The debate over how some refugees are more deserving of aid and assistance than others isn’t new, especially in contrast with narratives of Latin and Caribbean American refugees and refugees from Southwest Asia and North Africa (SWANA); It demonstrates how humanity is not as advanced or progressed as far as it would like to believe itself to be—especially those of European descent. Western Civilization has long held itself above other nations, cultures, and civilizations: it has confused technological advancement with progress; misconstrued high-minded ideas, applied in a limited manner, with evolution; and failed to confront a history driven by military domination and destructive materialism.
How we view and talk about events of the modern world is rooted in its past—this world is a product of a root, trunk, and branches of a seed planted 1,000 years ago. We exist in a world born from those who see themselves as civilized and hold their conceptions of civilization as the epitome of human advancement and evolution.
To begin, we must ask, what is civilization? What does it mean to be “civilized”? Even those who do not consciously subscribe to white supremacist ideology have maintained ideas of a civilized and uncivilized world. Most recently, this has been seen in the coverage of Ukrainian refugees and how it has been noted that there seems to be more sympathy for them because of their “blonde hair and blue eyes.”
Western Civilization has evolved over the past 500 years as it drew (illusionary) lines of divisions between civilizations. These false divisions have given rise to myths of isolated states, pure cultures, pure human genetics (i.e., race), and an illusion of forever borders between nations and civilizations. These so-called hard lines are more than arbitrary; they are intellectual hallucinations.
This specific perception of civilization is rooted in a colonial worldview—colonialism was a project meant to “civilize” the world through some of the most inventive forms of violence in human history and profiting off these “lesser” peoples. The seed and soil of the modern world were founded in the Middle Ages, laying root during the so-called “Renaissance,” sprouting from The Enlightenment, growing during the early imperial and the Age of Reason, and spreading its poisonous fruit across the world from the late 19th century to our present day.
While there were Muslim states and Christian kingdoms, the idea of pure civilizations, of hard lines between the two, is a myth. The Crusades planted a seed in bloody soil; this seed created a narrative dividing line between “West” and “East;” It was the birth of a narrative of the “civilized” and the “savage.” This seed would root and eventually thrive as time progressed.
The West vs. East clash of civilizations is more of a modern conceit than the reality lived during the Middle Ages. In The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, Matthew Gabriele and David M. Perry write, “holy war was never a permanent state. Christians and Muslims in the eleventh and twelfth century were sometimes enemies, sometimes friends, but in all cases lived together.”
This seed of narrative division, of the “civilized” and “savage,” slowly grew. It wasn’t until the so-called “Renaissance” that ideas of being civilized took root and sprouted. Fourteenth-century intellectuals reached back, past the Middle Ages, into Rome and Greece’s “classical” eras. They believed the knowledge of these civilizations was lost—it wasn’t—and wanted to cleave themselves off from what they saw as an age of darkness by “re-discovering” those eras’ achievements and ideas. This is where we get the term “Dark Ages”—most modern Medievalists (historians that study Medieval Europe) do not refer to this time in such a way.
A modern example of how arbitrary divisions are made is how we draw random lines between generations. Think about how many times authors have written about the death of literature or writing—nostalgia for the way things used to be. Perry and Gabriele elaborate further In The Bright Ages, writing:
“Petrarch and his contemporaries argued that the knowledge of antiquity had been lost for a thousand years but now was recovered, reborn, translated into their fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Italy. This argument was political as well as cultural … (they) may have laid the foundations for seeing the medieval world as backward and dark, but the Enlightenment … built the house in which we still live. … Europe had supposedly crawled out of the darkness and into the light. Those familiar terms—dark and light—mirrored the value judgment behind this investigation of the past, one that selectively privileged white skin.”
As European intellectuals attempted to separate themselves from their past and their connected world, the actions of their ruling elites and justifications that arose became a potent combination in retrospect. Through the Crusades and Reconquista (an idea born in the first millennium of Christian kingdoms reconquering the Iberian peninsula from the Islamic rule of Moorish kingdoms that ended up forcibly converting or expelling Muslims and Jews from the Iberian peninsula), Christian kingdoms created a forced hierarchy, placing European Christians at the top, with Muslims and Jews seen as lesser than. The date the Reconquista came to its completion is notable, sharing a year with another monumental event in world history—1492.
In the ocean blue, Columbus’ so-called discovery of what we now call the Americas upended the world power axis, creating the rainfall needed for these aspiring empires. Trade soon morphed into colonial projects in West Africa, along with the expansion of the slave trade. Until the transatlantic slave trade, much of the world’s slave trade went on throughout SWANA and the Mediterranean world, comprising most of its victims from Eastern Europe (the word slave is derived from “Slav”) and North and East Africa.
This so-called discovery of the Americas by Columbus was transformative because of the lasting connections between the worlds of the Americas and those of the “old world.” The Enlightenment would give birth to the ideas that justified the coming of the New World—which was as much an idea as a geographic location.
The Americas provided the space, resources, and land these small kingdoms needed to feed their lusts. The discovery of Indigenous Americans in these lands served as a theological and intellectual complication. Jennifer Raff wrote in Origin: A Genetic History of the Americas:
“Many Europeans were shocked when they first realized that Native Americans were not Chinese or South Asian Indians but instead a people not described in the Bible. … Europeans fabricated elaborate mythologies to explain their presence. Most of these stories featured some version of a ‘lost race,’ fables of an ‘advanced’ people who were wiped out by contemporary Native Americans.”
We can see the idea of the primitive savage sprout in these early perceptions of Indigenous Americans. And these perceptions continued to evolve as the United States formed and set out to conquer the American West.
These kingdoms quickly abandoned trade with the civilizations they came into contact with. Instead, they brought indentured servants and enslaved people to aid with the manual labor required for resource extraction, which was how most colonialism at this time worked. It was yet to fully develop into settler colonialism—the use of settlers to expand the state, such as the American expansion west or Israeli settlements in Palestine.
As Portugal and Spain expanded their colonies, ideas of race and human hierarchies took shape. Thinkers like Voltaire and Immanuel Kant, who are still uplifted by many now, helped give birth to a parasite still alive today with racial hierarchy. Author Emmanuel C. Eze explores this with his 1997 book, Achieving Our Humanity: The Idea of the Postracial Future, and explores Kant, who wrote: “Humanity exists in its greatest perfection in the white race. The yellow Indians have a smaller amount of talent. The Negroes are lower, and the lowest are a part of the American peoples.”
Writer Jamelle Bouie does a great job of laying out the racism of not just Kant but of the Enlightenment itself where he writes:
“It is true that, in his Two Treatises on Government, Locke proclaimed himself an opponent of ‘slavery.’ But this ‘slavery’ refers to the political domination of an absolute monarch. In the second of the treatises, Locke provides a justification for slavery as a result of war, using the same ‘absolute power’ language that grants slave owners the power of life and death over their slaves. While his argument doesn’t fit the hereditary chattel slavery taking shape in the Americans, it was nonetheless used to justify the practice.”
Ideas of race, civilization, the civilized, and the savage began to thrive, becoming intellectualized during The Enlightenment. Adam Smith, in 1776 wrote in The Wealth of Nations that Africa “seem[ed] in all ages of the world to have been in the same barbarous and uncivilized state in which we find them at present.” These ideas during The Enlightenment and then the Age of Reason quickly advanced to what is now called race science.
The “civilized” conductors of the transatlantic slave trade shipped over 12.5 million Africans to the Americas over the slave trade’s history. They committed genocide, before 1492, on between 75-100 million Indigenous people who were living within what is now the Americas. By the 20th century, 4-4.5 million Indigenous people remained in the Americas. The 19th through the mid-20th century would see millions more die or become subjugated across the globe, all in the so-called name of civilization.
Even as these men of “western civilization” believed themselves to “progress,” such as banning the international slave trade, their progress was finding more acceptable ways to commit horrific acts. The interior slave trade of America would prove far more financially rewarding for the growing elites of America. In Stamped from the Beginning, author Ibram Kendi details Thomas Jefferson’s thoughts on the “Second middle passage” that moved over one million enslaved people to the interior of the United States after the Slave Trade Act of 1807, banning the international trading of enslaved people from Africa.
The brutality that created this “civilized” land of the United States is seen as justified. The ideas born of The Enlightenment and The Age of Reason were vital to the birth of the United States of America and its domination of the American continents. Race science gave rise to ideas that would evolve into what we now call eugenics. As the Age of Reason grew out of The Enlightenment, European kingdoms, states, and empires began to move past religious doctrine and justification to evolution and biology, yet still “under god.” By 1914, 84% of the world was under European domination.
Branches and Leaves
The late 19th century to the present has been filled with wars, brutal conflicts, genocide, and ethnic cleansing. And at almost every turn, direct involvement, a hand, and connections can be drawn to the so-called civilized nations steering the ship.
As the 19th century progressed, the Scramble for Africa quickly spread its canopy, setting in motion a series of monstrously brutal clashes between European imperial nations and the stripping of a continent continuing to this day. These industrial and “civilized” nations created poverty and destruction, now claiming to lift people they plunged into poverty into the “developed world.”
As humanity’s modern world came into being, the so-called civilized world enacted monumental atrocities across the globe. This period saw the “land of the free” complete its almost total genocide of Native Americans in what is now the continental United States. The U.S. war in the Philippines from 1898-1902 saw 200,000 civilians die. King Leopold II of Belgium and his occupation of the Congo from 1885 to 1908 led to over 10 million Congolese dead through massive brutality. Turkey’s Armenian Genocide led to over 800,000 Armenians being killed. India saw 12-24 million people die of starvation while living under the British Empire. These are just a few of the genocides and atrocities committed by non-Nazi western powers.
The quest for power, rule, and territory led these nations into direct conflict and provided the world with the most cataclysmic wars it has seen: World War I ended the lives of over 15 million people, and World War II with over 60 million dead. World War II also saw the United States become the first and so-far only nation to use nuclear weapons directly upon human populations, dropping two atomic bombs on Japan—the justification of their use is still debated today.
Post-WWII West hands are still bloodied with incursions too numerous to list. But in short, since WWII, the United States has placed over 700 military bases across the globe. Attempting to overturn some 72 governments, some launched decades of violence, such as the 1960 coup in the Congo. And today, with the “War on Terror,” millions have suffered: The Watson Institute of International and Public Affairs at Brown University Cost of War Project estimates nearly a million people have died as a result, with millions more displaced.
Ideas of civilization, the civilized, uncivilized, and civilizing people undergirded these actions by nations of Western Civilization. Ideas of whiteness evolved and shifted, evolving to protect itself. European “races” or nationalities created their own hierarchies of the European race. Irish, Italians, Polish, Slavic, and Ukrainians were seen as dirty, as lesser than, and less evolved—be it biologically or culturally, depending upon who was writing or lecturing. But as time went on, they became “white.”
Josiah Strong, a leading late 19th-century intellectual, wrote a book, Our Country, in 1885, exemplifying the attitude of intellectuals during the Age of Reason. He talked about the “Anglo-Saxon race” and the rise of America. Richard White, author of The Republic for Which it Stands, wrote about Strong and his view of the rise of the United States: “God was ‘training the Anglo-Saxon race for an hour sure to come in the world’s future.’ The moment of a final contest between the races was at hand, and God was schooling Anglo-Saxons for victory and conquest.”
Many ethnic European identities would become white, but the sentimental driving force and justification of place in the world continued to be the undercurrent of intellectual thinking. The poor, the native, and the African were to be the underclass; The divine right of kings continued under a new name, using “science” and “reason” to justify it.
Ideas of biological race evolved into eugenics and the building of modern medicine. These “civilized” men experimented on enslaved people as a launching pad to create the modern world. The book Medical Apartheid, by Harriet A. Washington, gruesomely details this history. Enslaved people were put on medical display and experimented on without anesthesia while they were still alive—the entire field of gynecology was built through painful and invasive procedures on enslaved women. In the 20th century, America experimented on Black Americans, such as exposing Black GIs and forced sterilizations (still present today), to persistent medical racism. These are just a taste of monumental medical horrors in America, horrors the American narrative keeps buried.
Ideas of the “civilized” infected every facet of society, including medicine, entertainment, and economics, to name a few. Be it white angelic elves vs. brown men called Easterlings and orcs in Lord of the Rings, or the differences in how we talk about Black vs. white athletes, it’s always about comparing one group against another. In economics, African poverty was created with the paternalistic nature of the “civilized” continuing.
As always, there was “progress,” and the narrative shifted to softer language: the First World, the Second World, and the Third World. Initially, this meant capitalist nations, Soviet allied nations, serving as First and Second world, respectively. The Third World were those who didn’t clearly fall into either camp. Many were former colonial subjects of the First and Second World, but the Third World quickly took on the meaning of “impoverished nations.”
It continued to evolve into “developed,” “developing,” and “undeveloped” nations. It erased the violence that made the wealthy nations “developed.” It ignored the continued robbery of the “Third World,” now referred to more commonly as the “global south,” and the plundering of the African continent continues to this day, much of it under the guise of “economic development.”
Dehumanization of the “uncivilized” continues, as we see with the treatment of the Caribbean and Latin American immigrants and refugees into the U.S. and elsewhere. American policies have created these immigrants and refugees through violence, oppression, and stripping of resources.
Refugees from SWANA, caused by American wars, serve as another example, as they are left to die, drowning in the ocean. No shred of humanity was granted to them, with people on the far-right calling these people invaders and the mainstream press embracing this frame, albeit diluted by using “caravan” as a substitute. And now, people who were once seen as the dirt of Europe are “civilized” because they must be to serve narratives that maintain our world order.
Yet those beaten, bred, mutilated, experimented on, doused with radiation, sterilized, stolen from their land, stolen from their language and history by the self-named civilized people of Western Civilization expose the very idea of “civilized” as a farce. How can one be “civilized,” labeling others as “savage” or “sub-human,” rejecting our common humanity, and participating in brutality that would make Genghis Khan blush?
We must question the very nature of civilization. What we call the very first civilizations in Mesopotamia were just “strongmen,” lording over some and enslaving others. War, slavery, rape, and domination were core components of what we call the first civilizations. If this is civilization, then what is uncivilized?
Should we look at being civilized as “good manners” and being well dressed? The British Empire, in all its brutality, had a wealth of manners.
So what is civilization? In the end, it is whatever we claim it to be. What about being civilized? Civilized, the essence of the very concept is the creation of judgment of others; the very idea places some above and others below.
Let’s reject the very idea of civilized, but in exchange, embrace a revolution of values, one that rejects aggressive competition between civilizations and people, zero-sum social dynamics, and materialism and militarism. While “the West” didn’t invent these things, it has embraced them to the edge of our species’ destruction.
This story was produced through the Daily Kos Emerging Fellows (DKEF) Program. Read more about DKEF (and meet the author, and other Emerging Fellows) here.
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