Whether directly or indirectly, the legacy of Western Civilization continues to be assailed on the campuses of many of this nation’s premiere college campuses. And sometimes I’m left to wonder if there will be anything left that is discernibly Western when this long-running rhetorical assault finally plays out.
For many faculty members and students, the struggle against Western Civilization has become a deeply personal one, viewed by many as a struggle to expunge all elements of this cultural legacy. In the view of many, if not most, it is a deeply flawed culture that is all but synonymous with whiteness and white hegemony.
Really? Is this issue that cut and dried? Is the West entirely one of white contrivance, and, even worse, a multi-generational conspiracy of whites to exploit the rest of the world?
Pardon the audacity of this aging, Alabama-born-and-bred white male, but I beg to differ.
We apply lofty names to the culture that emerged in the West — Christendom and Western Civilization — but we’re essentially talking about a network, a very dense network, the world’s densest, most generative, most adaptive network. It was not the deliberate design of white people but something that sprang up rather spontaneously around the Mediterranean Basin over the course of 5 millennia and is as much the product of chance and spontaneous order as was of deliberate human design. And while this network is often conflated with white people, often light-skinned, blue-eyed people from northwestern Europe, it emerged from the largely spontaneous interactions of many people of different ethnicities and races.
The people who are most associated with this network — Europeans — were simply very fortunate for the most part. They happened live on the periphery of a vast landmass, Eurasia, where a significant number of intellectual and cultural exchanges occurred. These exchanges ultimately worked to the immense intellectual and material benefit of this peripheral region of Europe in a variety of ways, and over time, it would even supply the means of incorporating people of other backgrounds into this network.
But this came much later. This network initially interacted with other global networks in an unusually ravenous and exploitative manner.
Yet, a remarkable thing happened as this network spread into new contexts and as more people associated with it acquired higher levels of education and began to reflect on and refine its intellectual and spiritual underpinnings. Partly as a result of this, the network not only grew even denser and more multifaceted but also developed attributes of self-correction and introspection. But this is not surprising, given that many of these reformist ideals were always implicit in moral and philosophical teachings that had aided the network’s spread. And as these newer and more refined ideals spread throughout the network, more and more people, even those who once occupied its lowest rungs, were enfranchised and even began to contribute to the refinement of these ideals and even to the conception of new ones. And remarkably, this trend continues to play out today, some three centuries after these reforming ideas began taking root within this network.
Granted, this characterization of Western Civilization strike some as downright quirky. And it very well may be.
The point worth bearing in mind is that the civilization we know as Western, despite its faults, has brought human beings further along materially and, I would contend, morally and spiritually, than another other civilization that has preceded it. And even now, it is adapting to the rapid demographic and economic changes of the 21st century. Why? Because the introspective and self-corrective impulses that emerged within this network centuries ago continue to undergo an unrelenting process of refinement and adaptation.
And so long as this unrelenting refinement and adaptation continues, so long as network remains the most open and adaptive one the world has ever known, it likely will remain the world’ preeminent one.