When asked what he thought of Western civilization, Mahatma Gandhi, in his characteristic style, quipped, that it would be a good idea. This was a typical remark from Gandhi, who was not just any other Oriental wise man, but also a consummate politician, who had built his career around showing the mirror to the British imperialists in India. The British Raj was founded on many myths, the main among them captured in the phrase ‘the White Man’s burden’, popularized by Rudyard Kipling, himself an almost schizophrenic imperialist.
Kipling, as most who know him will also know, grew up in India, but what not many are aware of is that until he was about 6-7 years old, he did not speak a word of English. It was, in many ways, his second language. (Among the ‘many ways’ is that he was raised almost completely by his Indian nanny, and grew up listening to Indian stories, etc.) Kipling was, in a sense, among the first in the long, and very active line, of ‘Indians’ who made the English language their own. But, he was, even though he did not know it till he left India, a ‘white man’.
Now, there is something about ‘natives’ who give up their country, their language or their culture, that makes them cultural schizophrenics. Let me define this term. A cultural schizophrenic is someone who at once is deeply attached to his primordial culture, with an almost child like love, but at the same time, detests its inferiority compared to the ‘new’ cultural space where he finds himself. So, he is, again almost simultaneously, filled with an almost messianic desire to reform his ‘weak’ home culture with the strengthening force of the strong culture. Kipling might have been culturally schizophrenic on two sides, if one considers the love for India reflected in his stories, on the one hand, and his role as the poet laureate of British imperialism, on the other. The phenomenon of cultural schizophrenia, though, is very persistent in what we call ‘Diaspora’ communities, the perennial outsiders.
Diasporas display cultural schizophrenia quite evidently even now, in fact. Typically, diaspora are attracted to ‘visions’ of the homeland, they seek something ‘old’ and ‘pure’ and ‘eternal’ in the motherland. But, at the same time, this pure ideal, the old ideal, is both forgotten and unrecognized by the current inhabitants, who are seen as fallen, even degenerate, and generally corrupt. But what is decaying, the diaspora believes, can still be saved. It only needs someone, strong, powerful, and it one who sees the ‘truth’, to save it. This is the diaspora’s burden.
The White man’s burden, as I will explain, is not much different from this. The Burden’s founding ideology is Christianity, especially in its modern manifestations, including liberalism, and even by a strange twist of logic, communism, as a ‘modern’ messianic vision of heaven on earth. Now, according to mainstream Christian belief God created the Universe, the Earth, man and so on. The important thing is man – because all men are descended from the same ‘parents’, they are essentially the same stuff, only separated by time and space, and thus, they’ve developed into different branches with different trajectories of development, or un-development. The White Man, is, in a sense, a ‘diaspora’ population of the ‘first’ man, and following the logic explained in the paragraph above, he must do whatever he must to raise the ‘fallen’ races,
Initially, if one looks at it in the sense explained above, there seems to be no overt racism in this conception. If anything, there is parochialism, perhaps an inflated sense of one’s own self worth, and nothing that any ‘normal’ human being is not generally prone to. However, this is only the beginning of the story. In time, this parochialism develops into the hard ‘racist’ ideology, which becomes the motive force of the greatest destruction committed by human beings on each other. From the almost total wiping out of native American populations to the Holocaust and every horror in between.
Western ‘civilization’, or the ‘idea’, undeniably created ideologies which formed the basis of instance after instance of mass murder, almost unparalleled in human history since the Mongol invasions first led by Genghis Khan. In truth, Western barbarism accounted for even more death and destruction, in terms of sheer numbers and long term effects.
Most apologists of Western imperialism point to the technological achievements of the West, railways, telegraph, medicine, etc. This is a futile defense. Was Western technological development contingent on the Imperial domination of the world, or was it due to the ingenuity of its scientists? How did James Watt benefit from engineered famines in Bengal?
Now, I do not want to turn this into a diatribe. Let me return to the point. Returning to Gandhi’s proposition, if we may call it that, what should we say about Western civilization? The rather bold, but undeniable answer, is there is no such thing. The traditional story of Western civilization goes like this : first came the Greeks who developed philosophy, then the Romans who developed the polity, after the long dark ages when both were forgotten, an Enlightenment dawned upon Europe, leading to the Industrial Revolution and, Europa Universalis, America, democracy and the best civilization ever. What is forgotten in this story is that Europe, where everything supposedly happens, is a mere peninsula in the north-west of the Eurasian continent, occupying the same longitudes as Africa, where ‘black’ Egyptians had already nurtured a civilization that was as ancient for the Romans as they are for us! There is now much evidence that the Greeks took the foundations of their religion from the Egyptians, their mathematics from the Mesopotamians, and substantial parts of their philosophy from the Indians. Not to mention the Persians who were the tributary overlords of large parts of the so-called Greek world, creating a stability that allowed the Mediterranean world to prosper.
My point is not to undermine the achievements of this or that people. But only to point out that nothing emerges from a vacuum. New ideas are born from older ideas and they are shared through dialogue. Not just among individuals, but also among cultures. To Gandhi’s proposition, I answer, yes, there is no ‘Western’ civilization, as, ‘similarly’ there is no ‘Eastern’.
We can draw all the artificial boundaries that we want, but walls, are only artificial constructions, made for specific purposes. What is the point of this essay though, what, one may ask is the moral of the story. The moral is, in how it ends. When Gandhi was asked this question, perhaps there was no Western civilization. Or, if there was one, it was an artificial construct, which had a narrow, inflated sense of its own achievements and importance. This led, first, to ideologies which allowed self appointed representatives of the West to inflict untold suffering on ‘outsiders’, some of whom where kidnapped from their homes and brought to the ‘West’ as slaves. This building of the ‘great wall’ which divided the west from the rest, had its final consummation in the two world wars which wrecked the entire edifice of this ‘false’ civilization.
Ironically, though, after everything had been broken into pieces, a new ‘west’ began to emerge, where for the first time governments, states and socio-political ideologies did not serve the maniacal power visions of the elite, but of the ‘common man’. In the post-war era, while vestiges of the past continued to linger, there was more reason for hope than ever before in the history of the modern world.
The moral is this, when you start making walls, there is no stopping. First, it is between the USA and Mexico, then you’ll make one along Canada, well you get the picture. Of course, this is not just the case in the USA, China is doing it in the South China Sea, sections in the Muslim world have been practicing this for some decades now, with ISIS taking it to a whole new level. It is easy to divide, but partitions once began, never cease, they cascade, down and down, until everything is torn apart.
Western civilisation is a good idea.
But whose idea is it? Therein lies the rub.