There is no such thing as Western Civilization

Jeff Pearce
10 min readJan 27, 2024

I was with a friend the other day at a bookstore, and she picked up this gorgeous coffee table book called Africa and Byzantium. And then with a touching generosity I don’t deserve, she handed it to me to borrow so I could consult it before she had her own chance to sit on her couch and look it over and enjoy it. She’s a great friend and knew I’d benefit from the most recent research done by the multiple academics and experts who contributed to the volume (and yeah, I don’t deserve her gesture because I’m a greedy pig over books, mine, mine, mine!).

Anyway, the book doesn’t disappoint, and it’s another reminder that Ethiopia and other parts of Africa had meaningful connections to the great sequel of the Western Roman Empire in Constantinople.

And it also makes me sad because this book is a reminder of what I’ve been saying for a long time. I’ve banged away for a couple of years now, trying to point out to anyone who will listen that there is no such thing as Western Civilization. The late journalist-provocateur Christopher Hitchens observed that civilization doesn’t need Western in front of it — if the term “means the sum of human intellectual accomplishment, it needn’t be qualified by an adjective.”

I wrote a whole damn book about some of this called The Gifts of Africa: How a Continent and Its People Changed the World.

The truth is that the West never had a monopoly on good governance and democracy, on innovations in science and philosophy — this should be a simple fact taught in schools. The Greeks, who were not in the West but actually in the East as far as Europe was concerned, borrowed much of their medical knowledge and philosophy from the Egyptians. In the Middle Ages, many European intellectuals, including one pope, went down to Africa to take their university studies. And when the Founding Fathers of the United States were tapping their noggins over how to draft a new constitution, Benjamin Franklin suggested concepts from the Iroquois confederacy.

We could go on with such a trivia list, but I trust the point is made: the signs of this centuries-old cultural swapping back and forth is all around us and continues to our present day. I settled in Toronto in the 1980s, where like many a young person without much money, I slept on a Japanese futon, I ate Chinese noodles and Turkish kebabs, and I regularly passed large Protestant and Catholic churches…

…Dedicated to a savior born of Jewish heritage in the Roman-occupied Palestine of the Middle East.

Yeah, sure, tell me again how your civilization is Western.

And how Western can your civilization be? It rests economically — still! to this day! — on the enormous pillaging and ethnic cleansing of African and Asian peoples. By the time you finish reading Shashi Tharoor’s magnificently detailed Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, you almost feel like starting a riot outside the British Museum yourself.

(But please don’t. A British comedian once joked that the place ought to switch its sign to “LOOT,” and yep, a lot of truth in that, but there is a notable exception. The archaeologist and man of conscience ahead of his time, Henry Layard, obtained all the Assyrian artifacts and treasures in the British Museum with permission from Ottoman authorities. It’s one of the reasons why he’s a hero of mine — he appreciated other cultures. Shameless plug here: I’m the only guy who’s bothered to write a full bio of him in sixty years, Winged Bull.)

Why is it so hard then for whites and those who benefit from a white-dominated cultural infrastructure to just call it a day and admit they are not the stars of humanity’s progress but just one voice in the chorus?

The most honest answer I can come up with it’s just racism.

Yep. Can’t make it any plainer than that.

And it’s so baked into our systems of journalism, academic study, and grade school to high school education that we need a deeper 1619 Project-style analysis to root it out. As much of a landmark as that project was, it narrowed its focus to America. We need a bigger boat, folks. And the waters will surely get rough when we sail out.

Never mind conservatives, it’s amazing how quickly you’ll find the most liberal, open-minded white folks who will want to deny the racist underpinnings to our conceptual understanding of “Western” Civilization. Sure, they’ll gladly oppose the batshit-crazy Orwellian revisions to school curriculums in say, Florida or Arkansas. After all, leftists and liberals can often acknowledge the sins of the past because they were frequently not in power. Things get difficult for American liberals, however, when you take a magnifying glass to the Roosevelt and Kennedy administrations, but meh, they don’t want to talk about that much.

The Born (White) Supremacy

Now ask them about the long, long list of white reporters who cover Africa. And why Western journalism hasn’t had its #ReportersSoWhite moment.

And this is not an irrelevancy. It goes to the heart of the issue. I was the brief house- guest decades ago of a BBC reporter, nice guy, very kind — but as the TV played in his small apartment in Kent, an item came on about some crisis in Africa. My friend, white of course, casually sneered at how things ran more smoothly when the British ran the country. He was at the time in his early thirties. Never lived in Africa, never seen Africa, born in Tunbridge Wells. And yet he thought like this.

Too many of us still think like this. We presume we’re somehow better. It saturates the media. It shapes the way we perceive the rest of the world.

Why is it that during African and Asian conflicts, and even during the Gaza genocide unfolding now, television networks such as the BBC and Al Jazeera routinely fetch a white dude or woman to comment from the safety of Washington, D.C. or Hampstead on events thousands of miles away? I often get the reflexive (and I think offensively moronic answer), “Uh…uh, but they’re objective…”

Really? You think a white analyst or a white reporter who didn’t grow up with that culture or was born in the country is automatically more impartial than a native resident? One who knows the language, knows the streets and countryside, knows the political players and history?

Do tell: how do they merit that platform on a major network?

We do this when it comes to Iran, and we don’t hear from Iranian analysts or reporters… unless they tow the EU or U.S. State Department line. We do this when it comes to Turkey, and don’t hear from Turkish analysts or reporters… unless they’re a vetted critic of Erdogan.

I’ve told the story before, but it bears repeating. I was asked years ago on a Pakistani broadcast to weigh in on the unfolding Rohingya crisis because I briefly taught journalism in Myanmar. I was horrified to discover that the chase-producers had made no attempt at all to find a guest who is Burmese, let alone Rohingya. Yet it took no more than half an hour for me to find a local activist in Toronto to come on the show, a young man who was articulate and certainly more informed than I was. The program still wanted me, but at least I got this guy a slot. There’s nothing very noble in this, it should be standard practice.

It was another subtle, insidious example where the sons (and often they are sons) of “Western” Civilization are presumed to know better about a corner of the world when they haven’t visited it for years. Even by some people of color. The chair is always pulled out for us to interpret and too often arbitrate others’ struggles.

It would be disingenuous of me and downright hypocritical, given my own output, to wave a flag for no more white commentary. That’s not what I’m saying. The world is big enough for multiple points of view, but I do have a standing personal rule that when a media outlet wants to interview me, I ask if they’ve reached out to an African or Asian reporter first to comment. And you’d be surprised if not appalled at how often this hasn’t occurred to some producers.

Want to see more proof of inherent bias and yet another sign of how there is no “Western Civilization?” Watch this clip of Yalda Hakim of Sky News interviewing analyst Myriam François about the Houthi raids on Red Sea shipping. Both Hakim and François are BBC alums. Hakim is of Afghan descent, but her family fled the Soviet-Afghan War, and she grew up in Australia. François is British of French-Irish descent and a convert to Islam. Hakim clearly expected very different answers to her questions, and the results are almost hilarious.

What adds to the dark comedy is that it’s so obvious that in inviting François on, this accomplished white woman, the network assumed they had “bought” a whole package of Western Civilization values and the status quo line pushed by the U.S. State Department and the European Union. Well, François didn’t give it to them, and the network got way more than it bargained for! I wouldn’t be surprised if Sky News doesn’t invite her back. Unless someone smarter realizes her provocative remarks made good television — and that she’s got some valid points.

The Clash of Civilizations… That Isn’t One

I’m now convinced we are in an open, ugly culture war, but it’s been stupidly mislabeled as one between conservatives and “woke” liberals. It’s far worse than that, and it doesn’t help that those selling their points of view routinely attack critics as “woke” whether they are or not.

This happens to be the tactic of a crashing bore named Rafe Heydel-Mankoo. A guy who interestingly got his education in Canada but worked his way up the UK media food chain by commenting on the royals (zzzzzzz) and being a “public policy consultant.” I’m randomly picking on him because a few days ago, he bragged through Twitter/X about how one of his videos got 3 million views, one that showed his side of a debate back in 2022 at Cambridge Union over slavery reparations. He lost the debate and then labeled his video “WOKE Cambridge students HATE Historian’s Facts.” Well, no, mate, you simply didn’t persuade your audience.

Heydel-Mankoo conceded that “it’s undeniable that 19th century slaves suffered unspeakable horrors,” but soon moved on to argue that “from Britain to the Caribbean, the descendants of slaves today have a far better and higher quality of life than they would have had, had their ancestors remained in Africa, and that is indisputable.”

Well, no, it isn’t, and I can dispute that all day long because the logic is ridiculous on its face.

For one thing, in general, people all over the world today enjoy a better quality of life than their ancestors simply thanks to innovations in medicine and improved hygiene. And before you’re tempted to chalk that up as a win for Europeans, automatically assuming they were responsible for it all, keep in mind East Africans were inoculating against smallpox centuries before Edward Jenner.

The position is also absurd because it’s a trick. And a cheap and deeply racist one at that. The argument of Heydel-Mankoo and others is, in effect, asking you to compare the corruption, poverty, and lack of political stability in African countries with the lot of Black citizens in Britain and the U.S. I find this laughable because they haven’t stopped to remember that African Americans can be shot in their own homes by police thanks to no-knock warrants, choked to death on the street by a white cop pushing his knee on their throat, suffer massive inequities over health care, education, employment, and housing, and you can find similar disparities for much of the Black population in the UK.

You have right-wing populists across the U.S. and Europe doing their best to rewrite history and deny contributions by Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. Do enlighten us: how exactly is life for these descendants of slaves much better than Africans growing up in Ghana, Namibia, Botswana? Especially since economic inequalities were continued by colonial governments long after slavery was abolished. The premise collapses because it becomes a comparison of degrees of deprivation.

But the real heart of their argument — and the whole issue in front of us — isn’t about slavery at all. When it comes down to it, Heydel-Mankoo and others want to cling to the idea that the slavers and slave traders were still morally right. By virtue of their supposed “Western Civilization,” they were just and correct in kidnapping people and then making them farm implements.

This is why this particular culture war is so dangerous. If you assume that these whites were morally justified then, you accept they were somehow inherently superior as well, and since none of us can change our melanin content, you perpetuate the insane notion that white people are still superior. Maybe you don’t walk around with a Klan hood or a Nazi armband, but this is your unspoken assumption.

This is also why you hear today the bugle call over “Western Civilization” in some very disturbing contexts. Even those who want the easy clicks by attacking those who are “woke” know that they can’t come right out and say whites built the world, deal with it and accept it. West has become a safe, imprecise and conveniently vague euphemism for white, despite the obvious fact that all of central and South America are in the same hemisphere and their cultures and contributions, along with those of Aboriginal peoples, are neatly forgotten, ignored, and marginalized.

It’s the same sloppy logic that lets us keep calling Europe a continent when it’s a peninsula sticking out from Asia. It would be far more accurate to label the pervasive cultural and economic dominance we see around us as “the North.”

This quibbling over terms might sound precious, but we urgently need a social and educational revolution. Time and again, modern authoritarianism has demonstrated it goes hand-in-hand with bigotry and white supremacy. Iconic Pan-African writers such as C.L.R. James and George Padmore, as well as civil rights commentators and giants like James Baldwin, have tried over and over to get it through our thick skulls that racism is fascism, even when it comes to us in “milder” forms.

The mainstream media has done nothing to prevent Trump’s resurgence. It does little to sound the alarm over the growing tide of fascists in America and Europe who no doubt can pull out the standard line that they’re defending “Western Civilization.”

The irony is that if we want to save civilization for everyone, we have to kill off the “Western” half of it once and for all.



Jeff Pearce

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.