If we are to defend western civilisation, we must at least understand it. I’ve heard it argued, for example, that the defining characteristic of western civilisation is that it is Ango-Saxon. This is not just nonsene; it’s nasty – and in today’s interconnected world, it’s dangerous nonsense.
The truth, as George Reisman so patiently explains below, is that Western civilisation is neither Anglo-Saxon nor Semitic: it is the property of no particular race or of any particular ethnic group. This is of course one of its many great virtues. It’s a very important concept for would-be defenders of Western civilisation to grasp. (And you would have thought some of its so-called advocates would already understand it…).
“The Universalisability of Western Civilisation”
Once one recalls what Western civilisation is, the most important thing to realize about it is that it is open to everyone. Indeed, important elements of "Western" civilisation did not even originate in the West. The civilisation of the Greeks and Romans incorporated significant aspects of science that were handed down from Egypt and Babylon. Modern "Western" civilisation includes contributions from people living in the Middle East and in China during the Dark Ages, when Western Europe had reverted to virtual barbarism. Indeed, during the Dark Ages, "Western" civilisation resided much more in the Middle East than in Western Europe. (It is conceivable that if present trends continue, in another century it might reside more in the Far East than in the West.)
The truth is that just as one does not have to be from France to like French- fried potatoes or from New York to like a New York steak, one does not have to have been born in Western Europe or be of West European descent to admire Western civilization, or, indeed, even to help build it. Western civilisation is not a product of geography. It is a body of knowledge and values. Any individual, any society, is potentially capable of adopting it and thereby becoming "Westernised." The rapidly progressing economies of the Far East are all "Western" insofar as they rest on a foundation of logic, mathematics, science, technology, and capitalism--exactly the same logic, mathematics, science, technology, and capitalism that are essential features of "Western" civilisation.
For the case of a Westernised individual, I must think of myself. I am not of West European descent. All four of my grandparents came to the United States from Russia, about a century ago. Modern Western civilisation did not originate in Russia and hardly touched it. The only connection my more remote ancestors had with the civilisation of Greece and Rome was probably to help in looting and plundering it. Nevertheless, I am thoroughly a Westerner. I am a Westerner because of the ideas and values I hold. I have thoroughly internalised all of the leading features of Western civilisation. They are now my ideas and my values. Holding these ideas and values as I do, I would be a Westerner wherever I lived and whenever I was born. I identify with Greece and Rome, and not with my ancestors of that time, because I share the ideas and values of Greece and Rome, not those of my ancestors. To put it bluntly, my ancestors were savages--certainly up to about a thousand years ago, and, for all practical purposes, probably as recently as four or five generations ago.
I know nothing for certain about my great grandparents, but if they lived in rural Russia in the middle of the nineteenth century, they were almost certainly totally illiterate, highly superstitious, and primitive in every way. On winter nights, they probably slept with farm animals in their hut to keep warm, as was once a common practice in Northern Europe, and were personally filthy and lice infested. I see absolutely nothing of value in their "way of life," if it can be called a way of life, and I am immeasurably grateful that my grandparents had the good sense to abandon it and come to America, so that I could have the opportunity of becoming a "Westerner" and, better still, an American "Westerner," because, in most respects, since colonial times, the United States has always been, intellectually and culturally, the most Western of the Western countries.
Thus, I am a descendant of savages who dwelt in Eastern Europe--and before that probably the steppes of Asia--who has been Westernised and now sees the world entirely through a Western "lens," to use the term of the critics of "Eurocentrism." Of course, it is not really a lens through which I see the world. It is much more fundamental than that. I have developed a Western mind, a mind enlightened and thoroughly transformed by the enormous body of knowledge that represents the substance of Western civilization, and I now see the world entirely on the basis of that knowledge. For example, I see the world on the foundation of the laws of logic, mathematics, and science that I have learned. And whenever something new or unexpected happens, which I do not understand, I know that it must nevertheless have a cause which I am capable of discovering. In these respects, I differ profoundly from my savage ancestors, who lacked the knowledge to see the world from a scientific perspective and who probably felt helpless and terrified in the face of anything new or unknown because, lacking the principle of causality and knowledge of the laws of logic, they simply had no basis for expecting to be able to come to an understanding of it.
There is no need for me to dwell any further on my own savage ancestors. The plain truth is that everyone's ancestors were savages--indeed, at least 99.5 percent of everyone's ancestors were savages, even in the case of descendants of the founders of the world's oldest civilisations. For mankind has existed on earth for a million years, yet the very oldest of civilisations--as judged by the criterion of having possessed a written language--did not appear until less than 5,000 years ago. The ancestors of those who today live in Britain or France or most of Spain were savages as recently as the time of Julius Caesar, slightly more than 2,000 years ago. Thus, on the scale of mankind's total presence on earth, today's Englishmen, Frenchmen, and Spaniards earn an ancestral savagery rating of 99.8 percent. The ancestors of today's Germans and Scandinavians were savages even more recently and thus today's Germans and Scandinavians probably deserve an ancestral savagery rating of at least 99.9 percent.
It is important to stress these facts to be aware how little significance is to be attached to the members of any race or linguistic group achieving civilisation sooner rather than later. Between the descendants of the world's oldest civilisations and those who might first aspire to civilisation at the present moment, there is a difference of at most one-half of one percent on the time scale of man's existence on earth.
These observations should confirm the fact that there is no reason for believing that civilisation is in any way a property of any particular race or ethnic group. It is strictly an intellectual matter--ultimately, a matter of the presence or absence of certain fundamental ideas underlying the acquisition of further knowledge.
[Excerpted from George Reisman’s pamphlet ‘Education & the Racist Road to Barbarism,’ which thoroughly explains and pretty much explodes the process and the arguments behind multiculturalism]