece, was rare among the Persians, whose women
enjoyed higher status that their Greek counterparts (5). He also reminds us
of the Cyrus cylinder, a document that the UN decided to translate into all
its official languages in 1971; this first known charter of human rights
was granted by Cyrus the Great in the 6th century BC and called for
religious toleration, the abolition of slavery, the freedom to decide
one’s profession...

It is unsurprising that the Greeks – particularly Herodotus, who, to be
fair, was less of a caricature than his literary heirs – should have
presented their victory as a triumph over barbarism. As long as wars have
been fought, the protagonists have draped themselves in
idealistic principles. US leaders have similarly depicted their campaigns
in Iraq and Afghanistan as wars of Good against Evil. But it may be worth
asking why, 4,500 years later, we remain so obsessed by the Greeks.

According to Marcel Detienne of John Hopkins University in Baltimore: “In
his Instructions, Lavisse (6) declared that what secondary-school pupils
need to be taught, without their realising it, is that ‘our history
begins with the Greeks’. Our [French] history begins with the Greeks, who
invented liberty and democracy and who introduced us to ‘the beautiful’
and a taste for ‘the universal’. We are heirs to the only civilisation
that has offered the world ‘a perfect and as it were ideal expression of
justice and liberty’. That is why our history begins – has to begin –
with the Greeks. This belief was then compounded by another every bit as
powerful: ‘The Greeks are not like others’. After all, how could they
be, given that they were right at the beginning of our history? Those were
two propositions that were essential for the creation of a national
mythology that was the sole concern of traditional humanists and
historians, all obsessed with nationhood” (7).

Detienne continues:

    “It is commonly believed not only that both the abstract notion of
politics and concrete politics one fine day fell from the heavens, landing
on ‘classical’ Athens in the miraculous and authenticated form of
Democracy (with a capital D), but also that a divinely linear history has
led us by the hand from the American Revolution, passing by way of the
‘French Revolution’, all the way to our own western societies that are
so blithely convinced that their mission is to convert all peoples to the
true religion of democracy.”

A number of Anglo-Saxon writers, unpersuaded of Europe’s
“uniqueness”, have questioned the idea of a direct line of descent from
classical antiquity via the Renaissance – a term invented by the
historian Jules Michelet during the 19th century – to contemporary
Europe. Their message has rarely reached French shores (8).

John M Hobson of Sheffield University has shown that it is impossible to
understand world history without recognising the crucial importance of the
East: “This marginalisation of the East constitutes a highly significant
silence because it conceals three major points.

First, the East actively pioneered its owns substantial economic
development after about 500. Second, the East actively created and
maintained the global economy after 500. Third, and above all, the East has
significantly and actively contributed to the rise of the West by
pioneering and delivering many advanced ‘resources portfolios’ (eg
technologies, institutions and ideas) to Europe” (9).

China, the leading player

How many of us are aware that the first industrial revolution began in the
11th century, in Song dynasty China? This dynasty produced 125,000 tonnes
of iron in 1078, seven centuries before Britain managed to produce 76,000.
The Chinese mastered advanced technologies like iron casting and
substituted coke for charcoal to prevent deforestation. During the same
period they revolutionised transport, energy (the water mill), taxation,
trade and urban development. Their green revolution attained levels of
agricultural production that Europe did not match until the 20th century.

Until 1800, China remained the leading player in a global economy that some
described as Sinocentric; India, too, was of enormous importance. Many
Chinese technologies, ideas and institutions spread to Europe and helped
bring about the rise of modern capitalism. The British industrial
revolution would have been impossible without China’s contribution. And
the same is true of the great Muslim empires.

According to John M Hobson:

    “Eurocentrism errs by asking wrong questions at the outset. All
Eurocentric scholars (either explicitly or implicitly) begin by asking two
interrelated questions: ‘What was it about the West that enabled its
breakthrough to capitalist modernity?’ and ‘What was it about the East
that prevented it from making the breakthrough?’”

But these questions assume that western dominance was inevitable, and lead
historians to scour the past for the factors that explain it. “The rise
of the West is understood through a logic of immanence: that it can only be
accounted for by factors that are strictly endogenous to Europe.” East
and West come to be regarded as distinct entities separated by a cultural
Great Wall of China, which protects us from barbarian invasion.

Fear of barbarians

But who are these barbarians? Tzvetan Todorov questions Claude
Levi-Strauss’ definition of the barbarian as “the man who believes in
barbarism” and suggests:

    “It is someone who believes that a population or an individual is not
fully human and therefore merits treatment that he would resolutely refuse
to apply to himself.”

In his recent The Fear of Barbarians (10), Todorov develops an argument he
presented in earlier works such as On Human Diversity (a thought-provoking
book that deserves to be far more widely read). “The fear of
barbarians,” he writes now, “is what is in danger of turning us into
barbarians. And the evil that we do will far exceed what we initially

Only the individual who fully recognises the humanity of others can be
called civilised. “For a long time,” Todorov continues, “the ideas of
the Enlightenment served as a source of inspiration for a liberal,
reformist tendency that fought conservatism in the name of universalism and
equal respect for all. Things have changed now, and the conservative
defenders of the superiority of western thought claim to be the heirs of
the Enlightenment, battling against the ‘relativism’ that they
associate with the Romantic reaction of the early 19th century. But they
can only achieve this by renouncing the true Enlightenment tradition with
its articulation of universal values and cultural pluralism. We must go
beyond the clichés: Enlightenment thought should not be confused either
with dogmatism (my culture must be imposed upon all) or nihilism (all
cultures are equally valid). To use it to denigrate others, as an excuse to
subject or destroy them, is simply to hijack the Enlightenment.”

But was the Enlightenment really hijacked, or did it go along willingly?
Hobson argues that the construction of 18th- and 19th-century European
identity allowed the affirmation of an “exceptionalism” that no other
civilisation has ever asserted. “Ultimately, the Europeans did not seek
to remake the world simply because ‘they could’ (as in materialist
explanations). They sought to remake the world because they believed they
should. That is, their actions were significantly guided by their identity
that deemed imperialism to be a morally appropriate policy.” Many
European supporters of the anti-colonialist struggle and the Third World
rejected this vision, often in the name of the Enlightenment. The debate
will no doubt continue.

About Alain Gresh


(1) Henri Massis, Défense de l’Occident, Plon, Paris, 1927. An alliance
of Poles, Germans and Austrians defeated the Ottomans outside Vienna on 12
September 1683.

(2) Anthony Pagden, Worlds at War: The 2,500-Year Struggle Between East and
West, Random House, New York, 2008.

(3) Paul Cartledge, Thermopylae: The Battle that Changed the World,
Overlook Press, New York, 2006.

(4) See “300 Spartans” on Youtube.

(5) Touraj Daryaee, “Go tell the Spartans” , Iranian.com, 
14 March

(6) Ernest Lavisse (1842-1922) was an important influence on the teaching
of history in late 19th-century France.

(7) Marcel Detienne, The Greeks and Us: A Comparative Anthropology of
Ancient Greece, Polity Press, 
Cambridge, 2007.

(8) See, for example, Janet Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World
System A.D. 1250-1350, Oxford University Press, 1991; Andre Gunder Frank,
Reorient: Global economy in
the Asian Age, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1998; Kenneth
Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the World
Modern Economy, Princeton University
Press, 2000; 
Jack Goody, The Theft of History, Cambridge University
Press, 2006.

(9) John M Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, Cambridge
University Press, 2004.

(10) Tzvetan Todorov, La peur des barbares. Au-dèla du choc des
civilisations, Robert Laffont, Paris, 2008. Also On Human Diversity:
Nationalism, Racism, and Exoticism in French Thought, Harvard University
Press, 1998

         ----[This List to be used for Eritrea Related News Only]----

New Message Reply About this list Date view Thread view Subject view Author view

© Copyright DEHAI-Eritrea OnLine, 1993-2009
All rights reserved