U mad? I mad. Eurocentrists MAKE ME MAD.

Not to mention that the Dark Ages are an outdated, Eurocentric idea.

I MAD. Eurocentrists make me MAD. Irate. Enraged. Furious. Angry. They are the great scourge in the most noble and magnificent academic discipline of history. They are like the ultra-capitalists and imperialists of history, reserving its richness only for the West – and only the West! – at the expense of all other cultures. They have no respect for diverse peoples and cultures.

The idea that Westerners (i.e., Europeans, Americans, Australians, etc.) are better than others is outdated, to an extent. Only racists would claim that white people are inherently better. Righht?

Yet the idea that Western civilization was somehow inherently better than other civilizations still remains in the academic disciplines of history and the social sciences, to some degree. It also remains in pop culture as well (see 300 with the democracy and freedom loving Spartans (not)). Sad as it is, some scholars – misguidedly, in my opinion – still try to find proof that something in the West allowed it to dominate the world, something that made them inherently better. Justifications range from the more plausible geographical reasons, to the less plausible but still (somewhat) reasonable economic reasons, to the more ridiculous “cultural” and “ethical” reasons.

An opinion piece on CNN recently attempted to justify the West’s rise to power using these very methods (see the article here). In this article, historian Niall Ferguson argues that the West had several so-called “killer apps” starting around 1500 that allowed it to beat the rest and dominate the world. Some of these “killer apps”, in my opinion, are reasonable (though I don’t fully agree with them). Unfortunately, others display – in my opinion – blatant Eurocentrism and ignorance about World history in general.

This disrespect for diverse peoples and cultures cannot be ignored. His blatantly Eurocentric arguments concerning history are easily countered with historical examples.

Ferguson’s firstly listed argument states:

Competition. Europe was politically fragmented into multiple monarchies and republics, which were in turn internally divided into competing corporate entities, among them the ancestors of modern business corporations.”

He maintains that Europe was 1) politically fragmented and 2) financially fragmented. This is true. Europeans fought each other. Nothing new. But here is the problem: he implies that everywhere outside of Europe was not fragmented, and that all non-European states and societies were somehow monolithic blobs that didn’t compete with each other. And because of this, Europe obviously could more easily take over the world.

The argument that everywhere outside of Europe was not fragmented can be easily countered with numerous counterexamples, of which even schoolchildren can understand. You want to see examples of fragmentation outside of Europe around 1500? Freaking overrated-katana samurai-dwelling Japan. You want more examples? I’ll show you (I’ve highlighted sarcasm in italics, since the internet makes it so easy to detect that, right?):

(end sarcasm in italics)

That’s a lot, don’t you think? And even if you read some of the histories of these supposedly “monolithic” non-European empires such as those in China, India, and the Middle East, you’ll realize how un-monolithic they were. China, for instance, was and still is divided into numerous ethnicities which display great cultural differences with each other – even if they speak the same language. That’s not to mention that China was often in political turmoil (see Dynasty Warriors) anyways throughout its history. India, too, was always divided into numerous groups – and moreso than China, because rarely did an Indian empire actually dominate the entire subcontinent for more than a couple generations. As for the Middle East, well, there were always various groups coming in and out, into and out of power. The point? Everyone is fragmented.

Here’s another of Ferguson’s arguments:

The rule of law and representative government. An optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on private-property rights and the representation of property owners in elected legislatures.”

I find it interesting he ignores the supposed developments of freedom and democracy in other parts of Europe. Still, his argument is one that is often applied to Europe: i.e., Europeans developed political systems based on democracy, freedom, and so forth before everyone else did, because Spartans stand for democracy and freedom, right?

Sure. Yeah. Europe was so much freer. They believed in democracy. Yup. Totally true.

(Actually, I feel sorry for Marie Antoinette. I personally believe she was misguided and kind of ignorant, but not cruel per se; popular conception got the better of her. She also never said “Let them eat cake.”)

Finally, there is one Eurocentric claim of Ferguson’s that is equally troubling:

“Beginning in 1500, Europeans and European settlers in North America began to get richer than Asians (and everyone else, too).”

Basically, Ferguson argues that Europeans became awesomer economically (and, by implication, politically, culturally, socially, etc.) once Columbus discovered America. Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Did Europe really become better starting in 1500?

Let’s start with statistics. Looking at these this chart from the Economist, one can see that China and India had the largest GDPs in the world up until the mid to late 1800s. Now that’s interesting, isn’t it?

In case you were too lazy to click the link.

Even though China and India were “declining” in the 1800s, their economies still dominated the world up until then. They had not only more people, but more resources as well, including many luxury goods like silk and spices, as well as better trade networks. Why do you think those Europeans wanted to explore the world and colonize the first place? Because it was fun? Did Columbus go looking for China because he wanted to eat instant noodles and try General Tso’s chicken, or because he was looking to make profit where profit was being made? (If you want to read more on a case-study of China as a counterexample to Ferguson’s claims, you can see my previous blog post).

So Ferguson is, ultimately, like a neo-imperialist – and I do not mean that in jest. After doing a bit of research on the guy, I discovered that there’s been a lot of controversy about him, especially considering his Eurocentric claims. Thankfully, there are many historians who are much more cautious, open-minded, well-informed, and, may I dare suggest, respectful of diverse peoples and cultures. Many historians are beginning to challenge the Eurocentric mindset, but it’s only a beginning. Many would scoff at what Ferguson claims in his book Civilization: The West and the Rest: “no civilisation has done a better job finding and educating the geniuses that lurk in the far right-hand tail of the distribution of talent in any human society. […]maybe the real threat is posed not by the rise of China, Islam or CO2 emissions, but by our own loss of faith in the civilisation we inherited from our ancestors.”

Right. As a non-European, I find his claims that non-Europeans are un-innovative and superior insulting. Does this all even matter? After all, he’s just a historian, right? Should you care? Yes. You should. Historians are academics and professionals. Their conclusions may very well shape public policy, the way governments think and act. The more we all can disregard Eurocentrists – and all kind of centrists, nationalists, and fanatics – the more we can respect diverse peoples and cultures.

Don’t make me MAD like these Eurocentrists. I MAD. I was so mad after reading his article, it wasn’t funny. I VERY MAD. VERY VERY MAD.

Further reading:

Art thou enraged? I AM ENRAGED.

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7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. bingistryingtogetthin
    Nov 07, 2011 @ 09:15:38

    Great read. A lot of passion. Actually made me laugh and nod my head in agreeance. I like doing that. In agreeance with you about the way in which we seem to view history, historical progress and all that jazz.

    Just a quick question as I want to know your thoughts: what are your views on Russia being counted within this Eurocentredness? Do you count Russia? And if you count Russia, do you then count Turkey? Or is being Eurocentric a strictly western European…as long as you don’t venture too far past Germany then you are still western…thing?

    Reply

    • Oliver K. Luu
      Nov 07, 2011 @ 23:28:30

      Thanks for your compliments!

      As perhaps you know, Russia and Turkey are interesting cases as they are on the edges of Europe.

      Historically, from what I know, Russia has been considered the least European of the Europeans. In not-so-older days, Russia was considered partly “Asiatic” (and not coincidentally, it did and still has territory in Asia). When it was defeated by Japan during the Russo-Japanese war, for instance, many Europeans thought this was because Russia was the most autocratic (i.e., “Asiatic”) of the European states, while Japan was the most democratic (i.e., “European”) of the Asian states. It is true that Russia has had a bit of a divergent history from the West, particularly since 1) it is heavily influenced by Eastern Orthodoxy and the Eastern Roman Empire, as opposed to most of the West, which is heavily influenced by Catholicism (and Protestantism) and the Western Roman Empire, and 2) because it suffered the most under the Mongol invasions, which sort of drew it towards Asia, in a sense, rather than Europe. In some ways, Russia has been portrayed very similarly to the supposed despotic empires of Asia: a big blob ruled by a despot, and everyone else are peasants, etc. Russia itself attempted to fix this image, so to speak, during the 1600s and 1700s during the reigns of “enlightened” monarchs such as Peter and Catherine. To some degree, they successfully became closer to Western and Central Europe. In other ways, the rest of the West still viewed them with scorn (see my Russo-Japanese war example above). When the USSR came about, Russia (understandably) symbolized everything not Western: not capitalism, not freedom, not democracy. Eastern Europe – i.e. Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Bulgaria, etc. – also gets included in this “sorta European but not European enough” category sometimes, depending on time period. Ironically, Eastern Europe was just as heavily involved in the history of Europe as a whole (and World history). Poland even saved Europe one time, when the Poles under Sobieski defeated an Ottoman Turk siege of Vienna (arguably; Polish nationalists tend to overexaggerate the importance of this event, considering the fact that Ottoman Turkey was no longer at its height of power (but still powerful enough)). Speaking of which…

      Turkey is also another interesting case. For much of the time period between the fall of the Byzantine Empire and World War I, from what I know, Turkey became the poster child of Islam and everything bad about the Orient in European eyes. This was understandable, in part, because the Ottoman Empire, as all good empires do, attacked various European states plenty of times. Ironically, some European powers (such as France) sometimes allied with the Ottomans against their enemies, so make of that what you will. Anyhow, in the 1800s, the portrayal of Ottoman Turkey as a decadant, despotic, backwards “Oriental” Empire reached its height. The Ottoman Empire was, of course, falling apart. It also was supposedly tyrannically ruling over the cousins of Western European civilization (i.e. Southeastern Europe, like Greece or Albania or Bulgaria). However, from what I know, Turkey did have some somewhat successful attempts at modernization during the late 1800s and early 1900s. By WWI, Turkey was one of the major Central Powers, alongside Germany and Austria-Hungary. As you know, the Central Powers lost, and Turkey got screwed over big time (Greece even attempted to retake Constantinople and other parts of Turkey in the aftermath, whether through diplomatic or military means). However, in part to Ataturk, Turkey became a secular, modernized state. So in theory Turkey was and is “European” if you define a Western culture as a secular, democracy loving one. However, Turkey is still Islamic, and still has ties with its former Middle Eastern territories; not to mention that the Ottoman Empire – once the big bogeyman of the Europeans – was only dismantled about a century ago. For these reasons, a lot of Europeans didn’t – and still don’t – want Turkey to join the EU, because it isn’t *really* “European” in their eyes.

      So all that ranting aside, to answer your questions, my answer would be “sort of, depending on the Eurocentrist’s opinion” or “sometimes yes, sometimes no”. Russia is only European so long as it shows “European” values like “modernization” (like under Peter and Catherine’s rule), but it isn’t European when it doesn’t show “European” values (like USSR). Turkey is more towards the non-European category, simply because it was Islamic (even though it is now pretty secular). When speaking of “Eurocentric”, from what I know, we generally refer to Western Europe (i.e. UK, France, Germany, etc.), Southern Europe most of the time (i.e. Italy, Spain, etc.), and Central Europe sometimes (i.e. Poland, Hungary, etc.).

      Please note, of course, that I am not 100% sure on all this, and it only reflects the extent of my knowledge as of right now. I am certain there are many scholars who have a better grasp on the subject, but I hope that answers your questions to any degree.

      Reply

  2. XiaoXiao
    May 24, 2012 @ 09:51:56

    Actually, at 1000AD, China economy share was suppose to be bigger than that. There were world first industrial revolution.

    Reply

  3. XiaoXiao
    May 24, 2012 @ 09:58:03

    I also forget to add. China gold reserve during Han dynasty was more than 10x bigger than Roman Empire. Where at the height, Roman and Persian only had 8% and 1% of Han dynasty gold.

    http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2012/04/02/why-china-loves-gold/

    Reply

  4. XiaoXiao
    May 24, 2012 @ 10:28:49

    Sorry for posting in three different posts. I just remember. -_-!

    Something, I’m wondering, what makes ancient India economy so big. I tried to find deep articles about ancient Indian economy, but no luck. I know little about India except Buddhism. Can someone point it to me?

    Reply

    • Oliver K. Luu
      Jun 09, 2012 @ 10:55:35

      Hello, and thanks for all the replies! Sorry I am replying rather late.

      Anyhow, one reason India’s economy was big was simply because, like China, it had a large population, meaning more consumers and producers of products.

      Additionally, India also had a great number of natural resources available, particularly luxury goods such as spices and tea.

      Finally, and just as importantly, India was at the center of the maritime trade that dominated much of the Indian Ocean.

      Reply

  5. Trackback: Japan: Regretfully the World’s Last Hope Against Eurocentrism « The Imperial Senate

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