The History of the West is Not As Simple As it Seems

The history of the West is all around us. It is written in our textbooks, encoded implicitly into children’s stories and Hollywood movies, and proclaimed loudly and sometimes angrily by commentators on both sides of the political spectrum. But it is a version of history that is all too often wrong.

For centuries, Western historians have promoted a grand narrative of civilization as a steady ascent from primitive savagery into enlightenment. That story was especially potent in the United States, where it gained traction as a way of defending the elements of Western culture with which Americans felt most strongly, including concepts of rationality and political equality.

Unfortunately, this story is not only wrong, but also misleading and dangerous. The reality is that the world has never been a simple tale of progress from the primitive to the civilized, and the Western story is just as much a story of struggle and exploitation as it is of achievement.

The real history of the West is a richer and more complex tapestry than the traditional narrative implies, one that reflects the complexity of the cultures that occupy it. The modern term “West” refers not to a geographical region but to a broad range of traditions that span many continents. It encompasses the enduring legacy of Greece’s Olympian games, which celebrated the achievements of all ancient Greek culture; the Renaissance, a conscious effort by Europeans to revive and surpass the ideas of Plato, Aristotle and Euclid; the Industrial Revolution, which unleashed a torrent of technological advance in Europe; and a number of colonial eras, when European powers built massive overseas empires through force and guile.

These and other developments forged the broad outlines of what we now think of as the West. But the concept of the West is also an ongoing project in which the identities and experiences of those who identify with it have changed and shifted over time as their geopolitical circumstances change.

For example, a Western narrative that begins with the late 19th century would be incomplete without the cowboy: a cultural icon that is still present in popular culture. The life of the modern cowboy is more complicated than the stereotype suggests, however. In addition to white cowboys, there have been Latino and African vaqueros who rode the range; their lives included long hours of hard labor, poor living conditions and economic hardship.

A new understanding of the West requires abandoning a number of traditional assumptions. The most important of these is the notion that progress in human affairs is always and everywhere a result of the development of new technology or the emergence of a new intellectual movement. In fact, the Industrial Revolution accelerated as Europeans learned how to harness fossil fuels that had previously been inexhaustible, and the new ideas of religious tolerance, equal rights before the law, and feminism emerged with increasing force as a result of the Reformation and Enlightenment. Likewise, the modern world’s true globalization began with the European contact with the Americas.

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