The False History of Western World History

The term “western civilization” is all around us, set out in history textbooks, encoded implicitly in children’s stories and Hollywood movies and proclaimed loudly and angrily by commentators on both sides of the political spectrum. But it’s a false version of history, one that misrepresents what we know about the evolution of humanity.

The earliest human societies were all over the world, not just in western Europe or in ancient Egypt or in China. And they grew and merged into many different cultures, not just the ones that are called ‘western’.

It is only in the 19th century that historians began to use the phrase ‘western civilization’ – and that term is not even geographical, but a concept, a lineage of culture that starts with the Greeks and Romans (who were the heirs of the ancient Greek world), pushes back to prehistory and then extends into modern times.

This cultural lineage is linked to ideas of a superior culture – in opposition to savagery and barbarism – of democracy, constitutionalism and the idea that people should have freedom of speech, religion and conscience, and of a ‘natural’ world that was the basis of science. It is a lineage that, when interpreted ideologically, justifies an imperial system of control.

But removing the language of western civilization allows these histories to be taught and studied on their own terms, as they are, without tying them to an artificial justification for white supremacy. In fact, there are now more programs in schools teaching ancient history, European history and US history that do not use the term western civilization than those that do.

These historical periods include the rise of Christianity, and its reasons for spreading; the fall of the Roman Empire and the emergence of the Germanic kingdoms; the growth of medieval learning centres in Europe, including Baghdad; and the Age of Exploration’s expansion of western and central European empires into Africa, Asia and the Americas. The impact of these developments opened the world to new resources, new people and geopolitical changes.

It also gave rise to the modern concept of the nation state, and to a great deal of bloodshed and conflict over power, territory and ideology, with dictators like Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot imposing extreme political systems that caused mass starvation and destruction. The last century was particularly violent, with two world wars and the dismantling of colonialism. In addition, it included the struggle for women’s rights and globalisation. As a result of these events the world has now entered a new phase of human development, a period that is both more inclusive and more destructive than previous cycles. As the world’s most powerful civilization, the United States and its allies will play a critical role in shaping the shape of this next phase.

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