On the Right & Civilisations

This is a rewrite of a Tweet thread that started here:

However, Tweets aren’t a great medium for the point I was trying to make, so I’m making it more essay-like here.

“Western Civilisation” or “Judeo-Christian civilisation” are almost content-free markers in right wing discourse these days. In both cases, there is a fundamental incoherence that arises from deep problems with how people like Shapiro think about the world.

‘Civilisation’ implies an ongoing exchange of ideas between people. A civilisation will manifest in many ways (politics, architecture, art) but the idea that these multifold things all connect together comes from people swapping ideas and concepts. However, the right wing rhetorical use of the term ‘civilisation’ implies the opposite: that somehow ideas cannot cross between ‘civilisations’ even though the very examples they use of the wonders of Western Civilisation are prime examples of a very fluid exchange of ideas way beyond the boundaries of the West.

Shapiro concedes grudgingly some maths from India, while ignoring the influence of that same maths in other parts of Asia, or its transmission to the west. There’s no sensible way of considering the cultural and philosophical history of Europe without considering its connection to the Middle East, central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, through migration, trade, war and general proximity. Shapiro cites Aristotle (who was neither Christian nor Jewish) and simultaneously ignores the role of Islamic Aristotelian scholarship on European thought in the middle-ages.

Obviously, the term “Western Civilisation” isn’t wholly meaningless as an idea in general but the alt-right uses it in a way that is little more than a marker for their racism. “Judeo-Christian” is used by sections of the right in a similar way to mask their hatred of Islam. It’s even more absurd as a term, generally only applied to Western European ideas (and often specifically Anglophone ones) while ignoring other cultures with a Christian background (partly out of habit of seeing Eastern Europe as a non-Christian ‘other’) and at the same time partly-ignoring non-Christian influences on European culture (pre-Christian Northern Europe, classical Greece and Rome) while co-opting those classic parts that have been Christianised (see Aristotle above). The “Judeo” part is strictly tokenistic: Maimondes is as likely to be ignored as Averroes.

That Western European thought was influenced by multiple cultures both as an internal dynamic (the many cultures within Europe) or an external dynamic (the many cultures Europe has interacted with by trade, war, invasion, migration, exploration, colonisation etc) is not something that can be admitted to because then any endorsement of the wonders of “Western Civilisation” would by implication be seen an endorsement of multi-culturalism.

Both terms as used by the right are bad history and in Shapiro’s example a bad understanding of how science developed. He actively obscures why Issac Newton did his work where and when he does, turning him into just some sort of brief expression of a kind of miasma of “Judeo-Christian” civilisation. The path that leads to the particular sweet spot that Shapiro seems to be pointing towards, where abstract philosophy meets empirical practicality isn’t something that just pops up if you believe in god in just the right way. If it where then we’d have far more Issac Newtons in Christian and Jewish history. Consequently Shapiro’s analysis (if that’s not too generous a term for it) makes it both harder to understand what was going on in 17th century England and also undermines what actually WAS special about it AND also undermines how Newton’s insights connect with his religious beliefs.

The halting steps towards the modern sense of scientific thinking, in which broad abstract principles are examined with an eye towards experimentation and empirical testing, was a long road full of missteps. It is one in which Aristotle’s work (as he keeps coming up) was both an aid and a hindrance and where contact (both good and bad) with other cultures and beliefs was vital. Religion is not irrelevant here and had positive and negative influences just as a figure like Aristotle had positive and negative influences.

Shapiro needs to set up the relationship as purely one way: that specific religious beliefs begat science because he also needs to hide the opposite effect: that religious beliefs changed because of scientific & philosophical ideas (as well as economy & politics & exploration & colonialism & empire etc) And also, that Islam, Judaism and Christianity kept changing each other over time and still do so. This is hard to accept if your view of religion is one where they are repositories of universal truths (or lies) rather than human attempts to grapple with those truths and as subject to human foibles and historical forces as any other human endeavour.

Instead Shapiro imagines religion as a kind of operating system for civilisation-machines rather than as ongoing dialogues people have with each other. Hence him tying himself up in knots in a manner that leaves him in a position where he cannot defend his analysis from the alt-right. His intellectual incoherence on this topic has multiple roots but one in particular is revealed in this particular topic of “civilisations”.

The wider discourse in the right for decades now has been one that can be characterised as scepticism about the existence of, or influences of SOCIETY. Exemplified most starkly by Margaret Thatcher but present across the board. Now, fair enough, sociology is not the most robust of disciplines but imagine trying to discuss sociological events, dynamics etc while being hostile to the very concept of society. It would be like trying to do macroeconomics while actively avoiding the concept of “an economy”

Racists are mainly racists for petty & cynical reasons but in addition, a discourse about sociological phenomenon without a concept of society is one in which racism or some other partisan essentialism is inevitable. Why are their broad, epiphenomenal effects in a collection of atomic individuals? How do such things exist if you can’t think in terms of “society”? The alternatives are conspiracies, religious allegiance, race or supernatural intervention & right wing discourse is full of all four.

Without a concept of society, it is inevitable that shifts in taste or widespread behaviour become blamed on conspiracies or hidden intentional forces. That and racism will only get you so far though. Any attempt to present a historical account of the world that at least has a patina of intellectual respectability is to find a proxy for society that can fill the conceptual gap. “Civilisation” is another way for right wing pseudo-intellectuals to try to talk about society & culture without conceding that either are powerful factors in our lives. Of course a concept of civilisation without sociological ideas is a vacuum.

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13 thoughts on “On the Right & Civilisations

  1. Not to mention the term Judeo-Christian values is a recent invention, dating to just about, oh, 1945-ish. Before that, there wasn’t a whole lot of effort spent equating Judaism and Christianity.

    And the even better part is Shapiro making grand claims to the scientific method, particularly in light of his views of trans people. If he’s so deep into scientific thinking, how can he ignore the 40+ years of extensive research that back the majority opinion of the western medical establishment that says transition works, gender dysphoria/being trans is not a mental illness and from the last ten years of research. has a clear biological component!

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    1. “Judeo-Christian values” is merely a rebranding to make “Christian values” sound less anti-semitic. And given the sort of people who hold worth about “Judeo-Christian values”, it’s very obvious that the “Judeo” part is just a figleaf.

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      1. And to the other term they like to throw around – ‘Western Civilization’. The idea that ‘The West’ was some sort of cultural monolith wasn’t a popular idea during both World Wars, and also dates neatly to just about 1945-ish.

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  2. I’ve long had a particular fascination with that part of the seventeenth century and the blossoming of rationalist and early scientific thought that occurred in England. It’s interesting to note how rapidly they went from the witch burning crazes of the early and mid seventeenth century to pretty much taking witchcraft off the books as a crime by the end of that century. I wonder if the religious excesses of the Puritan administration had some effect (contrary to the effect the Puritans might have hoped for).

    I read (or partially read) a book a few years ago that proposed the Renaissance actually hindered not helped these developments. The writer’s thesis was that William of Ockham and his ilk were on the verge of this kind of rationalism, but the rediscovery of ancient texts during the Renaissance led to a dismissal of lines of thought that could not be supported by classical philosophers. I suspect there was an undelying motivation to absolve the Catholic church of the anti-scientific image it has acquired thanks to its spat with Galileo, and remove the ability of Protestants to claim science as their invention. Interestingly, it does support the idea that any sufficently stable society wealthy enough to support an educated class, and with an expanded capacity to examine the world around them might develop science.

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      1. I do think much of the history of science does tend to be incredibly western centric, which seems quite odd to me considering that the Chinese, Japanese, byzantines and Islamic civilisations all have their own Sciences.
        I also think the impact of the accidental discovery of North America by the Europeans is underestimated, basically the Europeans gained access to a whole new continent with unlimited exploitable resources which lead to fabulous wealth, and increase productivity and greater technological development.

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      2. Maybe, but the Chinese had the printing press too. I have seen it theorised that the Chinese never really got into glass in a big way, hence no lenses (and no telescope or microscope both of which had a major impact on the early scientific revolution). I don’t know enough about Chinese history to say whether or not this is reasonable, or whether there were similar levels of literacy to seventeenth century Europe.

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      3. I think James Burke on one of his Connections episodes commented that, for a short time after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, it was possible for someone of means to have effectively the entire world’s knowledge on their own shelves.

        That period lasted perhaps a generation before the rate at which books were now being printed completely outstripped the ability of anybody to keep up.

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      4. China invented sunglasses out of smoky quartz and they and the Arabs did stuff with glass lenses early on. While Italy is usually give the credit for the first eye-glasses, everybody started playing around with them pretty early on in the Middle Ages. China invented movable type, guns, gunpowder, etc. Most things of note were invented by ancient China, India, Egypt, Mesopotamia (Iraq/Turkey,) and Babylonia before that, and Arabia. The Europeans invented some things, but mainly they were really good at raiding and stealing (or trading) and then sometimes improving, such as with the telescope. Europeans in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance got extremely wealthy off of trade and used that to buy mercenaries to invade countries and enslave folk and gut resources to get more trade wealth. And that’s how they built their Empire — not on ideas but on violence, inter-breeding with more advanced countries and civilizations, fomenting wars in other countries, slavery, arms dealing, trade fads, etc.

        Everybody was of course much more in bed with each other on trade and child producing than the Aryan Nation boys like Shapiro ironically want to deal with. Most of the advancement of “western” civilizations came from “eastern” civilizations — which somehow always includes African and Middle Eastern civilizations in their weird fiction of history — that ran trade, invaded Europe and settled colonists and trade routes.

        The Roman Empire, as we know, didn’t actually collapse. It split into two. The western part collapsed into dueling rulers and more backwards civilizations of the Middle Ages while the eastern part became the Byzantine Empire — an “eastern” civilization that included parts of Europe, particularly the Greeks, (parts that weren’t considered white until well into the 1800s,) the Middle East, Northern Africa, parts of Asia, etc., and lasted another 1000 years as a powerhouse in trade, conquest, inventions, etc., while the rest of Europe struggled to catch up. But the Aryan Nation types decree that Rome was done in by being weakened by “immigration” from the east (non-white people,) and disappeared altogether, and conveniently forget that the Byzantine Empire existed. They laud the Greeks without really understanding Greek history at all. It’s all white supremacist mythology. That a Jewish person is taking it up to make money and help stir up anti-Semitism is sad.

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