Pride plays an important role in most – if not all – ideologies on the right of the political spectrum. National pride and racial pride are the most obvious examples. The former is, of course, the core feature of nationalism or patriotism; the latter is the foundation of racism. The dominant kind of pride in contemporary right-wing thought seems to be civilizational pride, however. That is, one of the key aspects of the alt-right and right-wing populism as well as more mainstream contemporary conservatism is pride in Western civilization. This pride in Western civilization, let’s call it “Western pride”, is the respectable alternative for national or racial (i.e. white) pride.1
I find this pride in Western civilization – or the belief that Western civilization is the greatest civilization on Earth, to put it in slightly different terms – somewhat peculiar. Of course, from a sociological or social-psychological point of view it is quite understandable. There are plenty of empirically confirmed theories that explain the need of the belief in membership of a superior group. Hence, there is – unfortunately – nothing peculiar about that. What I find peculiar is the rather flimsy justification for the belief in Western superiority. And contrary to racism and nationalism, which are entirely irrational, Western pride overtly depends on rational justifiability. The respectability of the pride in Western civilization depends on its supposed rationality. That is, it depends on the “truth” that the West – in some relevant sense – is better than the rest.
So, the question I’d like to address here is this: What justifies the believe that Western civilization is better than any other civilization? What – exactly – is there to be proud of?
Is it Western art and culture (in the sense of “high culture”: arts, literature, philosophy, and so forth)? Did and does the West produce great art? Perhaps it did and does indeed, but all civilizations produce(d) great art, and there are no objective grounds to judge which art is greater and which is less great. Any judgment on the greatness of the art and culture of some civilization is made from within a civilization, and thus not an objective judgment. But even if we could take a God’s eye point of view, there do not seem to be any standards to compare and judge the greatness of the arts and culture of whole civilizations. In fact, it isn’t the greatness of the art and culture of some civilization that justifies the superiority of that civilization, but rather the other way around: the belief in the greatness of one’s own civilization motivates the belief in the greatness of one’s own civilization’s art and culture. Pride in the art and culture of one’s civilization, then, is derivative: it follows from pride in one’s civilization in general. And lacking objective standards, any civilization (including human civilization – if there is such a thing) is equally entitled to be proud of its art and culture. By implication, art and culture cannot be the answer to the question What makes Western civilization better than any other?
Is it science and technology then? Perhaps this seems a plausible answer, but it requires astounding ignorance to believe. If there is anything that no individual civilization (if there is such a thing as an “individual civilization”) can claim and be proud of, it is science. Science and technology have always been inter-civilizational affairs. Greek science and technology survived and were further developed in the Islamic world during the Middle Ages and returned to Europe after a long period of darkness. (Indeed, the West has Arab science and philosophy to thank for the European Enlightenment.) Much earlier, Indian science spread to and influenced the Greeks, but also the Chinese. Much later, Chinese and Arabian science and technology spread to the West. And so forth. Science and technology have never developed and flourished in isolation and have always been the result of world-wide flows of knowledge and ideas. If science and technology are something to be proud of, then that would be a reason to be proud of humanity, not of just one part thereof.
Then what else could it be? Does Western civilization have a better moral standing than the rest of the world, perhaps? It would take even more blindness for the facts of history to believe that than to believe that science and technology are an exclusively Western affair, so that certainly cannot be it, but I’ll return to – more or less – this topic below.
Is it the prosperity of the West then? Is is the fact that the West is richer and more economically developed than any other part of the world (even if some parts of East Asia have caught up)? Wealth can certainly be a source of pride, but whether wealth justifies a belief in superiority depends on the source of that wealth. A rich thief is hardly justified to feel superior to his poor victims just because of his greater wealth. If the West would be more prosperous than the rest of the world because people in Western civilization work harder and/or smarter than other people, then this could – perhaps – justify Western pride, but if the West would be more prosperous because it was lucky with its natural resources, or because it became wealthy by extorting other civilizations, for example, then prosperity cannot justify superiority. In the latter case, it may actually justify the opposite: if the West’s prosperity is – partially – based on extortion and/or other immoral means, then that could serve as an argument for Western inferiority, or for Western shame rather than Western pride.
It seems to be a common trope of right-wing thought that underdeveloped nations are largely to blame themselves for their poverty, and that the West became rich entirely thanks to its own effort. This is nonsense, as any serious economic historian can tell you. (See, for example, the writings of Erik Reinert and/or Ha-Joon Chang on this topic.) Some right-wing ideologues even believe that colonialism was a good thing, because (according to them) it helped non-Western nations to develop. Conversely, blaming colonialism and blaming the West for economic underdevelopment tends to be met with angry dismissal, but that dismissal is based in Western pride – it is fed by the belief that the West did it all itself and never did anything wrong – rather than by knowledge about economic history.
The British Empire, one of the “greatest” colonizing powers in history, did not allow its colonies to develop manufacturing industry and destroyed (most notably in India) whatever manufacturing industry there was. Other colonial powers copied this policy, and preventing colonies from developing themselves by denying them manufacturing industry and any other kind of economic activity that could start a virtuous circle of growth (and forcing them to focus on agriculture, mining, and so forth) became a defining feature of colonialism. The lack of economic development in the colonies during the colonial era was by Western design. The enforced focus on the production of primary goods as inputs in Western manufacturing industries enriched the West and impoverished the rest.
Unfortunately, the colonial era has never ended. The policies that IMF and World Bank force upon the “developing” world have the exact same effect. Manufacturing industry is destroyed, protection of infant industries illegal, any other kind of investment in developing industry prevented, and the focus on the production of raw materials and other products of the primary sector enforced. All of this is defended by the West and its institutions by means of an appeal to the supposed benefits of free trade based on David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. However, Frank Graham already showed in the 1920s that that theory fails when some countries specialize in industries with diminishing returns such as agriculture and mining, while others specialize in industries with increasing returns such as manufacturing industry. Then, the latter will benefit from free (international) trade, while the former will get poorer. In other words, free trade combined with the enforced specialization of “developing” countries on industries with diminishing returns enriches the West and impoverishes the rest. It is, in fact, a policy that forces “developing” countries to specialize in being poor.
Consequently, Western economic policy and Western wealth should be a source of shame and embarrassment rather than of pride. But there is more to be ashamed of. Western economic development is also to blame for most environmental destruction and for climate change. Although China has become the largest producer of CO₂ (in total, not per capita, of course), most of the CO₂ in the atmosphere that wasn’t already there a few centuries ago (CO₂ stays in the atmosphere very long) was produced in the West. Some non-Western countries are catching up, but the West remains responsible for the rise of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere as well as for most other pollution and environmental destruction. But it is much of the rest of the world that suffers the worst consequences. The Middle East and parts of Africa, South America, and South Asia are drying up because of climate change. Dead zones in the oceans continue to spread and grow. In ever larger areas, food and water supplies are under extreme pressure. And the worst hit areas are all outside the West. This is likely to remain the case for a while. While parts of Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and so forth become increasingly incapable of supporting their populations, the West has only minor problems that it, moreover, may be able to solve by technological means thanks to its wealth. This will create ever growing refugee flows.
Perhaps, I should not use future tense here. War in the Middle East is inseparable from the severe drying up of that region in the past decade due to climate change. Hence, the refugee flows from the Middle East are already climate-related. And the effects of climate change on the supply of food and water (in combination with the aforementioned economic destruction) are also a key driver in the flow of refugees from Africa that try to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, and the flow of refugees from Latin America that try to reach the US. The changing climate due to (mostly) Western pollution of the atmosphere is partially to blame for these refugee flows. (And many of the other causes are also directly or indirectly due to policies and actions of Western civilization.) This is (or should be) another source of Western shame and embarrassment rather than of pride.
But it’s even worse than what I have sketched thus far. Not only is the West at least partially (but probably mostly) to blame for existing refugee flows (especially if you take the poverty resulting from Western economic policy into account), it actively denies any blame, refuses to take any responsibility, and instead of helping the refugees only makes them suffer more. Shame and embarrassment are insufficient in response to this. Anger and repulsion are required.
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When I wrote that I found Western pride “peculiar”, I was lying. I don’t find it peculiar at all – I find it repulsive. The belief that Western civilization is “great” or the “greatest” in any sense of the word “great” depends on a sickening blindness for inconvenient facts and for the suffering of others. That Western pride is so widespread and is widely accepted as a legitimate view is shocking. Lacking any rational justification, it is no different from racism or nationalism. (Western pride and white racism privilege the exact same people, just for slightly different reasons, but if those reasons are irrational – and thus non-reasons – then that difference evaporates, and Western pride is revealed to be nothing but an attempt to make white racism respectable again.)
Western pride should be fought and destroyed rather than tolerated. It is not a legitimate view; it is a disease.
- I’m limiting myself to the West, here of course. Right-wing thought in most of Asia is not characterized by any similar kind of civilizational pride, but by “old-fashioned” national pride. And I’m also ignoring a version of Western pride that also occurs on the left of the political spectrum – white savior syndrome – although much of the following may apply to that as well.