The past depredations of imperialism have encouraged a self-reflective guilt about the defence of Western civilization and its ideals of liberty. We need to snap out of it.
All countries should face up to their past, reconcile the bad parts, and offer sincere apologies where needed, whilst improving themselves in the process. For example, Britain is no exception. Some of its imperial adventures were catastrophic for local populations. But it is easy to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Failures and errors that Western nations have made over past centuries should not blind us to the progress they have advanced in the field of human liberty. We need to stand up for that, and promote it, without fear and embarrassment.
There is a new zeitgeist afoot that directs a penetrating eye at the misdemeanours of nations. The slave trade and its parallel economic distortions have especially fallen under the spotlight and are scrutinized with great intensity. Statues fall, places are renamed, and in our colleges and universities, teachers “decolonize” the curriculum.
The motivation behind all these activities is one of genuine benevolence. No rational person can fail to be abhorred by the worst excesses of imperialism. Although they cannot be reversed, our history, the things we commemorate, and how we teach our past can be channelled and rectified in ways that do justice to this past and repair some of its influence.
However, and there is a however, even though Western nations have not been utopias, and for those who suffered under colonialism, sometimes positively dystopic, it is a moral failure to see this in black and white terms, to disavow the many traditions of Western society that have wrought huge improvements in the human condition. It is also, I think, a lack of intellectual courage, against the backdrop of colonialism, to feel squeamish in saying that Western civilization has given birth to some of the most profoundly excellent ideas about human freedoms.
We could cast our eyes back to the traditions of democracy tested in ancient Athens over 2,000 years ago, or the honing of republican government by the early Romans, two civilizations immersed in slavery. But even in the modern age, whilst colonialism was emerging and then in full swing, the contributions made by the West to human liberty have been impressive.
Philosophers of the 17th century such as Thomas Hobbes and John Locke opened a new and vigorous dialog on freedom. Between them and the 20th century the list of names is legion: Smith, Ferguson, Voltaire, Rousseau, Madison, Mill, de Tocqueville, Friedman, Popper, Berlin, Hayek, Arendt, Rawls, von Mises, and on and on. You don’t have to agree with any of these people to recognise two essential points: first, the Western world has produced a climate of intellectual freedom that has led to an efflorescence of thought on human liberty that is unmatched in history, and second, those thoughts have had many beneficial consequences for the quality of governance and the freedoms of individuals.
Among these writers there have been positively gleaming moments of inspirational thought. I would pick out Mary Wollstonecraft’s 1792 tract A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which was a fountainhead of women’s rights and the expansion of the political franchise, an equalizing force for which there is still much work to do. One of my own favourites is John Stuart Mill’s 1859 essay On Liberty, a particularly cogent and crisp summary of his arguments for individual liberty.
It would be bigotry of the highest order to somehow claim that the advance of liberty is a uniquely Western achievement, but I don’t think it would be wrong to say that Western civilization has embarked upon this project with a zeal that has not been seen before, a systematic cadence of free enquiry that has yielded an effusion of ideas and counter-ideas that play out in colleges, drawing rooms, and restaurants.
This heritage is lodged in the Western outlook that largely repudiates totalizing ideologies and instead seeks a more capacious field for human disagreement and expression. It is difficult to discern where this came from. It is easy to locate certain advances, such as the Magna Carta, in specific social tensions, such as the fractured patience of some irate barons seeking restraints on the king.
Yet, somewhere along the line, the idea of essential equality in the respect that was due to people, the notion that all human beings were fundamentally born equal, at least in their right to be treated with dignity, if not in their natural capacities and proclivities, took root in the mind. It is not necessary to embark on a long discourse about where this kernel of culture came from (although it is of great importance and interest) for the sake of what I want to say here.
The deep suspicion of dominating power, which in the 20th century reared its head in the form of Nazism, Leninism-Marxism, Maoism and other outbreaks of totalitarianism, but which has expressed itself in many forms throughout history, is perhaps one of the defining characteristics of Western society and has fashioned our political, economic, and military goals.
It is easy to become blasé and cynical about this legacy. It concerns me that the modern current that seeks to reconsider the history of the colonial period has a tinge of anti-Western revulsion about it, a temptation to equate an acceptance of these dark corners with the need for individuals to display an unambiguous reticence about any enthusiasm for our past.
I believe you can be deeply concerned about the consequences of imperial ambition, yet mightily excited by the intellectual legacy of the enlightenment, without contradiction. I think you can laud Mary Wollstonecraft or be thrilled by the writing of Voltaire, Madison, John Stuart Mill, or whoever tickles your political persuasion, without being sheepish. It’s important to have the faculty of seeing the nuance in the human condition.
It is also imperative to understand that all ages, in retrospect, have their moral conflicts. In the 24th century there will likely be mores of our own societies that will seem revolting to those future citizens. Perhaps owning a pet dog that you drag around a park on a lead will seem unfathomably barbaric and abusive to future ages. But would you want those people to throw the books you wrote on political philosophy onto the rubbish heap as a consequence? Unyielding presentism, that tendency to make trenchant judgements about past generations based on modern sensibilities, is unedifying for a thoughtful people.
As in the 20th century, the lights of liberty flicker and dance uneasily once more. As we see human liberties challenged once again by autocracies around the world, now more than ever it has become important for us to have confidence in what we believe. There is a chasm between arrogance and thoughtful self-confidence. It is the latter that we must re-gain and display with vigour.
Those who laid the groundwork and foundations for freedom of expression, equality before the law, freedom of religion, freedom from arbitrary state coercion, and an interest in constructing accountable government, deserve both our admiration and gratitude. It is shrivelled and desiccated mentality that feels a penitence about these stupendous accomplishments.
Above all, one should grasp that it is the very freedoms we cherish that have provided the basis for us to confront our colonial past in the first place, to face up to it with honesty and humility. The virtues of the open society make possible this debate.
This brings me to the war in Ukraine. The war against Ukraine is a war of colonialism. Those who find the West’s past a point of contradiction, even hypocrisy, in criticizing the war entirely miss the point. It is shocking, but hardly a mystery, that some of the most vocal critics of the West seem silent on this modern war of imperialism. That is because in condemning the West’s past, they have also repudiated its legacy of liberty. This is a great intellectual failing.
The culture that seeks to advance humanity, in imperfect bounds, towards greater heights of human dignity and freedom, is a fine one. Before it is too late, it is time for the West to drop the shame and the self-immolating guilt about its past, and for all of us to state with strength and with surety our mission to protect and stoke the fires of freedom, the most precious and impressive product of our civilization.
Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Kyiv Post.
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