A noted left-wing author who teaches at a bastion of so-called progressive education recently delivered a surprising defense of Western civilization—and an attack on prevailing academic attitudes towards it.
Unfortunately, Christopher Hitchens said, confidence in the superiority of the West has been eroded in recent decades. Hitchens teaches at the New School in New York City.
Hitchens criticized those Americans (on both the Left and the Right) who responded to the September 11 attacks by asking what America had done to deserve them—a question belonging to a mindset he called “moral suicide.” Such relativism, Hitchens said, is the result of intellectual neutrality taken to absurd extremes.
The concept of “The West,” Hitchens argued, is one shaped more by philosophy than by geography: Athens, widely considered to be the cradle of Western civilization, is physically closer to Cairo than it is to London, yet it is the latter which has been an heir to the Greeks’ cultural and philosophical achievements.
The Western mentality has been propagated far beyond the geographical boundaries of Europe, Hitchens pointed out. Australians, for example, often follow the British habit of referring to China as part of the “Far East,” when it is in fact northwest of Australia.
Hitchens, who has written for such publications as The Nation and Vanity Fair, expressed his agreement with Karl Marx’s opinion that although British colonization had destroyed India’s textile-based economy, the contact between the cultures was nevertheless a fruitful one for India. British colonizers abolished many of the barbarities— such as the immolation of widows—which had theretofore characterized Indian society, Hitchens notes.
The British influence in India was therefore a beneficial one, Hitchens argued, with effects evident to this very day. He stated that although India has more Muslims than does Pakistan, terrorism is a relatively minor problem there—a fact he attributed to the ideas of civilization and tolerance which Britain had carried to the subcontinent. You would never learn this, Hitchens points out, in most college courses.
In his typical contrarian fashion, Hitchens, a native of England, suggested that the campaigns of Mohandas Gandhi might have constituted a step backwards for India. Gandhi, after all, urged Indians to spin their own clothes rather than relying on the more efficient modes of production introduced by the British.
Hitchens recalled the joke that Gandhi, when asked for his opinion on Western civilization, said that he thought it would be a good idea. Hitchens then quipped that the Mahatma probably wouldn’t know Western civilization if he saw it.
Looking at his own country’s past, Hitchens learned a surprising bit of history. “I wondered what the second part of ‘Rule Britannia’ was all about, the line that goes, ‘Britons never shall be slaves.’”
“So I looked into it,” Hitchens remembers. “It was well worth the effort.”
From the 17th to the early 19th centuries, over one million white Europeans were enslaved by pirates from the Barbary States of northern Africa. Because of the “abysmal state of education today,” however, few schoolchildren—or adults, for that matter—are even aware of this significant part of world history, according to Hitchens.
Barbary pirates would capture passengers on European ships and even snatch the inhabitants of towns and cities near European shores, noted Hitchens, who discussed Western values on June 3rd at a forum sponsored by The Objectivist Center. Most of these slaves spent the rest of their lives doing hard labor for Muslim masters in northern Africa or manning the oars on Barbary galleys, although many of the women ended up in a harem.
Contrary to what most of today’s students have been taught, the institution of slavery has not always been intertwined with race, Hitchens said. Barbary pirates enslaved both whites from Europe and blacks from the western coast of Africa, building a slave empire on a north-south axis extending from the British Isles to the tropics.
Although Thomas Jefferson is often criticized by modern historians for his actions regarding slavery, Hitchens noted that the third president had been a longtime opponent of the Barbary slave trade. In fact, Jefferson eagerly sent Marines to the Mediterranean Sea to fight the Barbary pirates, who had been demanding ever-increasing tribute payments as a condition for refraining from attacking American ships and enslaving their passengers.
Sean Grindlay is the managing editor of Campus Report.