Field of Science

If you believe Western Civilization is oppressive, you will ensure it is oppressive

Philosopher John Locke's defense of the natural rights of
man should apply to all people, not just to one's favorite factions
This is my third monthly column for the website 3 Quarks Daily. In it I lament what I see as an attack on Enlightenment values and Western Civilization from both the right and the left. I am especially concerned by the prevalent narrative on the left that considers Western Civilization as fundamentally oppressive, especially since the left could be the only thing standing between civilization and chaos at the moment. Both right and left thus need to reach back into their roots as stewards of Enlightenment values.

When the British left India in 1947, they left a complicated legacy behind. On one hand, Indians had suffered tremendously under oppressive British rule for more than 250 years. On the other hand, India was fortunate to have been ruled by the British rather than the Germans, Spanish or Japanese. The British, with all their flaws, did not resort to putting large numbers of people in concentration camps or regularly subjecting them to the Inquisition. Their behavior in India had scant similarities with the behavior of the Germans in Namibia or the Japanese in Manchuria.
More importantly, while they were crisscrossing the world with their imperial ambitions, the British were also steeping the world in their long history of the English language, of science and the Industrial Revolution and of parliamentary democracy. When they left India, they left this legacy behind. The wise leaders of India who led the Indian freedom struggle - men like Jawaharlal Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi and B. R. Ambedkar - understood well the important role that all things British had played in the world, even as they agitated and went to jail to free themselves of British rule. Many of them were educated at Western universities like London, Cambridge and Columbia. They hated British colonialism, but they did not hate the British; once the former rulers left they preserved many aspects of their legacy, including the civil service, the great network of railways spread across the subcontinent and the English language. They incorporated British thought and values in their constitution, in their educational institutions, in their research laboratories and in their government services. Imagine what India would have been like today had Nehru and Ambedkar dismantled the civil service, banned the English language, gone back to using bullock cart and refused to adopt a system of participatory democracy, simply because all these things were British in origin.
The leaders of newly independent India thus had the immense good sense to separate the oppressor and his instruments of oppression from his enlightened side, to not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Nor was an appreciation of Western values limited to India by any means. In the early days, when the United States had not yet embarked on its foolish, paranoid misadventures in Southeast Asia, Ho Chi Minh looked toward the American Declaration of Independence as a blueprint for a free Vietnam. At the end of World War 1 he held the United States in great regard and tried to get an audience with Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Conference. It was only when he realized that the Americans would join forces with the occupying French in keeping Vietnam an occupied colonial nation did Ho Chi Minh's views about the U.S. rightly sour. In other places in Southeast Asia and Africa too the formerly oppressed preserved many remnants of the oppressor's culture.
Yet today I see many, ironically in the West, not understanding the wisdom which these leaders in the East understood very well. The values bequeathed by Britain which India upheld were part of the values which the Enlightenment bequeathed to the world. These values in turn went back to key elements of Western Civilization, including Greek, Roman, Byzantine, French, German and Dutch. And simply put, Enlightenment values and Western Civilization are today under attack, in many ways from those who claim to stand by them. Both left and right are trampling on them in ways that are misleading and dangerous. They threaten to undermine centuries worth of progress.
The central character of Enlightenment values should be common knowledge, and yet the fact that it seems worth reiterating them is a sign of our times.
To wit, consider the following almost axiomatic statements:
Freedom of speech, religion and the press is all-important and absolute.
The individual and his property have certain natural and inalienable rights.
Truth, whatever it is, is not to be found in religious texts.
Kings and religious rulers cannot rule by fiat and are constrained by the wishes of the governed.
The world can be deciphered by rationally thinking about it.
All individuals deserve fair trials by jury and are not to be subjected to cruel punishment.
The importance of these ideas cannot be overestimated. When they were first introduced they were novel and revolutionary; we now take them for granted, perhaps too much for granted. They are in large part what allow us to distinguish ourselves as human beings, as members of the unique creative species called Homo sapiens.
The Enlightenment reached its zenith in mid-eighteenth century France, Holland and England, but its roots go back deep into the history of Western Civilization. As far back as ancient Babylon, the code of Hammurabi laid out principles of justice describing proportionate retaliation for crimes. The peak of enlightened thought before the French enlightenment was in Periclean Athens. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Athens led the way in philosophy and science, in history and drama; in some sense, almost every contemporary political and social problem and its resolution goes back to the Greeks. Even when others superseded Greek and Roman civilization, traces of the Enlightenment kept on appearing throughout Europe, even in its dark ages. For instance, the Code of the Emperor Justinian laid out many key judicial principles that we take for granted, including a right to a fair trial, a right against self-incrimination and a proscription against trying someone twice for the same crime.
In 1215, the Magna Carta became the first modern document to codify the arguments against the divine authority of kings. Even as wars and revolutions engulfed Europe during the next five hundred years, principles like government through the consent of the governed, trial by jury and the prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment got solidified through trial and error, through resistance and triumph. They saw their culmination in the English and American wars of independence and the constitutions of these countries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By the time we get to France in the mid 1750s, we have philosophers like John Locke explicitly talking about the natural rights of men and Charles-Louis Montesquieu explicitly talking about the tripartite separation of powers in government. These principles are today the bedrock of most democratic republics around the world, Western and Eastern. At the same time, let us acknowledge that Eastern ideas and thinkers – Buddha and Confucius in particular – have also contributed immensely to humanity's progress and will continue to do. In fact, personally I believe that the concepts of self-control, detachment and moderation that the East has given us will, in the final analysis, supersede everything else. However, most of these ideas are personal and inward looking. They are also very hard to live up to for most mortals, and for one reason or another have not integrated themselves thoroughly yet into our modern ways of life. Thus, there is little doubt that modern liberal democracies as they stand today, both in the West and the East, are mostly products of Western Civilizational notions.
In many ways, the study of Western Civilization is therefore either a study of Enlightenment values or of forces – mainly religious ones – aligned against them. It shows a steady march of the humanist zeitgeist through dark periods which challenged the supremacy of these values, and of bright ones which reaffirmed them. One would think that a celebration of this progress would be beyond dispute. And yet what we see today is an attack on the essential triumphs of Western Civilization from both left and right.
Each side brings its own brand of hostility and hypocrisy to bear on the issue. As the left rightly keeps pointing out, the right often seems to forget about the great mass of humanity that was not only cast on to the sidelines but actively oppressed and enslaved, even as freedom and individual rights seemed to be taking root elsewhere for a select few. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as England and America and France were freeing themselves from monarchy and the divine rights of kings, they were actively plunging millions of men and women in Africa, India and other parts of the world into bondage and slavery and pillaging their nations. The plight of slaves being transported to the English colonies under inhuman conditions was appalling, and so was the hypocrisy of thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington who wrote about how all men are born equal while simultaneously keeping them unequal. Anyone who denies the essential hypocrisy of such liberal leaders in selectively promulgating their values would be intentionally misleading themselves and others.
Even later, as individual rights became more and more codified into constitutions and official documents, they remained confined to a minority, largely excluding people of color, indigenous people, women and poor white men and from their purview. This hadn't been too different even in the crucible of democracy, Periclean Athens, where voting and democratic membership were restricted to landowning men. It was only in the late twentieth century - more than two hundred years after the Enlightenment - that these rights were fully extended to all. That's an awfully long time for what we consider as basic freedoms to seep into every strata of society. But we aren't there yet. Even today, the right often denies the systemic oppression of people of color and likes to pretend that all is well when it comes to equality of the law; in reality, when it comes to debilitating life events like police stops and searches, prison incarceration and health emergencies, minorities, women and the poor can be disproportionately affected. The right will seldom agree with these facts, but mention crime or dependence on welfare and the right is more than happy to generalize their accusations to all minorities or illegal immigrants.
The election of Donald Trump has given voice to ugly elements of racism and xenophobia in the U.S., and there is little doubt that these elements are mostly concentrated on the right. Even if many right-wingers are decent people who don't subscribe to these views, they also don't seem to be doing much to actively oppose them. Nor are they actively opposing the right's many direct assaults on the environment and natural resources, assaults that may constitute the one political action whose crippling effects are irreversible. Meanwhile, the faux patriotism on the far right that worships men like Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson while ignoring their flaws and regurgitates catchy slogans drafted by Benjamin Franklin and others during the American Revolution conveniently pushes the oppressive and hypocritical behavior of these men under the rug. Add to this a perverse miscasting of individual and states' rights, and you end up with people celebrating the Confederate Flag and Jefferson Davis.
If criticizing this hypocrisy and rejection of the great inequities in this country's past and present were all that the left was doing, then it would be well and good. Unfortunately the left has itself started behaving in ways that aren't just equally bad but possibly worse in light of the essential function that it needs to serve in a liberal society. Let's first remember that the left is the political faction that claims to uphold individual rights and freedom of speech. But especially in the United States during the last few years, the left has instead become obsessed with playing identity politics, and both individual rights and free speech have become badly mangled victims of this obsession. For the, left individual rights and freedom of speech are important as long as they apply to their favorite political groups, most notably minorities and women. For the extreme left in particular, there is no merit to individual opinion anymore unless it is seen through the lens of the group that the individual belongs to. Nobody denies that membership in your group shapes your individual views, but the left believes that the latter basically has no independent existence; this is an active rejection of John Locke's primacy of the individual as the most important unit of society. The left has also decided that some opinions – even if they may be stating facts or provoking interesting discussion – are so offensive that they must be censored, if not by official government fiat, then by mass protest and outrage that verges on bullying. Needless to say, social media with its echo chambers and false sense of reassurance engendered by surrounding yourself with people who think just like you has greatly amplified this regressive behavior.
As is painfully familiar by now, this authoritarian behavior is playing out especially on college campuses, with a new case of "liberal" students bullying or banning conservative speakers on campus emerging almost every week. Universities are supposed to be the one place in the world where speech of all kinds is not just explicitly allowed but encouraged, but you would not see this critical function fulfilled on many college campuses today. Add to this the Orwellian construct of "micoroagressions" that essentially lets anyone decide whether an action, piece of speech or event is an affront to their favorite oppressed political group, and you have a case of full-blown unofficial censorship purely based on personal whims that basically stifles any kind of disagreement. It is censorship which squarely attacks freedom of speech as espoused by Voltaire, Locke, Adams and others. As Voltaire's biographer Evelyn Hall – a woman living in Victorian times – famously said, "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Seemingly a woman in Victorian times - a society that was decidedly oppressive to women - had more wisdom to defend freedom of speech than a young American liberal in the twenty-first century.
This behavior threatens to undermine and tear apart the very progressive forces which the left claims to believe in. Notably, their so-called embrace of individual rights and diversity often seems to exclude white people, and white men in particular. The same people who claim to be champions of individual rights claim that all white men are "privileged", have too many rights, are trampling on others' rights and do not deserve more. The writer Edward Luce who has just written a book warning about the decline of progressive values in America talks about how, at the Democratic National Convention leading up to the 2016 U.S. election, he saw pretty much every "diversity" box checked except that belonging to white working class people; it was almost as if the Democrats wanted to intentionally exclude this group. For many on the left, diversity equates only to ethnic and gender diversity; any other kind of diversity and especially intellectual or viewpoint diversity are to be either ignored or actively condemned.This attitude is entirely contrary to the free exchange of ideas and respect for diverse opinions that was the hallmark of Enlightenment thinking.
The claim that white men have enough rights and are being oppressive is factually contradicted by the plight of millions of poor whites who are having as miserable a time as any oppressed minority. They have lost their jobs and have lost their health insurance, they have been sold a pipe dream full of empty promises by all political parties, and in addition they find themselves mired in racist and ignorant stereotypes. The left's drumbeat of privilege is very real, but it is also context-dependent; it can rise and ebb with time and circumstance. To illustrate with just one example, a black man in San Francisco will enjoy certain financial and social privileges that a white man in rural Ohio quite certainly won't: how can one generalize notions of privilege to all white men then, and especially those who have been dealt a bad hand? The white working class has thus found itself with almost no friend; rich white people have both Democrats and Republicans, rich and poor minorities largely have Democrats, but poor whites have no one and are being constantly demonized. No wonder they voted for Donald Trump out of desperation; he at least pretended to be their friend, while the others did not even put on a pretense. The animosity among white working class people is thus understandable and documented in many enlightening books, especially Arlie Hochschild's "Strangers in their Own Land". Even Noam Chomsky, who cannot be faintly accused of being a conservative, has sympathized with their situation and justifiable resentment. And as Chomsky says, the problem is compounded by the fact that not everyone on the left actually cares about poor minorities, since the Democratic party which they support has largely turned into a party of moneyed neoliberal white elites in the last two decades.
This singling out of favorite political groups at the expense of other oppressed ones is identity politics at its most pernicious, and it's not just hypocritical but destructive; the counter-response to selective oppression cannot also be selective oppression. As Gandhi said, an eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind. And this kind of favoritism steeped in identity politics is again at odds with John Locke's idea of putting the individual front and center. Locke was a creature of his times, so just like Jefferson he did not actively espouse individual freedom for indigenous people, but his idealization of the individual as the bearer of natural rights was clear and critical. For hundreds of years that individual was mostly white, but the response to that asymmetry cannot simply be to pick an individual of another skin color.
The general response on the left against the sins of Western Civilization and white men has been to consider the whole edifice of Western Civilization as fundamentally oppressive. In some sense this is not surprising since for many years, the history of Western Civilization was written by the victors; by white men. A strong counter-narrative emerged with books like Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States"; since then many others have followed suit and they have contributed very valuable, essential perspectives from the other side. Important contributions to civilizational ideas from the East have also received their dues. But the solution is not to swing to the other extreme and dismiss everything that white men in the West did or focus only on their sins, especially as viewed through the lens of our own times. That would be a classic ousting of the baby with the bathwater, and exactly the kind of regressive thinking that the leaders of India avoided when they overthrew the British.
Yes, there are many elements of Western Civilization that were undoubtedly oppressive, but the paradox of it was that Western Civilization and white men also simultaneously crafted many ideas and values that were gloriously progressive; ideas that could serve to guide humanity toward a better future and are applicable to all people in all times. And these ideas came from the same white men who also brought us colonialism, oppression of women and slavery. If that seems self-contradictory or inconvenient, it only confirms Walt Whitman's strident admission: "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." We can celebrate Winston Churchill's wartime leadership and oratory while condemning his horrific orchestration of one of India's worst famines. We can celebrate Jefferson's plea for separation of church and state and his embrace of science while condemning his treatment of slaves; but if you want to dismantle statues of him or James Madison from public venues, then you are effectively denouncing both the slave owning practices as well as the Enlightenment values of these founding fathers.
Consider one of the best-known Enlightenment passages, the beginnings of the Declaration of Independence as enshrined in Jefferson's soaring words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." It is easy to dismiss the slave-owning Jefferson as a hypocrite when he wrote these words, but their immortal essence was captured well by Abraham Lincoln when he realized the young Virginian's genius in crafting them:
"All honor to Jefferson--to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression."
Thus, Lincoln clearly recognized that whatever his flaws, Jefferson intended his words to apply not just to white people or black people or women or men, but to everyone besieged by oppression or tyranny in all times. Like a potent mathematical theorem, the abstract, universal applicability of Jefferson's words made them immortal. In light of this great contribution, Jefferson's hypocrisy in owning slaves, while unfortunate and deserving condemnation, cannot be held up as a mirror against his entire character and legacy.
In its blanket condemnation of dead white men like Jefferson, the left also fails in appreciating what is perhaps one of the most marvelous paradoxes of history. It was precisely words like these, written and codified by Jefferson, Madison and others in the American Constitution, that gradually allowed slaves, women and minorities to become full, voting citizens of the American Republic. Yes, the road was long and bloody, and yes, we aren't even there yet, but as Martin Luther King memorably put it, the arc of the moral universe definitely bent toward justice in the long term. The left ironically forgets that the same people who it rails against also created the instruments of democracy and freedom that put the levers of power into the hands of Americans of all colors and genders. There is no doubt that this triumph was made possible by the ceaseless struggles of traditionally oppressed groups, but it was also made possible by a constitution written exclusively by white men who oppressed others: Whitman's multitudinous contradictions in play again.
Along with individual rights, a major triumph of Western Civilization and the Enlightenment has been to place science, reason, facts and observations front and center. In fact in one sense, the entire history of Western Civilization can be seen as a struggle between reason and faith. This belief in science as a beacon of progress was enshrined in the Royal Society's motto extolling skepticism: "Nullius in verba", or "Nobody's word is final". Being skeptical about kings' divine rights or about truth as revealed in religious texts was a profound, revolutionary and counterintuitive idea at the time. Enlightenment values ask us to bring only the most ruthless skepticism to bear on truth-seeking, and to let the facts lead us where they do. Science is the best tool for ridding us of our prejudices, but it never promises us that its truths would be psychologically comforting or conform to our preconceived social and political beliefs. In fact, if science does not periodically make us uncomfortable about our beliefs and our place in the universe, we are almost certainly doing it wrong.
Sadly, the left and right have both played fast and loose with this critical Enlightenment value. Each side looks to science and cherry-picks facts for confirming their social and political beliefs; each side then surrounds itself with people who believe what they do, and denounces the other side as immoral or moronic. For instance, the right rejects factual data on climate change because it's contrary to their political beliefs, while the left rejects data on gender or racial differences because it's contrary to theirs. The religious right rejects evidence, while the religious left rejects vaccination. Meanwhile, each side embraces the data that the other has rejected with missionary zeal because it supports their social agenda. Data on other social or religious issues is similarly met with rebuke and rejection. The right does not want to have a reasonable discussion on socialism, while the left does not want to have a reasonable discussion on immigration or Islam. The right often fails to see the immense contribution of immigration to this country's place in the world, while the left often regards any discussion even touching on reasonable limits to immigration as xenophobia and nativism.
The greatest tragedy of this willful blindness is that where angels fear to tread, fools and demagogues willingly step in. For instance, the left's constant refusal to engage in an honest and reasonable critique of Islam and its branding of those who wish to do this as Islamophobes discourages level-headed people from entering that arena, thus paving the way for bonafide Islamophobes and white supremacists. Meanwhile, the right's refusal to accept even reasonable evidence for climate change opens the field to those who think of global warming as a secular religion with special punishments for heretics. Both sides lose, but what really loses here is the cause of truth. Since truth has already become a casualty in this era of fake news and exaggerated polemics on social media, this refusal on both sides to accept facts that are incompatible with their psychological biases will surely sound the death knell for science and rationality. Then, as Carl Sagan memorably put it, unable to distinguish between what is true and what feels good, clutching our pearls, we will gradually slide, without even knowing it, into darkness and ignorance.
We need to resurrect the cause of Enlightenment values and Western Civilization, the values espoused by Jefferson, Locke and Hume, by Philadelphia, London and Athens. The fact that flawed white men largely created them should have nothing to do with their enthusiastic acceptance and propagation, since their essential, abstract, timeless qualities have nothing to do with the color of the skin of those who thought of them; rejecting them because of the biases of their creators would be, at the very least, replacing one set of biases with another.
One way of appreciating these values is to actually resurrect them with all their glories and faults in college courses, because college is where the mind truly forms. In the last 40 years or so, the number of colleges that include Western Civilization as a required course in their curriculum has significantly reduced. Emphasis is put instead on world history. It is highly rewarding to expose students to world history, but surely there is space to include a capsule history of the fundamental principles of Western Civilization as a required component of these curricula. Another strategy to leverage these ideals is to use the power of social media in a constructive manner, to use the great reaches of the Internet to bring together people who are passionate about them and who care about their preservation and transmission.
This piece may seem like it dwells more on the failures of the left than the right. For me the reason is simple: Donald Trump's election in the United States, along with the rise of similar authoritarian right-wing leaders in other countries, convinces me that at least for the foreseeable future, we won't be able to depend on the right to safeguard these values. Over the last few decades, conservative parties around the world and especially the Republican party in the United States have made their intention to retreat from the shores of science, reason and moderation clear. That does not mean that nobody on the right cares about these ideals, but it does mean that for now, the left will largely have to fill the void. In fact, by stepping up the left will in one sense simply be fulfilling the ideals enshrined by many of its heroes, including Franklin Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Susan B. Anthony and John F. Kennedy. Conservatives in turn will have to again be the party of Abraham Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower if they want to sustain democratic ideals, but they seem light years from being this way right now. If both sides fail to do this then libertarians will have to step in, but unfortunately libertarians comprise a minority of politically effective citizens. At one point in time, libertarians and liberals were united in sharing the values of individual rights, free speech, rational enlightenment and a fearless search for the truth, but the left seems to have sadly ceded that ground in the last few years. Their view of Western Civilization has become not only one-sided but also fundamentally pessimistic and dangerous.
Here are the fatal implications of that view: If you think Western Civilization is essentially oppressive, then you will always see it as oppressive. You will always see only the wretchedness in it. You will end up focusing only on its evils and not its great triumphs. You will constantly see darkness where you should see light. And once you relinquish stewardship of Western Civilization, there may be nobody left to stand up for liberal democracy, for science and reason, for all that is good and great that we take for granted.
You will then not just see darkness but ensure it. Surely none of us want that.


  1. Terrific narrative Ash! I am from India and am in agreement with you that Brits did lot more good in India than the people in Indian would have you believe otherwise! I call that knee jerk reaction to everything "British." My fathers generation in India was doing much better despite being poor but progress in the name of socialism did us no good! Hope some sanity prevails to the nation that gave the World many ancient and modern Math wizards. Keep those article coming and you have that gift to tell and weave a story.

  2. Rather than worrying about the barbarians outside the gates, I'm far more worried that they are inside the gates of the academy and actually in control. Harvard permitted a separate graduation ceremony for black graduate students, and rescinded admission to 10 previously accepted individuals because of some juvenilia they expressed.

    One of the things Trump represents is an attack on political correctness. In this sense he is useful. Also his economic policies have already started to improve things, and will continue to do so.


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