In response to Niall Ferguson’s latest tome, Civilization: The West and the Rest, economist Brad DeLong writes that Ferguson, and Yale classicist Donald Kagan, who wrote a favorable review of Civilization, “can all go off in the corner together.” DeLong does not believe that he shares an “essential ‘Western’ identity” with the likes of the villains in the history of the West. He names a few – Bartolomé de las Casas, Hernan Cortes, et al. – but could have chosen far more grotesque characters from history.
I’d like to ask from which culture and tradition does his way of life come? Individual liberties, the study of economics, academic freedom, scientific rationalism – all products of the West. His thoughts are indicative of the multicultural belief that no society or culture can be any better or any worse than any other, and that since the past leaders in the West clearly had flaws, we are wrong to have pride in our history in general. To the first characteristic, DeLong should explain in which civilization, current or historical, he would prefer to live. Or, with which historical peoples does he feel a stronger bond than to the Ancient Greeks and the thinkers of the Enlightenment. The Mughals? The Han Dynasty? To the second, DeLong should explain which civilization, current or historical, has a more proud record of their net influence – contributions and sins – to the world around them. The Aztecs? The Zulu?
We are a product of our history, and not, as Ross Douthat responds, “historical free agents”:
Now maybe the whole idea of a civilizational identity is just a silly intellectual conceit for Victorian nostalgists, and we’re all actually historical free agents, with no reason to feel any identification (whether proud, guilty, or somewhere in between) with any particular figures or cultures from the past. Maybe. But that seems like an awfully convenient way for a contemporary Westerner to think about the world. Brad DeLong holds a faculty position at a state university that owes its very existence to an American war of aggression against Mexico, in a country whose founding documents were written by slaveowners, on a continent that was ruthlessly expropriated from its indigenous population. Is he really sure that he can so cleanly separate himself from the various plunderers, exploiters, slavers and imperialists who have shaped the history of the Western world?
Maybe this is my Catholic bias showing through. I’m not exactly proud to belong to the same faith and institution as Marcel Maciel and Catherine De’ Medici and Tomas De Torquemada. But I can’t deny that I share a pretty essential identity with a long rogue’s gallery that goes all the way back to the 1st century A.D. And I think there’s wisdom to be obtained in acknowledging those kind of connections, rather than hotly distancing ourselves from our ancestors’ sins — whether they’re ancestors in a faith, a country, or the Western civilization to which all Americans are in some sense heirs.
I am reminded of a speech historian Victor Davis Hanson gave on gods that failed, in which he defends “the unique, complex, menu of ideas and values and protocols” of Western Civilization.