The Diplomat mainly focuses on the Asia-Pacific, the world’s most dynamic and strategically and economically important region. Moreover, Asia, as well as the Middle East, Africa, and the Americas have featured some the most culturally, philosophically, and scientifically sophisticated civilizations that humanity has ever produced.
So, given this, the comments of U.S. Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa regarding the civilizations of the world are a cause of great trepidation and sorrow. Referring to non-white people, King asked: “I’d ask you to go back through history and figure out, where are these contributions that have been made by these other categories of people that you’re talking about — where did any other subgroup of people contribute more to civilization?”
He added his view that the greatest contributions to civilization came from “Western civilization itself…rooted in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and the Unites States of America and every place where the footprint of Christianity settled the world. That’s all of Western civilization.”
What’s discouraging about King’s statements are that they resemble an increasingly common viewpoint in the discourse among the right and nationalists in the Western world and among the rank and file of the Republican Party in the United States. It is a discourse that does not match up with the facts about the historical development of civilizations.
Modern Western civilization, after all, is a relatively recent phenomenon that arose through the fusion of Roman and Christian ideas in Europe during the Medieval Era. Other civilizations preceded, influenced, and coexisted with the West.
At the same time it is important to clarify that the opposite perspective on Western civilization–that it contributed nothing of worth to the world except imperialism and exploitation, and was a mechanism to ensure the privilege of a few white males–embraced by many on the hard-left and among progressives is utterly wrong.
It would be as fallacious for one not to not be proud of the achievements of his or her own civilization as it would be to be to think that other civilizations contributed nothing to civilization. Certainly, for most of the past half-millennium, the West has been overwhelmingly dominant, in what has been termed the “Great Divergence.”
The Scientific Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Enlightenment are among the unique contributions of the West–driven by unique institutional and historical factors–that enabled the scientific, medical, and political developments that have made world a better and more prosperous place than ever before. By the turn of the 20th century, virtually everyone in the non-West from the Japanese to the Ottomans was attempting to “catch up” with the West in the military, political, and economic spheres.
But we cannot and should not deny the achievements of other civilizations, both due to their own merits, and because of the contributions that enabled the modern, global civilization to come into being. And of course, in the sphere of music and the arts, it would be impossible to argue that non-Western civilizations were ever anything other than the equal of the West, as “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Civilization itself arose in the ancient Middle East. The desert biome of that region forced tribes to come together and cooperate in order to produce the irrigation systems necessary to produce enough food for everyone. This led to an increase in the complexity of social and political systems in order to induce cooperation.
Thus, in addition to the domestication of crops and animals, the first weights and measures, the first bureaucracies, organized government and religion, writing, and the wheel all arose in the ancient Middle East. In later times, that region, which became a part of Islamic civilization, gave the world algebra, distillation, and advanced astronomy and navigation, which Europeans used to sail all over the world.
India gave the world its numeric system, including the number zero, plastic surgery, steel production, and urban planning with sewage systems. And among China’s many contributions are paper, printing, gunpowder, the compass, and clocks. This is not to mention the various other crops domesticated, production techniques, and technical achievements of various other non-Western peoples.
Western civilization, and indeed the modern global civilization built largely by the West, would have been impossible without the contributions to civilization from the people of the rest of the world. This is not to disparage the achievements of the West; nor should we ignore the historical failings of other civilizations. But we ought to remember and celebrate the contributions to civilization from all the peoples of the world.
Today, as the era of Western domination draws to a close and as other nations have borrowed much of the best from the West, we should expect to see many more contributions to civilization from outside the West, and from among non-White or non-Christian people in the West itself.