I’ve been spending a lot of time on Twitter lately — yeah, I know, You foolish human. And I made the mistake of watching a Ben Shapiro video, “Why Has the West Been So Successful?” This, of course, presumes it has, only he doesn’t bother to give us any empirical measures that prove it. Perhaps he does in his book, The Right Side of History, but I think I’d have to get up on the wrong side of the bed to read it. And if it’s anything like the video, I am reminded of the old professor who scribbled in the margins of the undergraduate’s paper, “Prove” again and again.
Someone on Twitter dismissed Shapiro’s video with the mock translation: “The West (White countries) has the Best Culture, especially because we’re Christians (ok, also Jews bc the Rapture), not those filthy shithole countries of black and brown people and Muslims.” It’s easy to do this, because Shapiro indulges in such over-the-top, sweeping generalizations you have to wonder whether he did the “required reading” at all.
You still wonder, because his “Sources” for his video refer you to an Encyclopedia Britannica page. Or the National Review. Or the Heritage Foundation. Or in several cases to his own articles and videos. Hardly ever to books. You remember books? Those things with covers and pages, which indicate someone has spent a considerable amount of time studying the subject and have citations and facts — not bite-size paragraphs with little graphics intended for an attention span that competes with YouTube.
Read a Kevin M. Kruse thread on Twitter, and it’s a smorgasbord of vintage articles, academic references, referrals to others’ work, in other words, substantial research. It presumes you have brought your brain to the table, and you will check the homework. Shapiro doesn’t do this, and while I realize he’s made what amounts to a commercial for his book, I’d still like to see the math. But it’s not there.
While it might be fun to deconstruct his dog whistles, I prefer to go after the infuriatingly arrogant statements one by one in the video.
Nice of him to provide us with a transcript, so let’s take them in consecutive order.
“The positives are unique to the West…”
Just how does Shapiro define “the West?” He never does say. I’m assuming Europe and North America. This is not a precious point, because to make his boasts, he wants to factor in both the heritage of Greek thought and two Middle Eastern religions. That’s pretty generous in terms of both chronology and geography. We think of Greece as part of the Western world because white dudes from the Renaissance through to the Enlightenment and on to the Victorian Ages adopted it and proclaimed it so. But Greece was “the east” for the Roman Empire, and it was the seat of Byzantium. So I always have to chuckle at the idea that “Western” civilization has its roots in Greece. I’ll come back to just why we have it, and it doesn’t help his case…
Shapiro also wants to base “our” civilization on two faiths, Judaism and Christianity — linked culturally but separated by centuries — followed by what most assuredly were brown people living in the Middle East. By that rationale, he should also include Islam as a religion of the West. Funny how he doesn’t.
“The positives are unique to the West — religious tolerance, abolition of slavery, universal human rights, the development of the scientific method: these are accomplishments of a scope and scale that only the West can claim.”
Oh, really? That’s a neat trick, celebrating the abolition of slavery after the West practiced it on a scale in both numbers and horrors that Africa and the Middle East never did. And by the way, does Brazil qualify as “West?” Because it only gave up slavery in 1888. The U.S., of course, was well behind Britain, only bringing in the 13th amendment in 1865. Moreover, there’s considerable evidence that freed slaves such as Olaudah Equiano played major roles in abolition movements in Britain, so to attribute all the credit to white, Western abolitionists such as Granville Sharp is a bit much.
“As Western thought evolved, it secured the rights of women and minorities, lifted billions of people out of poverty, and invented most of the modern world.”
As Western thought evolved? And just when do you want to congratulate it?This is cute, because you can do this with any civilization or culture. “As French cuisine evolved, it discovered baking.” The statement presumes that other civilizations didn’t evolve according to our objective standards or needed to evolve at the same rate. And even if we place that bar on them, the statement would still be wrong. Let’s take a few examples.
Years before British and American women were granted the vote, women in Iran were organizing for their rights and played major roles in drafting a new constitution and parliament. Gee, did British or American women have those opportunities in the early 20th century?
As for minorities and religious tolerance, while it’s true non-Muslims had to pay a tax, their situations in the Ottoman Empire were complex. Many groups suffered persecution, but others actually fled parts of Europe for the Ottoman Empire where they could thrive and enjoy greater freedoms. Jews, in particular, took advantage of relocating to the empire away from European persecution and sometimes rose to senior positions in the Ottoman bureaucracy.
To make such a sweeping statement about “securing their rights” ignores the appalling treatment of blacks in the post-Civil War era to our modern day, as well as the barring of Chinese immigrants through passage of legislation in the United States and in Canada, the often horrific treatment of gays and lesbians through job firings, police brutality, incarceration, forced medical treatments, including castrations, and we could go on. And Shapiro blithely ignores the fact that the Judeo-Christian religion was used time and again not to help “secure rights” but to justify their denial.
Oh, and about lifting billions out of poverty? Does that include the millions who suffered from the Industrial Revolution through disease, workplace accidents, crippling hours, child labour, strikebreaking, etc?
“The obvious proof is that the world is overwhelmingly Western. And, with few exceptions, those parts of the world that aren’t aspire to be.”
If Shapiro were in front of me, I would have to say, “Overwhelmingly Western to you. And just how much of it have you seen?”
To step out of the urban centres of a country such as Ethiopia or Burma is to be confronted by ways of life that must go back centuries. The village woman who carries a block of salt on her head, or her husband who wears a traditional shamma and is herding oxen along a path by the Blue Nile. The fisherman in a traditional longyi in a boat on the Burmese coast, casting his net. It’s entirely possible that these folks go home, and they use WiFi or turn on a television to watch a dubbed movie from Hollywood, and that would be fine, too. But these technological conveniences certainly don’t make their lives Western.
Nor does their usage translate to people having an aspiration to be Western, only to the success of international capitalism. Is Shapiro measuring the “success” of Western values by consumer consumption? By that logic, an American student with Irish roots sleeping on a futon wants to be Japanese. And how incredibly presumptuous to assume “with few exceptions, those parts of the world that aren’t [Western] aspire to be.” Waiting… Waiting for the proof of this hilariously brazen assertion, because in my travels, I have met my fair share of residents, whether in Myanmar or Turkey or Lebanon, who would welcome prosperity but who don’t consider it essential to import Western values.
“Most pagan religions taught the opposite: that the universe is illogical and random, and that history is cyclical.”
There is a lot to unpack here. If Shapiro wants to pick on the ancient pagan faiths of the Greek-Roman tradition, well, good luck, because the concept of Zeus fed the conception of the Christian God. He also seems intent on pushing the notion that only the Judeo-Christian tradition proposed an “ordered universe.”
If he’s brazenly dismissing the faiths of Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, well… That’ll be interesting as I’ve met a fair number of Buddhists plus have read enough Indian philosophy to know it’s a bad idea to reduce their ideas to the “universe is illogical.” Unlike Christianity, Indian scriptures at least have the Earth revolving around the sun. Not so in the Bible.
Buddhism is a philosophy that teaches non-attachment and respect for all living beings. Indian philosophy and cosmology are so sophisticated that I’m not even going to try to encapsulate them here. To get started, you can always go read The Bhagavad-Gita, which has been heralded as one of the greatest works of faith and literature.
And the very reason why we moved forward in terms of science is because men such as Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and others questioned the architecture behind this “ordered universe” premise. Shapiro would like to have it both ways, to tout faith and claim scientific rationale as Western virtues, conceding that they’re in opposition to each other but part of his overall rubric of intellectual heritage. And if this were sixty years ago, he might get away with it. Which brings us to:
“Only by recognizing the divine in others did we ever move beyond this amoral thinking toward the concern for human rights, democracy and free enterprise that characterize the West.”
Oh, please. In the Western tradition, the concepts of human rights and democracy, as developed by the likes of Thomas Paine, and even principles of free enterprise, as critiqued by Adam Smith, were developed during the Enlightenment, an era that moved away from Judeo-Christian values and put reason, scientific inquiry and human rights in the forefront. That’s why it was dubbed The Age of Reason.
The “divine” had bugger all to do with free enterprise as the Industrial Revolution took hold in the early 1800s. If you want the long version, you can check the labour history of Europe and America from about 1820 to the 1930s. If you want the short version, read a few books by Dickens.
“Nowhere is this more perfectly expressed than in the American Revolution, in which the Founding Fathers took the best of the European Enlightenment with its roots in Greek thought and the best of Judeo-Christian practice with its roots in the Bible and melded them into a whole new political philosophy.”
This. Is. A. Crock. From respected historians including Howard Zinn to pundit Christopher Hitchens — an English import who loved America enough to write his own book on Jefferson — right to the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me, you can confirm for yourself that Tom Paine and the other great thinkers behind the American revolution were Deists. While attributing American political philosophy to Greek and Christian thought, Shapiro conveniently forgets that Benjamin Franklin also drew inspiration for the mechanics of the U.S. government from “pagan” Native American confederacies.
“The Soviet Union, Communist China and other socialist tyrannies rejected faith and murdered 100 million people in the 20th century.”
These two statements are welded together as if one is the cause of the other. What the Soviet Union and Communist China did was replace the indigenous religions with cults of their leaders, such as Stalin and Mao. It’s worth noting that the cult of the Tsar in Russia was also strong, and that his secret police was notoriously thuggish.
“Much of the modern Muslim world has embraced faith but rejected reason. It’s noteworthy that when the Muslim world did embrace Greek reason, from the 8th to the 14th centuries, it was a leading center for scientific advancement.”
If I were Muslim, I think I’d be offended. How do you define rejecting reason? Because a casual check reveals a respectable list of Nobel prize winners for citizens of Islamic countries, including for physics and chemistry. That implies atmospheres in which those disciplines are not only tolerated but also thrive despite harsh political conditions over the years. Shapiro’s statement also presumes the Greeks have a patent on rationality. Well, the University of al-Qarawiyyin was such a famous centre of learning for philosophy, medicine, math, astronomy and other subjects that Europeans went there to study, including one of the Popes. I’m sure the Muslims there came up with more than a few concepts on their own without referring to Lucretius.
In fact, “Western civilization” wouldn’t even have all those Greek and Roman classics without Muslims having rescued them after Europe’s decline in the Middle Ages and translating them!
What is so irksome about Shapiro’s video, with its manipulation of historic facts, is his idea of Western exceptionalism. Values and accomplishments are “unique,” they could “only” be developed in the West. Who does it serve to push this kind of pseudo-intellectual nationalism? I’m a white guy with English roots. It takes nothing away from me on a personal basis to learn that Ibn Khaldun, an African, invented sociology and historiography. Nationality and culture are accidents of birth. While it can be fun to have a sense of cultural pride, only a fool adopts a competitive attitude towards the accomplishments of a culture centuries before he was born.
And we have to always come back to the simple fact that he’s just plain wrong.
Africans developed the equivalent of ancient Greek ideas of the atom, as pointed out in a work called Bantu Philosophy published by a French ethnographer in 1945. Africans developed concepts of responsible collective government with accountable leadership centuries ago. Just because Ben Shapiro never heard of them does not invalidate their pervasiveness and impacts on a continent that’s three times the size of the United States.
Nor is the Judeo-Christian tradition — whatever one thinks of its values — the exclusive preserve of the West, i.e. European Catholic and Protestant thought. Several of the core principles of Christian philosophy come from St. Augustine of Hippo, an African, and one who thought of himself as African in the Maghreb.
Shapiro, of course, is not giving us history but a commercial for his work and a polemic. His ultimate message is: fear progressives.
“Ironically, they want to take us backwards, to a time when man was governed neither by reason nor faith, but by feeling, and therefore back to a time of moral chaos and disorder, of feeling over fact.”
There is no kind way to say this except to judge it as ridiculous nonsense. Even if you are a regular conservative, you must know that liberals are certainly not appealing to “feeling” by bringing up the fact that 95% of the world scientists agree there is climate change, and that politicians need to look at the evidence. That’s an appeal to reason. It is not taking the world “backwards” to lobby for the rights of the LGBT community and asylum seekers. The Enlightenment — the Age of Reason, remember? — was about enfranchising those without rights.
You can be a fiscal conservative without being a social one. There are even reasonable conservatives who espouse Christian values of charity while pushing business unfettered by government bureaucracy. Fine. We can debate those principles. But these are individuals who see things as they are and who don’t need to twist the record of history.
The truth is there is no such thing as “Western civilization.” If that’s a hard pill to swallow, I’d say your disapproval says more about you than it does about history. Europe adopted concepts of religion, philosophy, medicine and science from the Middle East and northern Africa, and its economies were heavily dependent on trade with the self-sustaining cultures of west Africa in the mid-1800s before the scramble for empire. We owe more to global cultural exchange and cultural syncretism than we think, and that exchange began centuries ago.
If we’re going to further develop the values of reason and tolerance, we should start recognizing this historical fact. Once we do, then we might truly call ourselves successful.