the West and the rest

It seems impossible to distinguish between the West and other civilizations or regions of the globe, because anything we might call “the West” is so internally diverse and vaguely bordered. It’s easy to make up a list of famous Western people who have vanishingly little in common: Saint Teresa of Ávila, Oscar Wilde, Daniel Boone, Lenin, William Penn, Cole Porter, Thomas Edison, Heidegger, Andy Warhol, Donald Trump, Emily Dickinson, and Hernán Cortés.

Or consider two people who are famous for being (in very different ways) anti-Western: the Ayatollah Khomeini and Gandhi. The former studied and admired Plato, the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and the French Revolution. The latter spoke English, practiced English law, and read the works of Thoreau and his friend Tolstoy. If these two were not “Western,” why should we count all the others listed above?

But here is a suggestion for an actual difference. One thousand years ago, Europe (from Greenland to Sicily) was actually quite homogeneous. It was all agrarian and Catholic, and it had a warrior caste, monks, and peasants. The languages varied but they all contained a large dose of Latin, which was spoken by the educated class. Across the continent, villages were dominated by their churches, manor houses, and castles. That world vanished or was destroyed–unevenly, so that little pieces of it still linger today. It was replaced by technology, urbanization, mass communications, bureaucratic states and businesses, secularization, and markets.

Roughly the same pattern (“modernization”) occurred in most parts of the globe, provoking the same enormous range of reactions that we observe in Europe. But in Europe–and in countries like the United States that view themselves as inheritors of Europe–most of the changes were perceived as internal. Steam engines, bureaucratic files, securities markets, and all the other hallmarks of modernity did not seem to come from some alien civilization but to be choices of the society itself. For example, when the first train puffed through the German countryside, some people might have disliked or even feared it, but they saw it as a German train. In contrast, the same changes came to other places as the direct consequence of conquest, military pressure, purchase, or persuasion by people regarded as complete outsiders.

I don’t know if this is correct. Perhaps Portuguese or Icelandic or Serbian peasants felt the same way as people in China and Africa when the first steam engines and ID cards arrived. But I think not, if only because so many human beings have defined “the other” in terms of skin color and religion. This is not to say that the definition of the West is whiteness or Christianity. My hypothesis is more subtle: when innovations come from a place perceived as fundamentally like one’s own, they feel one way. They feel a different way when they come from people perceived as foreigners. In both cases, a whole range of reactions is possible, from delirious enthusiasm to horror. But “the West” is where modernization is perceived as an internal process.

(In a somewhat similar post, I tried to explore why modernization feels different in Istanbul and Baltimore.)

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