In praise of dead white men

Every age has its obsessions. Religious differences among Christians led to brutal and bloody religious wars a few centuries ago. National conflicts among European powers led to worldwide wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. In the West, our 21st century obsession is identity politics and its conflict between genders, races, sexualities, ethnicities, economic classes, and religions.

Advocates of identity politics divide the world into oppressors and victims: male oppressors and female victims; white oppressors and people of colour victims; heterosexual oppressors and gay, etc. victims; Euro, Asian, Caribbean, and other Canadian oppressors and First Nations victims; prosperous oppressors and impoverished victims; Christian and Jewish oppressors and Muslim victims. Those aware and supportive of victims are considered “woke” and righteous.

Representatives of victim groups demand recognition and celebration. Bruised collective egos must be stroked, as a matter of “social justice.” One strategy of enhancing the presence, importance, and value of victim categories is a determined effort to gain or grant greater representation in paintings, movies, statues, plaques, awards, advertisements, appointments, and assignments, through diversity requirements.  A complementary strategy is to lobby for or comply with removal of representations of members of oppressor categories: hide their portraits, tear down their statues, remove their names, do not assign their works, do not cite them. This strategy applied above all to “dead white men,” now deemed to be evil oppressors throughout history.

North American, and Antipodean university students and professors have rebelled against the study of Western Civilization, now deemed exemplary only in white supremacy, imperialism and colonialism, and slavery of people of colour and suppression and extermination of native peoples. Classical studies too are rejected, because the ancient Greeks and Romans were white. Medieval studies are now in an uproar because they are too white, and allegedly of interest to white supremacists.

These “social justice” views are ludicrous in their anachronistic and ahistorical preaching. Why such advocates imagine that their 21st century preferences for gender, race, sexual preference, and ethic diversity should or could have been honoured in the Ancient World, the Middle Ages, or the 18th and 19th centuries is beyond reason. Their demands are ethnocentric in the extreme. They contradict their multicultural claims of cultural relativity by demanding that others, in the past no less, conform to their values.

Two bludgeons energetically used todays by social justice advocates are slavery and native peoples. The arguments go along these lines: The American founding fathers were evil slave holders, so everything that they said or did, including the Constitution of the United States of America, must be rejected, along with their names, images, and works in toto. So too with any other slave holders, whatever else they did, especially if they built cities or universities; their names and images must be erased, a la Soviet historiography. For Canada the great sin is not viewing native peoples, First Nations as we now call them, according to the ideas of the 21st century. As mentioned, an anachronistic and ethnocentric demand. The founding leader of Canada, John A. Macdonald stands condemned among social justice activists and politically correct conformists. Teachers Associations demand that no schools be named after Macdonald; the capital city of British Columbia has taken down its statue of Macdonald.

It is generally regarded as rude, if not racist, to refer to historical facts in discussing social justice demands. But I will risk the condemnation on behalf of truth and reason. Slavery was not unique to the United States. In fact, slavery was widespread throughout the world in all of history up to the 19th century. The Greeks and Romans and many others were slaving societies, with mainly white slaves. The Arab Islamic Empire from the 7th century made slaving of both whites and blacks a major policy. The Ottoman Empire followed up by slave taking of whites in the Balkans. North African Muslim “Moors” slave raided in southern Europe, all the way up to Ireland. West Africans traditionally captured slaves for their own use, and later slaved to feed them into the North Atlantic slave trade. South Asians did not need slaves, because they had “untouchables.” Russians had serfs. Even tribal peoples took slaves; both the Baluch of southeast Iran and the Turkmen of northeast Iran captured Persians which they kept or sold as slaves. Canadian Northwest Coast natives made slaves of prisoners taken in raids and warfare. So the framing of slavery as whites enslaving people of colour is historically and ethnographically false.

Why was slavery almost ubiquitous throughout the world and throughout history? The answer is simple: Economic production depended upon human and animal power, and the amount produced was low. That meant that food security, prosperity, and wealth were almost impossible to accomplish. There was only one possible solution. That solution was to capture labour that would be uncompensated, which means that most of what was produced could be appropriated for others. In other words, adding uncompensated labour to the economy would raise the total amount produced, but would draw little from the total, thus increasing the products available to others, especially the elite. This uncompensated labour consisted of slaves. That is why imperial expeditions and expansions had as one of their main goals to capture foreigners to serve as slaves in the metropolis. The slaves laboured, and the citizens and their elite enjoyed the fruits of the slaves’ labours.

Today, fortunately, slavery has largely been suppressed. It exists mainly in certain Muslim countries and Islamic movements, such as the (now happily defunct) Islamic State, and in small scale human trafficking. How did slavery come to be outmoded? The answer, again, is simple. In the 18th century white men in Western Europe generated first an agricultural revolution and then the industrial revolution, both of which raised the level of productivity to unheard of, high levels. For the first time in human history, economic productivity was able to provide foodstuffs and materials to satisfy basic human needs and even a degree of prosperity. This took place in the wider context of the Enlightenment and the invention of science, all also the work of European white men. It was during this period that slavery started to be banned by white men in various American states and European jurisdictions. In 1807, white men in the United States made engaging in the slave trade a felony, and in the same year white men in the United Kingdom abolished slave trading and sent the Royal Navy to suppress the maritime slave trade. From the early 19th century the American abolition movement, which consisted largely of white men with the aid of some white women, as blacks continued to be enslaved, pressed for the end of slavery.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 freed the slaves in the secessionist states. Blacks were admitted to the Union Army and Navy, some 200,000 serving and fighting for their freedom by the end of the Civil War. The current social justice initiative of portraying white men as evil slavers may be good anti-white propaganda, but it is false history, and racist.

Throughout history, around the world, native populations have fought one another for territory, material resources, prestige, and slaves. North American native tribes fought one another, enclaved captives, and tortured captives. Middle Eastern Bedouin tribes fought among themselves from Arabia to Morocco. East African tribes raided each other for livestock, or for precedence and control of the state. South American native tribes fought one another, to steal women, among other goals. And everywhere, when native peoples came into contact with more powerful societies, they were killed off, enslaved, maintained as a subordinate population, or assimilated to the culture of their conquerors. You will recall that the Jewish tribes of ancient Israel were captured and carried off by the Persians eastward to slavery in Babylon, and then, having returned to Israel, were enslaved in Egypt.  We see enslavement of conquered local peoples also with the Roman Empire that enslaved the tribes of Britain and central Europe, the Arab Muslim Empire as they conquered and enslaved many in the Christian and Jewish Levant and Berber North Africa, as well as Al-Andalus in the Iberian Peninsula, the Mongol Empire in Russia and the Middle East, and the Inka Empire in South America.

So why would it be a shock to us that a 19th century Canadian politician trying to build a new state would include among his priorities the control and assimilation of the native population? Why on earth would we imagine that he would take our 21st century, culturally relativist, multicultural, and social justice perspective? It is anachronistic, ethnocentric, and absurd to condemn 19th century men for not being 21st century men.

Having addressed some lines of the social justice attack, I now want to turn to the positive. We know perfectly well that dead white European men invented Western Civilization, the Enlightenment, and modern society through their scientific, agricultural, and industrial revolutions. Unlike social justice advocates, I would argue that this is good reason to celebrate dead white men, rather than to reject Western Civilization, the Enlightenment, and modernity. It is the achievements of dead white men that provided the prosperous and open society that enables ungrateful social justice warriors to make their claims, no matter how unjustified.

On a more positive note, I would like to mention a few dead white men who happen to be my personal favourites. I will leave aside the two streams of ancient cultures that were foundational for Western Civilization: the Hebrew and Christian, on the one side, and the Greek and the Roman on the other. As the generators of the Hebrew and Christian cultures were Middle Eastern Jews, their skin hue is uncertain, maybe tan or coffee coloured, perhaps off white, so we do not need to defend them for being white. The Greeks and Romans were certainly white, or at least Mediterranean olive skinned. Do I really need to explain why it would be childish to dismiss as irrelevant and unimportant Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes, et al? Or Roman law? I’ll limit myself to a few favourites among the moderns, as examples.

Let’s begin with the great empiricist philosopher, David Hume (Scottish, 1711-1776), who showed that philosophy can be both realistic and enlightening. Hume quote: “A wise man proportions his belief to the evidence.”

Next are the scientific pioneers James Hutton (Scottish, 1726-1797) and Charles Lyell (1797-1875), who conceived of and documented “uniformitarianism,” the doctrine that the physical earth can be explained best by the constant working of natural forces over time. Uniformitarianism rejected supernatural intervention and catastrophism as explanations for physical forms on earth. Hutton and Lyell were white men who invented modern geoscience.

Next is a man of practical invention, John Laudon McAdam (Scottish, 1756-1836), who invented the macadam road surface, the first modern road construction, and thus transformed transportation. Another dead white man.

Now I would introduce a dead white woman, Jane Austen (English, 1775-1817), brilliant author of six mature works, including Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma, all beloved, repeatedly drawn on in television series and in feature length films. An author of great wit, warm heart, and unforgettable prose. The first sentence in Pride and Prejudice: “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

Returning to dead white men, I would draw your attention to music. The richness of Western music is recognised around the world. The names of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven are legend. But my personal favourite is grand opera composer Gioachino Rossini (Italian, 1792-1868), who wrote the glorious, inspiring, uplifting, and always surprising music for “The Barber of Seville,” “William Tell,” “La Cenerentola [Cinderella]” and some forty five other operas.

The American Founding Fathers: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Jay, Alexander Hamilton and others, drawing on the European Enlightenment tradition, built a country based on a vision of the rights of man, and designed a democratic government independent of religion and based on a division of powers.

Dead white men all, but their work was instrumental in giving birth to the most productive and powerful country in the world today, a country built by immigrants who became Americans, and who enjoyed freedom and opportunity that they had never known.

The founders of British Social Anthropology, both dead white men: Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (English, 1881-1955), foundational Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford University, whose crystalline theoretical essays in inspired generations of anthropologists. Bronislaw Malinowski (Polish, 1884-1942) who set a standard of long term, participant observation in ethnographic research seldom matched, and whose vivid accounts of the people of the Trobriand Islanders inspired anthropologists since.

One white woman and two white men, none of them dead, are favourite novelists:

Annie Proulx (American, of English and French-Canadian ancestry,1935- ) wrote The Shipping News, set in Newfoundland, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, a wonderfully uplifting book of personal redemption.

Richard Russo (American, 1949- ) won the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls, one of several novels about run down, post-industrial, northeast American towns. His others, such as That Old Cape Magic and Nobody’s Fool are equally compelling. Straight Man is one of the great campus novels.

David Adams Richards (Canadian, 1950- ) writes novels recounting the lives of poorer inhabitants of New Brunswick, some in the Miramichi, each novel more devastating than the other: Mercy among the Children, which was awarded the Giller Prize, Nights below Station Street, which won the Governor General’s Award, and Crimes against My Brother, among a dozen others. His happiest is his latest, Principles to Live By, although the protagonist…. [censored as a spoiler]. He was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 2017.

My final favourite is Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Somali, Dutch, American, 1969), who is not white, not male, and (happily) not dead. Her autobiography, Infidel, is a brilliant, informative, compelling book. I assigned it to the students in my seminar on “Immigration and Culture,” a subject on which Infidel is incomparably rich. Many students read ahead, beyond the day’s assignment; they could not stop reading. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is not only a person of talent, but also of great dedication and courage.

My selection of persons to celebrate is brief (you are welcome!) and personal. Others would have different favourites. But one thing is clear: anyone who says that the most important thing about a person is their race, gender, sexual preference, ethnicity, origin, or religion, and who wishes to block their exposure to anyone who is not of their identity category or a member of an alleged “victim” category, is impoverishing themselves. Anyone who wishes to edit history on those same grounds is being dishonest. Individuals and their works should be engaged and praised for their character, their heart, and their accomplishments, whatever their identity category, as I have tried to do here.

Philip Carl Salzman is Professor of Anthropology Emeritus at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. His public interest articles can be found at the Frontier Centre, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Gatestone Institute, Middle East Forum, Minding the Campus, C2C Journal, Areo Magazine, and Dogma Review.


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