Tuesday, February 08, 2005

What They Talk About When They Talk About Colonialism

Anyone who has read this blog more than a few times knows that one of my recurring rants is the vast ignorance of history among Americans and Westerners in general. This leads to all sorts of mistakes and errors but more importantly to a kind of neurosis. I also think it is a factor in Western self-loathing.

When we do talk about history we tend to take present-day concepts and retro-actively apply them to events in the distant past, concepts like State, Race and Human Rights, especially.

This is most evident I think in discussions of colonialism. To be blunt, I'm fucking sick of hearing about Western colonialism. Everything wrong with the world gets blamed on (Western) colonialism. It is the unforgivable crime, a monsterous evil. Only the West is ever accused and only the West is ever guilty.

The West did not invent colonialism. The West did codify it within the structure of the nation-state but colonialism preceeded the existence of the nation-state. Look back over the vast sweep of history and there are innumerable examples of one people leaving their homeland, conquering another people and enforcing their culture and ways on their subjects. But because of the historical ignorance of most Westerners we have basically declared a statute of limitations on activities before 1700.

Let's start with the obvious examples: the Moorish colonization of Iberia from 711 to 1492. The Reconquista was an anti-colonial revolution. If we drop our fixation of State and Race we will see that Muslims colonized the Eastern Christian world and hold it to this day. Saint Augustine was bishop of Hippo. That city is now called Annaba and it's in Algeria. Not many Christians there anymore, huh? Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, a case of racial, religious and national colonization that does get much airtime today. Is there a Movement for the Liberation of Constaninople? From a religious prespective, the Crusades were a counter-attack, an attempt at a Reconquista of the once Christian eastern Mediterranean.

The Ottomans proceeded to expand their colonies in southeastern Europe until they were defeated at Vienna in 1683. Again, you don't hear much about this kind of colonization. Or what about the Mongol colonization of what is today Iraq and Iran? Baghdad was sacked by the Khan's armies twice, in 1258 and in 1401. After the Khans converted to Islam they conquered large parts of India and ruled there until the British colonization. If the British are criminals for their colonizing efforts, why not the Muslim Khans?

Farther back in history what we now think of as the ethnic Japanese conquered the island chain from the people who were already there. To this day the descendents of these people, the Ainu, are discriminated against in Japan. And no, they don't have casinos.

You may say "Well, these events happened a long time ago." First, no. The Ottoman Turks held colonies in southeastern Europe into the 20th Century and only abandoned them because they lost World War I. Second, so what? If you're going to moralize about the Great Crime of Colonialism and what it did to the world then shouldn't that include all examples from history? If not why not? Why is Western colonialism, which from a historical point of view was very short lived, worse than other forms of colonialism?

The point here is not to lay blame. Just the opposite in fact. Today we may think colonialism is wrong but for all of human history until now it was seen as a simple fact. People move, whether on foot, horseback or by ship. Other people get conquered. Sometime the conquerers wipe out the pre-existing culture. Sometimes the pre-existing culture absords them. To moralize about this is ignorance. History ain't pretty folks.

The West needs to stop beating itself up over this. Whatever the crimes of Western colonialism, judged by today's standards, they are certainly no worse than the crimes of other civilizations during their colonizations. In many cases Western colonization was benign by comparison.

So the next time you hear or read about "colonialism" note the context. Note that the speakers or writers probably aren't interested in the actual events of human history and ask yourself, "What are they talking about when they talk about colonialism?" They are talking about politics. They are blaming the West and only the West; spreading a twisted Western guilt; subjecting Western history and Western people to standards of morality that do not apply to others. They are talking about supporting or justifying actions by non-Westerners that would otherwise be unjustifiable.
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