A little over 28 years ago I had written an article, published in a major daily, questioning a few assumptions of the late conservative thinker William F. Buckley, who had asserted that there had never been any significant literary-intellectual tradition outside the West. It was a blithe assertion that was simply untrue. Alas, it seems beliefs die hard.
Last Monday, the Republican Congressman Steve King made a similar assertion. He asked a television moderator where "any other subgroup of people" had contributed more to civilization than white Europeans and Americans.
That debate from nearly three decades ago has relevance in today's somewhat noxious political atmosphere. In King's opinion, "Western civilization (is) rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the United States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world." In a geo-cultural sense, the assertion is restating the obvious. Western civilization is clearly situated in the West. Also, European and American ideas and contributions have had a profound impact on the shape of the modern world.
Problems arise in, first, his apparently key assumption and, second, in his use, in my careful opinion, of two amorphous adjectives.
The assumption is that what is commonly called Western civilization today is "rooted" in a white Christian West. In fact, no great civilization in history ever stood on its own exclusive roots. Ever since the beginning of an acknowledged mother root settlement of homo sapiens in Africa, the history of our race has been one of migration, trade, cultural interaction and genetic mingling to bring the human race to where we are. Paleontologists, anthropologists, and historians today agree overwhelmingly on this story, though creationists of most faiths would of course differ.
European civilization is undoubtedly the dominant, and exceptionally innovative, trend of the past two or three centuries. It wasn't always so. The Sumerian, Babylonian, Chinese, Indian, Greek and Roman civilizations for instance all borrowed from one another while intermittently occupying the heights of global power as far as it extended then. During what Europeans came to dub the Dark Ages, the Islamic culture provided a bridge to the ancient Greco-Roman culture through five or six centuries. Much of the Renaissance benefited from those preserved roots.
To cut a long story short, any assumption that the now dominant Euro-Christian civilization has exclusive roots is highly debatable. Roots of all civilizations lie in exchange and migration.
Then there is King's use during that televised argument of two adjectives: white and Western.
Is "white race" a valid concept? Did it ever exist in our historical vocabulary until the advent of a phase of European colonial expansion in recent centuries? Did the genesis of the white man's burden lie in Rudyard Kipling's inventive mind or was it decreed to be so by history's destiny?
These are questions that probably need examination before making assumptions about a primordial white "race" or, for that matter, black race or brown race or Mongolian race comprising people of singularly defined characteristics more than shades of skin color or facial appearance.
In Europe, for instance, one bunch of whites hated other groups of whites enough on grounds of culture and even race as late as the first half of the 20th century to indulge in two catastrophic massacres that we define as "world wars". In America, white Protestants viscerally hated white Catholics, especially the Irish, in the 19th and the early 20th century. The two Christian groups combined hated white Jewish immigrants for millennia until Jews, after history's worst mass murder, came to be accepted in the 20th century as normal beings deserving of human rights. So, which white race are we talking about? Aren't other factors, like class or faith, relevant?
Finally, I find the term "Western" confusing when indiscriminately used. True, today we accept a more or less identifiable politico-cultural entity we call the West for convenience to cover Europe and America as well as a set of global yardsticks of modern civilization. But the concept is yet another relatively recent intruder in global discourse. It too did not exist till the European colonial adventures began. It rarely occurs in literature or political treatises before the 20th century.
Some of us who come from non-Western cultural backgrounds, but have nonetheless been profoundly influenced by world trends and norms growing out of European thought and events, feel that using the term Western in many cases relegates us to a secondary status in the world. We prefer the adjective "modern" or "urban" or "industrial-technological" to qualify current trends or phenomena in a rapidly globalizing civilization rather than saying it's all uniquely Western.
But, of course, such preferences are born out of varying cultural contexts. They are all essentially terms of convenience, are not precise, and remain open to debate. Like "Western". Or "white".
Gautam Adhikari is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC and a former Executive Editor of The Times of India.