Among academics, the term “Western civilization,” once totemic, has grown impolite. To use it without sneer or smirk can rouse suspicions of Eurocentrism or even bigotry. Many academics who think themselves “Progressive” today equate Western civilization with racism, sexism, imperialism, homophobia, greed, plutocracy, and almost everything bad. They prefer to think of themselves as “global citizens,” believing the prideful invocation of Western civilization is best avoided.
Yet if Progressives were to reflect more deeply, they would see that in all these attitudes, and just about everything that goes with them, they themselves are quintessentially Western. Let us count the ways, shall we?
As “Progressives,” they believe in progress, indeed equate themselves with it, and progress is a concept first explicated during the period of Western history known as the Enlightenment—though it was prefigured in earlier strands of Jewish, Hellenistic, and Christian thought. Most other cultures had static or cyclic conceptions of history, or imagined their “golden ages” as belonging to an unrecoverable past. Forward-looking secular improvement is a Western idea.
“Globalism,” in any practical sense, was made possible by the West, whose voyages of discovery and distance-annihilating technologies first knit the world together in a way that makes what happens in each of its parts significant for the rest. Globalism would be inconceivable without the West.
Equally inconceivable would be “citizenship,” an ideal whose roots are wholly Western. Other civilizations had subjects and rulers, the former more or less the chattel of the latter. Only in the West, beginning with the city-states of ancient Greece and Italy, were hoi polloi considered to have a rightful role in public affairs. Applying this principle worldwide has been an act of Western proselytism.
In wanting to design a new global order, Progressives reject the take-it-for-granted outlook that non-Western cultures have had toward politics and society, one in which ways of life are pretty much fixed by changeless traditions. Because they think them fully amenable to rational understanding, Progressives believe that political and social institutions can be systematically “de and re” constructed. Even foundational notions like gender can be readily redefined, they imagine, through public policy. To be sure, Progressivism, especially in its academic guise, has lately become somewhat uncertain about reason, itself now subject to deconstruction. Plato, the first great Western social engineer, would hardly have approved. But as social architects of various brave new worlds, Progressives can still be said to march in his footsteps.
Also like Plato, and many Westerners after him, Progressives frequently tout utopias. Utopias combine the ideas of reason and progress and extend them to the nth degree. While the dream of a perfected hereafter isn’t exclusively Western, one entirely realized by human effort is. Secular perfection is pursued in a variety of forms, sometimes hierarchical with everyone assigned to a prescribed role or caste (as with Plato), others severely egalitarian—“from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” (as with Marx and kindred). What these all have in common is the suppression of genuine individuality, which is inevitably too messy for any perfectionist scheme. In utopia everyone labors for the good of all, a situation the atheoretical non-West has been, until we started reeducating them, too commonsensical to accept.
The peddling of utopias is best done among those whose day-to-day wants have been abundantly satisfied. When much has already been given, unlimited satisfaction seems more plausible. Capitalism created the cornucopia at whose mouth we all now sit, with the mass plausibility of utopias flowing from its success. Nineteenth-century radicals were chagrined to discover that proletarians preferred a 10 percent pay raise to pie-in-the-revolutionary sky. The school of hard knocks inclined them to settle for half a loaf. Twenty-first century “consumatarians” can be easier marks.
Most of the specific utopias current among Progressives are altogether Western in origin. Marxism not only was Western but also saw the West as the driving force behind worldwide revolutionary change. Feminism is an ideology that only expansive Western notions of meritocracy and civil rights could have spawned. Environmentalism would be unthinkable in the agrarian, largely subsistence economies that the West’s industrial and scientific revolutions displaced. Pacifism and the panoply of international institutions ostensibly devoted to conflict resolution are the natural outgrowths of market economies productive enough to do without conquest, as well as political systems where the soldier in the trench is also a man with a vote.
At the heart of Progressivism is redistributive public policy. Whatever the degree to which such policies may be thought demagoguery or social justice, they would make no practical political sense absent democratic electorates in which those with less outnumber those with more. In addition, their advocacy requires a system of civil liberties that allows—particularly when the redistributive process first begins—the advocates of the less to escape suppression by those with more. Majoritarian free-speech regimes arose solely in the West and until the spread of Western influence could be found nowhere else.
The many policy successes of American and Western Progressives have depended on the heavy support they’ve received from intellectuals, and only in the West have intellectuals grown so numerous and powerful as to carry the day in debate after debate. A surfeit of intellectuals is partly the result of the West’s material superabundance. Not being makers of things, intellectuals (not counting scientists and engineers) are something of a luxury product. Poorer societies generally can’t afford to maintain them in the profusion with which they’re found, for example, on contemporary American campuses. And in earlier unfree societies, such intellectuals as existed were, like most everyone else, severely restricted in what they could do and say. Western liberty broke those shackles.
The power of intellectuals has also been greatly augmented by their influence over modern mass media—both in its journalistic and entertainment forms. These media depend, in turn, upon technologies that are the products of Western science and engineering. Without modern technology, Progressive ideas would have had much greater difficulty overcoming the force of tradition and influence of primary institutions like the family, or, for that matter, of common sense.
Of course Progressives aren’t the only beneficiaries of Western civilization. At the heart of Western exceptionalism are freedom and reason, and it is not the Progressives but the more genuine champions of liberty who make the most honest use of these. Progressives slip stream their currents that the more classically liberal (i.e., contemporary conservatives) directly ride. Nonetheless, Progressives would do themselves and the world a favor by waking up to all they owe the West. If the West goes down, it’s likely to take Progressivism with it.
Steve Balch is founder of the National Association of Scholars. He currently serves as director of the Texas Tech Institute for the Study of Western Civilization. The opinions he expresses are not those of the Institute or Texas Tech but entirely his own.
Complement with Donald Kagan's why we should study the history of Western civilization, Daniel Mahoney on the limits of democracy, and Alfred Regnery's pillars of modern American conservatism.