Several recent posts of Facebook accused American media of valuing the lives of Europeans more than the lives of people who live elsewhere. This because of the dramatic, ongoing coverage of bombings in Brussels and Paris while giving passing notice to even more horrendous acts of terrorism in the Mideast and Africa. It seems to be an echo of trends in education that object to the Eurocentric canon that has dominated the West for centuries, as if it is something about which one should be embarrassed, even ashamed. I think that Americans might value European lives more than others is wrong, as is any idea that our Eurocentricity should be a shameful embarrassment.
Let me tackle the value question first, and then the issue of shameful embarrassment. It’s not a question of value, it’s a question of connection. I’ll give you a local example. My friend Chuck died on Easter Sunday morning. It struck me deep in my heart, and I’ve shed tears with his widow. The obituary page noted a dozen other deaths of people I don’t know, and I read about them with passing interest. It’s not that I value their lives less, it’s that I have no intimate connection with them. On a larger scale, that’s why we have given more coverage to tragic events in Europe than to more horrific events in other parts of the world. We are more connected to Europe than we are to other parts of the world.
No doubt there are some who have developed a more transcendent sense of connectedness, and are well tuned in to violent injustices being perpetrated on people in other parts of the world. They understand the interconnectedness between violence in Syria or Iraq and the violence in Europe. But they would never say “all lives matter;” they would say “each life matters.” All lives matter is an empty phrase. Each life matters makes it personal in a way that cannot exclude another. I doubt there are very many who have that more transcendent sense. For most of us the violence against our fellow human beings in the Mideast or South Asia is an abstraction, aided in part by the need to identify large numbers of them as enemies. It’s not a matter of value, it’s a matter of connection. So why are we more connected to Europe?
If it wasn’t for the European voyages of discovery this wouldn’t even be a question. For better or worse, they shaped the world we live in. It could have been otherwise, but it wasn’t. For many centuries the Chinese were far ahead of everyone in almost every sphere of human endeavor. Their navy was enormous, and technologically advanced beyond anything Europe could dream of. If the government hadn’t scuttled it in the 17th century, we might be living with world maps centered on China. We don’t. We live in a world with maps centered on Europe and North America.
If you want to know who you are, you have to know where you came from, and for Americans there are three major strands: Europe, Africa, and Indigenous Americans. Among them, Europeans had the power, control, and money. Our way of thinking, the foundation of our knowledge in science, art, philosophy, religion, psychology, etc. comes to us through the sieve of European history and culture. Our form of government cannot be understood without understanding Enlightenment philosophy, which requires an understanding of the Renaissance, which requires an understanding of the High Middle Ages, which rests on Rome and Athens. That’s why Western history and culture have been given precedence for so many years.
Why do we call it the European settlement of America? Because it was Europeans who conquered the land, wresting it by force from native inhabitants, and subjecting other ethnicities to slavery and servitude. The largest flow of immigration to America was European. European wars, our wars with Europe, and Europe’s meddling in our wars with ourselves are what punctuate the timeline of our history. We are, in short, a European country that was built partly through the labor of enslaved Africans on land taken by force from indigenous peoples. Moreover, we did our best to endow the survivors of our conquest with proper Americanized European manners and mores. Clearly we need to address the imbalance by including African and Indian history in the American canon, but not at the expense of diminishing our European heritage. It may be the good, the bad, and the ugly, but it’s who we are, and it has shaped the way the world is and thinks about itself. Failure to recognize that, and value the canon it created, is foolish at best. I have little time for the nonsense claiming otherwise.
To be more specific, we are not generically European; we favor England and France over all others. German music, philosophy, science, and theology are the bedrock of our intellectual library, but we don’t favor Germany. We never trusted the Spanish. The Armada and all that you know. The English were our enemies, but also the mother country giving us the seeds of our democracy. We fought for our independence and love the Queen. The French were our allies, or our enemies, or our allies again. Mainly they kept the English in check, and that was good. Scandinavians were welcome; what harm could they do? The Irish need not apply. For those reasons alone it is reasonable that the media, and Americans, would pay more attention to a Brussels or Paris than other places. They are our intellectual and cultural aunts, uncles, and cousins, even if one’s own heritage is something other.
Hold on, you say, what about Asians? You left out asians! They are very important to the history of our country, and especially to my family, but consider the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It was renewed in 1892, made permanent in 1902, and not repealed until 1943. Then we imprisoned all the Japanese we could find. European America had to find a way to control them, as it had black Americans who had been effectively penned in by Jim Crow laws following their brief moment of freedom and power during Reconstruction. Indians who hd not yet been killed were confined to reservations, and not allowed to become citizens in their own land until 1924. That’s part of our European history too.
That doesn’t give us license to wear blinders. We do need to widen our vision, but not at the expense of erasing the center, and to deny that it is the center is just plain silly. To do so would be a form of intellectual macular degeneration in which only the periphery would be in focus. What might that look like? I’ll tell you. A local college has recently toyed with it. They all but eliminated the Western canon from the freshman curriculum, and considering the dearth of civics and history in many high schools, it leaves an enormous hole in the very center of one’s intellectual vision. For instance, in order to focus on other parts of the world, the Koran has replaced parts of the bible as a text to be studied. If it had been an added text it would make sense, but to replace the bible? How can you understand anything in the Koran if you don’t know who Abraham and Moses were, and how can you know who they were if you don’t read the text from which they come? It’s intellectual macular degeneration plain and simple.
The better course is to widen the scope of the center so that what was periphery is no longer, but has become an essential element of the revised canon, not as a replacement of the old canon. Maybe more on that at a later time.
1 thought on “Some thoughts on American Eurocentricity”
Some will notice a couple of red letters in the article. One of those little treats that seem to come from nowhere and won't go away. Oh well.