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Thread: 4. The Dishonesty of the Revisionists, book review of The Uniqueness of Western Civilization

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    Default 4. The Dishonesty of the Revisionists, book review of The Uniqueness of Western Civilization

    The Uniqueness of Western Civilization
    Ricardo Duchesne
    Leiden: Brill, 2011

    Review by Collin Cleary

    4. The Dishonesty of the Revisionists

    Enter the late Jerry Bentley (1949–2012), revisionist historian. Bentley promoted the ostensibly valid claim that all the world’s peoples deserve serious study by historians. But he promoted this largely by denying that there was anything distinctive or unique about “classical Greece, the European Renaissance, the Reformation, the Glorious Revolution and Parliamentary supremacy, or the Enlightenment” (pp. 54–55). Now, at the risk of seeming to make a dogmatic claim, I submit that the only excuse for holding such a position would be ignorance of all the historical events or periods just listed. But Bentley was a university professor, and far from ignorant. One therefore feels driven to the conclusion that he was, like so many other academics, in the grip of an ideology, and being less than honest.

    In academic circles it’s considered dirty pool to accuse a scholar of dishonesty. One must instead patiently refute their errors and carefully avoid hinting that one believes that those errors are less than honest. (And Duchesne, good academic that he is, plays this game, and generally avoids speculating about the motivations of his opponents.) This is the gentlemanly thing to do. But now and again one encounters a position that is so patently dishonest one feels a moral obligation to denounce it as such. And, in general, the dishonesty of the revisionists is pretty patent.

    Consider, as another example, the case of Felipe Fernández-Armesto. You may not have heard this name, but he is one of the most highly-regarded academic historians today. His 1000+ page textbook The World: A History (2007) is utilized in classrooms throughout the English-speaking world, and has been lavishly praised by other historians. It should instead have created a scandal, given that Fernández-Armesto devotes scant treatment to ancient Greece, Rome, and Christian Europe, while lavishing attention on Asia, Africa, and the Americas (p. 62).

    To make matters worse, Fernández-Armesto’s treatment of European history is often absurdly distorted by his Left-wing ideological commitments. In dealing with classical Greece, for example, he asserts that “until recently” we hailed the Greeks as originators of democracy but “scholars today” have “revised” our assessment of them and exposed the fact that only privileged males counted as citizens. But, of course, this is not a recent discovery! It has been common knowledge for more than 2,000 years.

    Duchesne writes that Fernández-Armesto “essentially walks over what was uniquely Greek – the existence of a government that allowed for the full participation of all male citizens – in the name of facts that were, in varying ways, common features of the rest of the ancient world” (p. 63). Historians of the past recognized the flaws in Greek society – the treatment of women as non-persons, the institution of slavery – but saw what was still exceptional about the Greeks in spite of their flaws. Fernández-Armesto’s ideology will not allow him to take such a balanced view. Because the Greeks were not feminists and egalitarians, they must be “exposed” and vilified, their achievements denigrated and denied.

    Aside from the ideological blinders worn by the revisionists, Duchesne also exposes the inherent flaws in their basic methodology. In brief, the revisionists cherry-pick the evidence, accumulating only the facts that seem to support their own claims. Duchesne puts it more politely, observing that their approach is too Baconian and insufficiently Popperian. In other words, they think that you can prove a case simply by assembling evidence that confirms it, and do not seem to realize that one must come to terms with evidence that disconfirms it as well.

    But the revisionists have a convenient way of dealing with disconfirming evidence: dismissal and denunciation. For example, a book by the revisionist historian Andre Frank wildly overplays the role of China in world trade in the 18th century. At one point he confronts some troubling but well-founded statistics from another source: Europe’s share of world trade in 1720 was 69%, and 72% in 1750. Frank’s response: “this unabashedly Eurocentric claim is disconfirmed by the evidence discussed in the present book.” In fact, Frank’s book offers no hard evidence to refute these statistics.

    When it comes to colonialism, the fur really starts flying. One of the revisionists’ standard claims is that whatever Europe may have achieved in the modern period was accomplished through the ruthless exploitation of its colonial possessions and their inhabitants. The trouble with this claim, however, is that according to the best evidence Europe’s profits from colonial trade in the late 18th century amounted to no more than 2% of GNP. The revisionists also love to claim that the Industrial Revolution was made possible by colonialism. But Duchesne notes that profits from colonial trade were too small to have contributed much to the capital formation that made the Industrial Revolution possible. In the case of Britain, colonial trade was no more important than domestic industries as a source of the capital that went into industrialization.

    From the fact that Britain was linked into a global trade network it simply does not follow that she was parasitic upon it. Duchesne writes:

    Academics are so preoccupied with the moral implications of the slave trade, the plunder of resources, and the use of violence in the enforcement of mercantilist trade arrangements, that they cannot see the obvious: Britain earned her riches through her own virtues and talents as a nation that deliberately set out to achieve imperial greatness. It was Britain’s development of the best navy in the world, civil institutions, administrative and financial reforms that made it possible for her, in the first instance, to seize upon and appropriate raw materials and slaves in faraway lands. [p. 88]

    And Duchesne points out other obvious problems with the claim that Europe’s links with the rest of the world – colonial and otherwise – were responsible for its achievements. First, all things considered the costs of colonialism – administration, taxes, defense – outweighed the gains. Second, Spain acquired huge colonial possessions but wound up undeveloped, lagging well behind other European countries that had fewer such foreign entanglements. Third, countries like Germany and Switzerland lacked colonial properties, but nevertheless became extraordinarily wealthy.

    But the biggest problem of all is that – as mentioned earlier – the revisionists tacitly treat Europeans as passive agents whose destiny was determined by their situatedness within the “world system.” It is this “world system” – the web of relations between interconnected nations – that emerges as the only truly active “agent” in the accounts of revisionists. “The world system,” Duchesne writes, “is ultimately conceived as the active (structural) entity determining a country’s developmental possibilities” (p. 91). What of the desires, dreams, ideals, and aspirations of remarkable, farseeing men? What of the “doers,” who are not content to be acted upon and who, instead, act? The ideology of the revisionists simply contains no room for such men.

    The revisionists are extremely keen to avoid doing the “bad old history,” which saw the rise of the West in linear terms as a history of progress. So they swing to the opposite extreme, avoiding any suggestion that there is a pattern to Western history at all. So what explains the extraordinary achievements and innovations of the West if not, shall we say, “Western characteristics”? Well, we’ve already seen one answer to this: the West was dependent on the rest. The revisionists also continually have recourse to the idea that the many revolutionary changes and innovations in Western history were essentially accidental. We were in the right place at the right time, as it were. Again, no great, exceptional men with exceptional minds and motivations. All are moved only; none are self-moved.

    Duchesne writes: “In their extremist desire to strip Europe of any deep-seated, differentiating characteristics, revisionists have left themselves with no option but to treat [Western] history as an unending series of ‘lucky shots’ and abrupt turns” (p. 203). One revisionist historian writes that Europeans “weren’t just lucky; they were lucky many times over.” The truth is that Europeans were lucky indeed: lucky to be in possession of a singular genius and drive. But that this may have been our “lucky break” is a possibility the revisionists simply will not allow themselves to consider.

    As I shall treat in greater detail in the next section, the revisionists also continually draw our attention to ideas and inventions that Europeans allegedly “borrowed” from others (even when the evidence for this is scanty). As Duchesne points out (p. 64) what they fail to realize is that being original does not preclude having debts to others – and that affirming the uniqueness of the West does not imply that it was self-contained (p. 177).

    Japanese Zen was certainly indebted ultimately to the Indian sage Bodhidharma, but no honest man would call Zen “unoriginal.” Einstein was likewise indebted to Newton, but again no honest man would use this as a basis to dismiss relativity theory. But, to come full circle, we are not dealing here with honest men (though it is doubtful, in fact, that the revisionists would question the originality of Zen and Einstein!). We are dealing with men in thrall to an ideology, determined not just to deny the West’s greatness, but ultimately – in truth – to destroy it.
    Last edited by Hong Key; 02-23-2015 at 08:21 AM.

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