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The Curse of the West in Global History

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

Does Western domination HAVE to cast a shadow over non-Western history?

Drummond Image of Aleppo 1754

This week, I want to look at an idea that came to me as I read Peter Frankopan's "Don't Let the Rise of Europe Steal World History."

Frankopan's exasperated post primarily focuses on the question of periodization, or how we break up history, and history education. Even if this seems like a trivial quibble on the surface (and sweet Jesus, do we historians love those), his gripe hits on several problematic points that we face when dealing with the framing of history.

  1. Where do you start - and what does it mean when you start there?

  2. How do you deal with the problem of Eurocentrism in modern history?

  3. Can you even write the modern narrative history of the non-West without "the West" at least lurking in the background?

For many people, the answers to the questions above are 1) who cares? 2) the winners write the history books, and 3) see the answer to 2), loser.

And I get it.

But if you've read any of my other rants, you'd be aware that how we write about the past literally shapes the historical narrative. By adding to it, questioning it, contradicting it, or reframing it, a writer alters perceptions of the past and how it can be narrated in the future. This is not to be taken lightly. If such historical re-tellings hit the media, all sorts of silliness can be repeated as historical fact until it becomes widely accepted.

For most academic historians, the question is hypothetical because our work is mostly intended for the tiny nerd clans that pretend to care about our pet inanities.

For popular historians, who tend to wallow in violence and decontextualized weirdness and thus actually sell books, it can be more problematic. ESPECIALLY since the writers and consumers of popular history tend to be older, male, and disconcertingly obsessed with those topics and figures who might fit nicely into a James Bond plotline. (But not one starring ideal potential Bond lead Idris Elba, if you catch my drift).

This perception of history is evident in arch-wanker and inexplicably resilient multi-term U.S. Congressperson Steve King's query about what "minorities" had ever contributed to "civilization." Now, if we see history as a march of progress that culminates in the rise of a dominant, rational West, then claptrap like this might seem to have some validity. It was, of course, the justification for the West's civilizing missions throughout the non-European world. And it was simplistic, self-serving, and ultimately harmful for millions of human beings living under colonial rule.

However, simply assuming Mr. King includes, say, historical China in the category of "minorities," you can immediately see why his point is utter bullshit.

But back to the questions

Given the responsibility that comes with writing history, how do we then address the questions I posed above? And how do we avoid overcorrecting ourselves to the point that history suffers as a result?

Frankopan, like Edward Said in Orientalism, suggests that the problem is partly one of overcategorization. This is sound analysis. By assuming that the West, or the East, or the Islamic World, (or whatever linguistic boxes we construct to house our ideas and assumptions about the world) are valid, separate units - "civilizations," if you will - then we are easily tempted to view them as insular and inherently antagonistic rather than intersecting elements of a broader global history.

Solutions to the problems require a rethinking of our categories altogether. When we narrate history, we tell a story that we think explains how the world works. But if you've ever tried to narrate even a simple event, like a football game, it immediately becomes apparent that any timeline will support certain interpretations of events while ignoring others as irrelevant, problematic, or wrong (meaning contrary to your favored interpretation). If you favor one side of the game (or war), it becomes even more fraught, since you will be more inclined to portray one side as the protagonist and the other as the antagonist. In the end, you tell one of many possible stories.

Now try to do that with an "event" (really a period) like World War II, which directly involved literally hundreds of millions of individual perspectives from across the globe, people who spoke a wide range of languages and who interpreted events from a variety of cultural and historical frameworks. The complexity of factors that you could, nay SHOULD consider is boggling.

Part of the benefit of global history is that it also allows history to be comparative in a potentially safe space. Looking at history as a long term pattern of trends and exchanges breaks apart those artificial pockets that we assume existed. Conversely, looking for themes in history through microhistory (which views similar trends from the vantage of individual lives), or through specific cases studies, one can look at broader trends within the historical narrative without assuming that the events of the historical story necessarily play significant causal roles.

This addresses the final problem - can you write non-Western modern history without reference to the West? As Talal Asad has observed, it would be impossible to write a global history of capitalism without European industry and capital as a primary pivot point, just as it would be impossible to write a political history of the 19th century anywhere without European imperialism, technology, and intellectual trends serving major roles. Plus, we tend to speak for those who lacked a voice, even assuming naively that we had their best interests in mind when we presentsplained their issues.

However, even within the big picture macro narratives of the past, most lives were lived with little reference to the topics that dominate the tables of contents of our history books. Most village economies functioned in ways that would never show up in import and export lists, or even affect recorded GDP. Ideas were held, examined, modified, appropriated and rejected in a complex discourse that thrived on exchange, rather than on exclusion.

By seeking complexity and rejecting simplicity, we can make history inclusive and meaningful in ways that transcend the usual categories. In the process, it might actually tell us more about the past and about ourselves than we thought possible.

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