White supremacists such as the Proud Boys have revived and articulated a belief that Western Civilization is superior, and that Western Civilization is White. I love Gandhi’s retort that Western Civilization “would be a good idea,” but simple snarkastic dismissal might not be the most effective way to disrupt this racist, fascist American movement. There are some half-truths mixed in with descriptions of Western Civ, so this essay is about sifting out the half-truths and distractions that lead to such toxic politics.
Origins of ‘The West’
In the Middle Ages, Europeans called their region Christendom. The term ‘West’ actually came from Arab geographers, who were trying to decide how to distinguish large regions of the Muslim world. They agreed that areas west of the Kharga Oasis in Egypt would be called The West (al Maghrib). Lands from Kharga eastward would be called The East (al Mashriq). The fertile part of northwest Africa was called ‘the Island of the West’ (Jezirat al-Maghrib) because it was bounded by the Mediterranean sea on the north and east, the Atlantic on the west, and the dune seas of the Sahara on the south. Both Algeria (Arabic: Jezira) and Morocco (Arabic: al-Maghrib) derive their names from this.
Medieval European Christians regarded classical Greek geography as a pagan, pre-Christian field of study. They did not pay much attention to it, whereas Arab scholars translated Claudius Ptolemy’s works from Greek to Arabic and the study of djugrafiyya continued to develop in the Muslim world. Since Europe was west of the Kharga Oasis, it was also generally classified as ‘The West’ one thousand years ago. This lined up more consistently with Roman Catholic Christendom after their permanent schism with the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054.
Detail of Idrisi’s world map, made in Palermo in 1154. South is at the top; this portion of the map shows Italy and Sicily. Stromboli has the red labeling, and is shown “upright” relative to the northern Sicilian coast.
Starting with Martin Luther’s excommunication (1520) and Henry VIII’s maneuvering for a divorce (1530s), Catholic Christendom split so violently that—to this day—many Protestants are reluctant to acknowledge that Roman Catholics are Christians. In elementary school in Connecticut in the 1970s a friend of mine was surprised to hear that I was Catholic. “Oh. I thought you were Christian,” he said with no ill intent. In 21st-century California, Catholic Latinx avoid calling themselves Christian because they do not want to be mistaken as Evangelicals—a group whose abusiveness and intolerance I endured firsthand in the 1980s. So I sympathize with their caution.
Back 400 years ago, as Catholics and Protestants were butchering each other in Europe, they dropped the collective term Christendom. The two terms that persisted were ‘European’ and the Arab term ‘Western.’ Since the Enlightenment, many Europeans wanted to present their culture as somehow universal and post-Christian. The term “Western” avoided acknowledging Christian roots, but its universalist aspirations were also a bit imperialist.
The Massive Retcon to Contrive Westernness
Retroactive continuity, or “retcon,” is a succinct expression for how modern history has been built: from the present backwards, to justify the present rather than to understand the past. The rise of the discipline of History had an upside: nation-states have the resources and the incentive to fund universal primary and secondary education for their citizens—so long as those students learned the high-story, the national History. Often that History has been extremely valuable for civic political debates. But it is a fatal error to presume that History is objective, or that it is a person. ‘History’ does not teach us anything. We teach history, and we bring our biases (known and unknown) to the way we teach it.
Here is an example of omission, not deception: in U.S. History, especially in California, we teach that many Chinese were recruited to build the railroads in the 1860s and were only subjected to the most brutal discrimination in the 1870s, during one of many economic crashes with high unemployment. But why were so many Chinese willing to leave their families and spouses to come to California? Only in 2015 did I learn of the Taiping Movement (a.k.a. Taiping Rebellion), in which a charismatic Chinese Christian leader sought to defy the Qing Dynasty in the 1850s and 1860s. The Qing military suppressed the rebellion by sacking Suzhou and devastating Nanjing. About 20 million people died in this conflict in the early 1860s. I know that U.S. History focuses on the U.S. Civil War going on at exactly the same time. But no mention of a mid-19th-century conflict with a death toll twentyfold greater? A conflict that drove immigration to our own country? I don’t regard this as a malicious omission, but…dang. We Americans ought to know.
The construction of Westernness from the 1600s onwards has more disturbing features. English and German scholars emphasized the way Athenians promoted demokratikos without paying attention to Greek xeno-phobos. They praised ‘white marble’ statues and architecture, while ignoring the fact that Greeks actually painted this white stone to better reflect our own complexion, which is generally nut-brown. Why did Greeks use marble? Because it is available in Greece, and soft enough to be carved. But for ancient Greeks, it was actually the wrong color—white—so it needed to be painted with vivid colors. Many modern peoples would regard the Athenian color-scheme as garish. Fine. But then don’t claim it as the origin of Northern European arts and design. The people who really continue the ancient Greek color-palette are the Punjabis and Afghans of northern Pakistan. And that is an unbroken line from Bactria, Kush, and Gandhara into modern South Asia.
Nut-brown Roman with color digitally restored from chemical analysis of trace pigments. Roman colors were often relatively muted, compared to the colors the Greeks used.
This slippage of ‘Whitening’ ancient Greek and Roman cultures means that American White-Supremacists can adopt symbols of the Roman Republic and Empire without any sense of the perverse irony in doing so. Racism as we know it is a modern ideology created to justify slavery. Romans predate our present bigotries (they had their own). It took a while for modern scholars to realize that some Roman Emperors would have been considered Black, by modern Americans. They came from Libya, and eventually we found sculptures portraying them, with wiry hair and facial features from beyond the Sahara.
Emperor Caracalla of the Severan Dynasty. Wiry hair, like my grandpa. Now that you know the color is missing, you can imagine his actual complexion.
Romans actually believed in welcoming many peoples and their Gods into their culture. It was an extension of the notion that strength comes from gathering together into unity, represented by the Roman fasces (bundle of sticks). The designers of the U.S. quarter got it right when they put an eagle, holding the Roman fasces below the motto E Pluribus Unum (Unity from Plurality). Modern European nationalists missed a key point when they associated the fasces with mono-ethnic nationalism and exclusion, or Fascism. American White-supremacists are making the same fundamental error today.
U.S. Quarter, 20th century. The bundle looks like arrows, but it is wrapped as fasces.
U.S. Senate Official Seal. Definitely fasces at the bottom.
Latins and the Disruption of Western Whiteness
Since the 1950s, Italian-Americans have been classified as White, and Catholics have been allowed to hold the highest offices since the election of JFK in 1960. So I have always been treated as White, and frankly that is a privilege that I appreciate. However it has always been a little weird for me to clarify that I am not Latin American, because I am literally descended from people (Neapolitans) who lived adjacent to Latium for thousands of years, and I am a 4th-generation American. So I call myself American-Latin out of respect for Latinx who continue to suffer discrimination—no pretense that I am a victim of the hardships they endure.
But a second look at Southern European history throws a huge wrench into the idea that Western=White. Spaniards and Portuguese, like Italians and Greeks, are quintessentially Western. According to the modern ret-conned version of History, southern Europeans defined the Western Civilization that was inherited by our Northwestern European brethren. In which case, Latin America is an absolutely Western project of colonization, settlement, intermarriage, anti-colonial struggles, and modern nation-states. Spaniards and Portuguese intermarried with Native Americans, just as English settlers did in Georgia and Tennessee with the Cherokee. There is prejudice against indios in many parts of Latin America, including Norteño prejudice against Emiliano Zapata in Mexico. So I am not trying to say that Latin American culture is any more innocent than ancient Roman or Greek. But Latin Americans—including Latinx in California—are as Western as I am. And according to English scholars, my Greco-Italian ancestry makes me a sort of an index-definition Westerner. So on this question, I am qualified to judge better than any White supremacist.
That said, my complexion is dark enough that my parents worried about how I would be treated if they raised me in North Carolina, where I was born. Like my daughter, I am a light nut-brown. Not enough to provoke discrimination, especially in California. But also no different from the Afghans I have worked with since 2003. In a Berkeley coffee-shop I was once mistaken for the author Danial Moinuddin (from Multan, Pakistan) by a Pakistani fan of his works. Like me, I think many Middle Easterners and South Asians felt relieved to ‘pass,’ though for Muslims this has gotten much more difficult since the 1990s.
The partial exception to my Westernness is that the other side of my family is Swedish. Even though Swedes have Caucasian complexions, they were not Christianized until the 1300s and were not considered Europeans until the 1900s. The family immigration story on that side is that we slipped into American society under the radar because we look like English and German Americans. Considering that many of my Swedish ancestors emigrated because they were facing starvation under an indifferent 19th-century aristocracy, I am relieved that their appearance made it easier for them to immigrate to the United States. This included my great-great grandfather Axel, who did not have immigration papers and got off the ship early in Boston harbor to avoid Customs and Immigration inspectors. No member of my family—or the thousands of other families that immigrated under shady circumstances in the 1800s—has any right to question refugees seeking to immigrate to this country now. The Lakota, Diné (Navajo), and other Native American tribal councils are the only official agencies in the U.S. with any ethical standing on the question of immigration. I would be interested (and somewhat nervous) to hear their judgment.
Unity from Plurality
Malcolm X exhorted his admirers to read, in order to know where they came from and in order to better understand the current conditions of the world. His exhortation to read also comes from Islam, in which literacy is a very strong ethic. But unlike the QAnon cult—where you embrace your own bigotries first and then ‘do your own research’ merely to affirm your self-deceptions—the kind of reading Malcolm X called for was anything but self-affirming. His own spiritual growth after his Pilgrimage to Mecca was deeply challenging to himself and his followers. Critical exploration and struggle with both our history and our History can be deeply disruptive to our own identities.
This disruptive search, for Americans, is our great strength. There is a way in which we are, collectively, much more ancient than most societies in the world. We are a braid of cultures and experiences from the entire world. And if that metaphor seems too sweet, imagine that braid includes some barbed wire, some slave-chains, and some glass-coated kite-string from South Asia. It might be a painful braid to grasp, but it is what we are.