Notes on "West" and "Western Civ"

Yes, I included this meme in the article.
I recently (like this morning) finished an article that examines three ways in which ancient Greece is used in support of white supremacism: orientalism, western civ narratives, and whitewashing ancient peoples. The article is for a volume called "Polarized Pasts" and has a word limit. Also, there is soooooo much material about Western civ that I had to delete about 3000 words worth. Instead of consigning it all to my digital trash bin, I thought I would post some of those cuts here as it seems to be a topic lots of people are interested in. But, you can probably see why it got edited out--too dense, etc. Anyway, let's go:

On Ian Morris' Why the West Rules...For Now

For some scholars there is nothing inherently racial or racist about the idea of a “West” and “Western civilization”. It can either be about values or geography. Ancient historian Ian Morris, for example, prefers a geographic definition of West, which he hopes will help him avoid falling into racist tropes. He devotes the better part of 100 pages in his book Why the West Rule—For Now coming up with a definition of “West” intended to show the fallacy of biological (and thereby race based) definitions of “Western”. Morris begins his quest to answer the question “Why does the West rule” by seeking to define it.

For Morris, the “West” (and “East”) is defined as:

…simply a geographic term, referring to those societies that descended from the westernmost Eurasian core of domestication, in the Hilly Flanks.[1] It makes no sense to talk about “the West” as a distinctive region before about 11,000 BCE, when cultivation began making the Hilly Flanks unusual; and the concept stars to become an important analytical tool only after 8,000 BCE, when other agricultural cores started appearing. By 4500 BCE, the West had expanded to include most of Europe, and in the last five hundred years colonists have taken it to the Americas, the Antipodes,[2] and Siberia. “The East”, naturally enough, simply means those societies that descended from the easternmost core of domestication that began developing in China by 7500 BCE. We can also speak of comparable New World, South Asian, New Guinean, and African traditions. Asking why the West rules really means asking why those societies descended from the agricultural core of the Hilly Flanks, rather than those descended from the cores in China, Mexico, the Indus Valley, the eastern Sahara, Peru, or New Guinea, came to dominate the planet (117).

For Morris, any divisions in culture are simply that, cultural, and a result of distinctive developments in these seven different core regions where agriculture and animal domestication become established. It is a fact of geography…except when it isn’t, of course. While Morris makes efforts throughout his discussion to dispute and ultimately refute what he calls “racial” theories of “Western” supremacy, he ever engages with the issue of how “race” and “culture” are intertwined. In fact, he assumes that “race” is itself about DNA and biology and not what we know it to be—a matter of social convention that seeks biological distinctions for cultural differences. As Angela Saini so eloquently shows, almost all theories of human cultural and “biodiversity” rest still on the categories created by race scientists in the 19th century—Europe, Africa, and Asia.[3] Morris not only doesn’t challenge such racist thinking, his use of “simply geographic” distinction that then develops “cultural descendants” allows the core of racist distinctions between an “East” and “West’ to hide in plain sight and continue to be used by those who uphold a cultural superiority of “Western civilization” as built ultimately on a biological reality.

Although Morris attempts to make the idea of ‘Western’ stand geographically and rooted in a deep antiquity, he still adheres to a theory that Western civilization was something that becomes quintessentially (northern and western) European by the 16th century, such that they could spread it through colonization to “the Americas, the Antipodes, and Siberia”. What this means is that the current definition of ‘Western” contains a decidedly non-cohesive geographic collection of spaces. As Sam Huntington states, the places that stand as the “West” since the 16th century are identified purely by the association with northern European settler-colonialism and imperialism. An amusing (but accurate) map of the ‘West’ might look something like this (Fig. 3):

Don't worry! I also included this map in the article! It just didn't work here as part of this particular section

Because Morris is looking into the deep history of a division between “West” and “East”, he doesn’t situate the origins of “Western civilization” with the Greeks, specifically. In fact, between roughly 1000 and 100 BCE, Morris sees “West” and East” as roughly comparable in their achievements, eschewing a “Greek Miracle” or, as Kwame Anthony Appiah calls it “Golden Nugget”, at the core of most Western civilization narratives. But, Morris does gradually shift the “West” away from it Eurasian starting point (as he designates it) towards Europe, while designating China as the ultimate bearer of the title “East” in order to make this work. Ancient Iran and the Achaemenid Persians, the Orientalized eastern other of the 300 discussed at the beginning of this chapter, are a credited with pushing the West forward, but then Morris shifts to core of the West, recentering it at Rome. It’s a very clever sleight of hand that allows the technologies and cultural deep past of western Asia and Egypt to be appropriated and claimed as the inheritance of northern and western Europeans via the ancient Greeks and Romans, while paving the way for the modern rejection of those same regions as part of the West at all, something visible most clearly in the “clash of civilization” models.

By defining Western as he does, Morris, even though he disagrees with Huntington in important ways (he does not view Western civilization as inherently superior, for example), ultimately defines the “West” through the mechanism of colonization and imperialism, not unlike those who do advocate for a narrative of Western superiority—a position inextricably bound to white supremacism and racism because it posits behaviors and values originating in a single geographic and ethnic space as inherent and heritable immutable characteristics.

[1] Hilly Flanks in the term used for the foothills regions within the so-called Fertile Crescent, the region that ranges across modern Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, eastern Egypt, Cyprus and the southeastern tip of Turkey.
[2] i.e. Australia and New Zealand.
[3] A. Saini 2019. Her interview with geneticist David Reich and discussion of the state of aDNA research is particularly illuminating.

West is Best? 

In response to the flap over Rep. Steve King’s remarks linking White nationalism, White supremacism, and Western civilization, Matt Lewis, senior writer for the Daily Beast wrote:

One could spend a lifetime studying the virtues of Western civilization, but it occurs to me that I should at least explain what I mean when I say those words. In general, we are referring to the norms and values that began in Western Asia and were developed and influenced by the Greeks, the Roman Empire, Judeo-Christian traditions, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment.

Due to a set of unique circumstances, this culmination of these events gave birth to innovative ideas like reason, tolerance, skepticism, individualism, natural law, human rights, liberal democracy, and an emphasis on science—in short, many of the virtues and values that a good “liberal” ought to endorse (not to mention the art and literature in the Western canon).

Ideas like “individualism” and “tolerance” transcend race and religion. Any baby (white, black, Asian, Hispanic—it doesn’t matter) born in America is assimilated into this culture; yet, we have had a difficult time exporting these values at the macro level. That’s because the miracle of Western civilization has nothing to do with genetics, but everything to do with culture and assimilation (emphasis mine).[1]

“Reason, tolerance, skepticism, individualism, natural law, human rights, liberal democracy, and an emphasis on science…” Lewis’s list of values supposedly unique to Western civilization is not one he invented, and is particularly popular among the non-specialist literati, like New York Times opinion writer and author David Books . He regularly bemoans the fact that students in colleges are no longer being taught the classics and a Western civilization curriculum, because:

This Western civ narrative came with certain values—about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals.[2]

These value-based definitions are always presented as universal and something that people, regardless of background or context, can assimilate to. Assimilationism is, as Ibrham X. Kendi has argued, one of the dominant ways racist ideas are perpetuated—it assumes that one culture is superior and that others should want to assimilate to it and need to in order to be considered equal.[3]

The values based definition of Western civilization is not exclusively a product of popular opinion but aligns with the understanding of the concept as discussed by many historians, such as Niall Ferguson. In his book Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), Niall Ferguson defines the “West” geographically as western, Europe and its direct colonies since, roughly, 1500, originating with the “Anglo-Saxon” states and expanding to eventually include the rest of western Europe. He recognizes the debt it owes to antiquity (calling “Western Civilization 1.0)” antiquity from Mesopotamia to ancient Rome),but defines the “West” mostly as “a set of norms, behaviors, and institutions” encompassed in these specific values:

1. Competition—a decentralization of both political and economic life, which created the launch-pad for both nation-states and capitalism
2. Science—a way of studying, understanding, and ultimately changing the natural order, which gave the West (among other things) a major military advantage over the Rest
3. Property rights—the rule of law as a means of protecting private owners and peacefully resolving disputes between them, which formed the basis for the most stable form of representative government
4. Medicine—a branch of science that allowed a major improvements to health and life expectancy, beginning in Western societies, but also their colonies
5. The consumer society—a mode of material living in which the production and purchase of clothing and other consumer goods play a central economic role, and without which the Industrial Revolution would have been unsustainable
6. The work ethic—a moral framework and mode of activity derivable from (among other sources) Protestant Christianity, which provides the glue for the dynamic and potentially unstable society created by apps 1 to 5.[5]

Of course, the problem with rooting a culture or “civilization” in values is that these values tend to be projected not as one among many sets of values held by diverse peoples in the world, but as superior values—which is precisely what Ferguson argues:

There are those who dispute that, claiming that all civilizations are in some sense equal, and that the West cannot claim superiority over, say, the East of Eurasia. But such relativism is demonstrably absurd.[6]

Ferguson also explicitly states that empire and colonialism are fundamental to Western civilization. He repeatedly makes clear that the “West” is a superior culture, that its rise was “the single most important historical phenomenon of the second half of the second millennium after Christ”,[7] and that the proof of this is in the pervasiveness of a ‘Western way of life”:

For some reason, beginning in the late 15th century, the little states of Western Europe, with their bastardized linguistic borrowings from Latin (and a little Greek), their religion derived from the teachings of a Jew from Nazareth and their intellectual debts to Oriental mathematics, astronomy, and technology, produced a civilization capable not only of conquering the great Oriental empires and subjugating Africa, the Americas and Australia, but also of converting peoples all over the world to the Western way of life—a conversion achieved ultimately more by the word than by the sword (emphasis mine).[8]

In other words, the values that opinion writers like Lewis and Brooks identify as Western, but suggest are universal or that anyone can assimilate to are the ones that historians like Ferguson (and even Morris, even if unintentionally) link exclusively to not just a strictly European origin and perpetuation, but even an exclusively “Anglo-Saxon” and then more broadly western European source.

[1]How Steve King’s Idiotic and Odious Words Help the Left Destroy Western Civilization” The Daily Beast Jan. 11, 2019 (; accessed Jan. 13, 2020).
[2]Brooks “The Crisis of Western Civ” The New York Times, April 27, 2017 (; accessed Jan. 27, 2020).
[3] Kendi 2019, 24-34, esp, and 2018, passim.
[5] Ferguson 2011, 13.
[6] Ferguson 2011, 5.
[7] Ferguson 2011, 8.
[8] Ferguson 2011, 4-5.