Reflections on "the West"

 Just last week, I finished a chapter for an edited volume on history and authority that, although good, may never get published. I say this not because the editors rejected it -- they did not. But because I am uncertain it will make it past peer review. I do not think it is a bad article; in fact, parts of it are excellent. But it is "political". I took on one of the most authoritative stories in history -- Western civilization -- and subjected contemporary classics and ancient history writers who promote "the West" and Western exceptionalism to the same type of scrutiny I was trained to apply to ancient texts.  "Western civilization" is a political concept, so any attempt to understand its history and continued power is de facto political as well. As far as those who treat it as a neutral category are concerned, to try to understand it is to violate some sort of academic objectivity, because to truly understand it means to see it as a history of violence and exploitation. For some people, those are good things. If you think they are bad, you are "political."

In doing philological analysis of my colleagues instead of simply citing them as one opinion on an ancient topic, I may have crossed a line. Because no analysis of the Western civilization narrative can avoid the problems of imperialism, colonialism, and genocide that created it. The racism and White supremacism are always there, even when we pretend it isn't. Many of my colleagues want to preserve the language and the category of "West" by pretending it is historically neutral and values-free. It never is. It can't be. And scholars who spend their time arguing about the historically contextual meanings of words should know better.

There are perhaps people who are at this very moment thinking that "the West" is having a moment and is a force for good in the world and so critiquing the history of the label and its meaning is bad. But, if anything, the invasion of Ukraine and the language surrounding it should make clear that this history is very relevant and that we should be concerned  with how we understand "the West" historically. We should be particularly interested in how "West" and "Western" are used to stand in for "civilization" and "civilized".

Like my colleague Neville Morley, who speaks of his own scramble to finish his chapter for the same volume, I too wanted to include a section in my chapter on the current language surrounding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. We are awash in stories of "the West" standing against the evil tyranny of Russia. Except, of course, it isn't "the West" doing it. It is one of those spaces on the map that "the West" designated back in 1994 as a buffer zone between itself and Russia. There are numerous spots on the map of Eurasia that act as such buffer zones. Greece is one, as Yannis Hamilakis discusses in his new co-authored book Archaeology, Nation, and Race. Ukraine is a buffer zone. And the language used in the press and by pundits and analysts in Russia and Europe/US to discuss the war make clear that Ukraine is not "the West". 

Historically, Ukraine's region has always been both a geographic border region and a civilizational one for those who identify as Europeans. But even in antiquity, when no such identity existed, what is now Ukraine was thought to sit at what was considered the boundary between Europe and Asia since the days of Herodotus and Hippocrates. Both the Hippocratic Airs, Waters, Places and Herodotus set the boundary at the Don River, which is very near to the southwestern border of Russia and the eastern border of Ukraine. The territory in Ukraine that Russia is claiming for themselves and currently attempting to depopulate of Ukrainians is on that eastern border near the Don River (ancient Tanais). 

In antiquity, this area was inhabited, according to various ancient Greek texts, by a combination of various groups of "Scythians" and with Greek colonies.  In the Hippocratic Airs, the residents of the region were oddities in need of a medical explanation. The schematic nature of the environmental theory unpinning the Airs demands that the imagined wet and cold climate of the region create people who are bloated and round and can only look like the Scythians the author and other southern Greeks were familiar with through the application of technologies, specifically, hot irons to burn out the wet and damp from their bodies and turn them into the muscled and lithe horseback warriors they were known to be. 

Herodotus, however, provides a lot more detail and variety to his story of the Scythians. Hartog is still, perhaps, the best read for understanding the hold the nomadic horsemen of the Black Sea region held on southern Greeks, but Herodotus himself gives us the story that informs most of our modern imaginary about Steppe peoples, horse-warriors, nomads, and "primitives" on the prairies. They are the quintessential "Noble Savage".  The map below gives a reasonable interpretation of Herodotus' placement of the different Scythian groups and decades of archaeology have given us a picture of exquisite artisans, warriors, and horseman that doesn't conflict all that much with Herodotus' representation. 

Of course, this isn't the whole story. Everywhere along those coasts are Greeks, going all the way back to the 7th century BCE. And Olbia, of course, isn't too far from where Odessa is now, which is itself on top of a Greek colony. Not on the map above also are the group Herodotus calls the Helleno-Scyths and, of course, the Colchians, who may have been descended in part (again according to Herodotus) from an ancient Egyptian shipwreck, while the Sauromatae were said to have descended from a shipwrecked crew of Amazons. Regardless of how accurate Herodotus' origin stories are, what we do know is that Ukraine today is the result of millenia of rich cultural interactions that have formed into its own modern nation today. It doesn't belong to Russia anymore than Greece belongs to "the West" or Russia (despite their apparent grand imperial plans on the country). Also, despite the sentiments of some folks, Ukraine is Europe. But being in Europe doesn't make them "Western", at least not enough for some people. 

It came as a bit of a shock to many people to hear journalists reporting on the invasion using phrases like "relatively civilized" and "they look like us" to discuss the first waves of refugees coming from Ukraine. It was part of their explanation for why these refugees should be accepted into Europe as opposed to all the refugees whom various European states said they were "too full" to take who came from Syria and other war zones to their south (though, of course, Syria is another Russia vs "the West" war, just on someone else's turf). The argument had to be made, though, because Ukraine is only "relatively civilized" because it sits a a buffer between "East" and "West" and isn't "the West." 

The UK is at least honest about this in their refusal to open their borders to refugees. Brexit was mostly aimed at getting eastern Europeans out of the UK, so at least they are consistent. Poland is taking in the most Ukrainian refugees, marking it also as a buffer, just as Greece and Italy were expected by their northern allies to take in and deal with all of the refugees driven out of Syria by war. "The West" builds concentric circles of Westernness around itself. Those concentric circles aren't just Westernness, though. Because "Western" is just a proxy for "civilization" in these discourses. Those circles are also about level of "civilization" -- from civilized to barbarian to savage. Ukraine is in the "relatively civilized" circle, along with much of eastern Europe and as such are deemed inferior locations of resource extraction and exploitation by the still colonizer mentality of western European countries. That hasn't changed in more than a century. 

The fact that Europe and the US are even mobilizing as much effort as they are to help Ukraine is amazing. When Hungary attempted to fight off the Soviets in 1954, they were abandoned, even after continual encouragement by Radio Free Europe and other propaganda mechanisms to resist the Soviets. One member of the British parliament made clear where he stood. He said in response to debate about supporting the revolution something to the effect of "Ever since Arpad and his Magyars entered into the Carpathian basin, they have been nothing but trouble for the rest of Europe." But the point is, those Magyars were not "Europe." They were not "the West". They were a buffer between "the West" and Russia (and in earlier centuries, between Christendom and barbarians) and so were sacrificed. 

NOTE: Viktor Orban is clearly an ally of Putin and is doing only now what he can do without drawing Putin's ire entirely.  Far right governments stick together. But in 1954, the Hungarian revolutionaries were abandoned. Just facts. 

Anyway, the point of this all this is that that story of "the West" is a powerful one that often obscures the realities that it is a story of "civilization" and is part of a narrative about "values" and not geography. It isn't that Ukraine isn't geographically "West" of those who supposedly embody the "East" (Russia off and on for about 300 years now), but that it is in an external concentric circle of civilization that situates it as only "relatively civilized." Their purpose in Europe is to be sacrificed to ensure the safety of their geographically western (and so more "civilized") neighbors. 

If Ukraine manages to push Russia back and survive this war with its country intact, it won't be because "the West" came to its aid (enough). It will be because they fought for their very existence and Russia wasn't as almighty as they present themselves. But the cost will be millions of Ukrainian lives destroyed -- people murdered, bombed, shot; children kidnapped and adopted into Russian families to try to erase their Ukrainianness; hospitals, schools, homes, museums, historic buildings, parks roads, bridges, businesses obliterated; millions displaced perhaps never to be able to return. An actual attempted genocide while we watch. A very "Western" result.