Sunday, March 27, 2011

Notes on Alastair Bonnett’s 『The Idea of the West: Culture, Politics and History』 (2004) (Part 2)


This just in from Nabil al-Tasnimi:
In the first chapter, “From White to Western: ‘Racial Decline’ and the Rise of the Idea of the West in Britain, 1890-1930,” Bonnett traces the rise of the concept of the West as constructed by Westerners. He sees the idea of the West as arising out the earlier “idea of whiteness,” which had gone into disuse by the 1930s when “white values” were replaced by “Western values."

Whiteness discourse had a rather short history, lasting roughly from 1890-1930. Its severe limitations began to show during what Bonnett calls “the white crisis” period, which saw a proliferation of works celebrating the virtues of whiteness, and warning of the dangers posed to it. The fact that the racially reductive assumptions of the literature (namely, that whites are best) did not line up with the facts (namely, that there are plenty of stupid and inferior whites to be observed in the world) produced a great tension, eventually bringing about the decline of white supremacy discourse. Also, the fact that disparate ethnicities were all lumped together in the “white category” did not help its advocates’ case for “white unity.”

Numerous other inconsistencies helped to rupture the notion of “white unity.” Both the fratricidal First World War and the great class divide exposed whiteness as "an inadequate category of social solidarity" (18). This was the case not only in Europe but in America, too, where whites were realizing that the bond between, say, poor white trash in Alabama and elite neo-aristocratic WASPs from the east coast were more tenuous than once thought. "White identity,” they were to discover, “does not possess a discrete history" (23). The idea of “the West,” by contrast, proved far more applicable, flexible, cosmopolitan, and only subtly ethnocentric.

How did “the West,” then, which was not a common term in Britain before the late 1800s, suddenly become a central unifying idea by the first two decades of the 20th century? The term was first used in its current sense in the late 19th century, and spread in the early 20th century with the help of three competing forces: the rise of America as an imperial power, the Bolshevik revolution, and the rise (and eventual collapse) of the colonial powers of Europe. It was during the unfolding of these three historical shifts that “the West” as a unified subject, perspective, and cultural grouping was invented.

As the terminology moved from whiteness to Western-ness, the notion of race became increasingly irrelevant, or at least sort of. While there emerged a new tendency toward abstraction and universalistic sentiment, the more perceptive critics saw that behind all the lofty rhetoric was still a racial hierarchy that placed the white race on top, and that the alterations in terminology were no more than the proverbial lipstick on the pig, and were motivated by self-serving political convenience.

Nevertheless, a significant change occurred, and Bonnett traces this change from whiteness to Western-ness by examining five key figures from this era in British history whose varying uses of the term “the West” each typified the somewhat competing notions of the day. First was Ramsay MacDonald (1866-1937), who served as Labour Party leader, and, later, British Prime Minister. He defined the West in terms of political discourse, using a partially deracialised, sometimes secular, and sometimes Christian terminology that emphasized a) humanitarianism and the alleviating of suffering, and b) the superior nature of the Western legal system and justice.

After MacDonald came Benjamin Kidd (1858-1916), who introduced the notion of "our Western civilization" in 1894. He saw the West "as a form of spirit, or consciousness, that is intellectually far-seeing and militarily enforced" (29). Though his rhetoric was often combative, he presented his ideas in mostly non-racialist terms, and in the guise of a priori truths which he saw only Westerners as capable of comprehending. These truths, he argued, must be mercilessly enforced, and it is therefore necessary to prepare for conflict in the defense of “Western culture.” To Kidd, whiteness was merely a "prosaic fact," while the West was "a higher and more important reality" (30).

Francis Marvin (1863-1943), a follower of Kid, was the chief organizer of the Unity History Schools, which were established to maintain and propagate a coherent idea of the West, which he saw as having been severely splintered during the Great War. Marvin, somewhat oddly, saw Western man as a single racial unit, within which many other races simultaneously existed. But untroubled by such inconsistencies, he insisted that race was not something to be apprehended by the intellect alone, but to be felt by the heart as an emotional truth.

Oswald Spengler (1880-1936) too was inspired by the non-rationalist approach of Kidd. Spengler, most famous for his polemic The Decline of the West (1912), "leaves aside evolutionary biology" to argue instead that Western man is superior because he represents a form of Destiny. Race is feeling, not science, he asserts. In his Decline of the West he develops the notion of the life cycles of culture, which begin in growth and end in decay. The West as he saw it was now in its final stages of decay. Spengler also fought to abolish the term “Europe,” which he felt was misleading since it included Russians, who, after all, do not think like other Westerners.

Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) wrote A Study of History, in which he describes the rise and fall of thirty civilizations. Though he little mentions race, much of the focus is on the West. Like Spengler, he too considers the term “Europe” to be a misnomer, “since it appeared to link the West to the separate civilisation of Eastern Orthodoxy" (32). The future envisioned by Toynbee was a sort of utopia that was neither Western nor Eastern. Critics, however, would later claim that what he really describes is a world where the West has in fact eclipsed the globe, or erased itself, as it were, "in the process of its complete victory" (33). Toynbee also makes the important point that the "utility of deracialisation," rather than man’s moral development, is what led to fall of the white supremacy discourse.

Thus, by the 1930s white identity as a public ideal was largely dead, having been replaced by the idea of West-ness. (Notable exceptions of course could be found in Nazi Germany, the speeches of Winston Churchill, pamphlets dispersed at KKK rallies, and Pew Research Center polls.) Bonnett notes, however, that white privilege was no less real after this transformation; only the nature of that privilege had changed. “[White privilege] has become less visible, less acknowledged," and has adapted to global capitalist demands (34). The idea of West, Bonnett concludes, "helped resolve some of the problematic and unsustainable characteristics of white supremacism. Yet it carried its own burden of tensions," since, like whiteness, West-ness too came to be perceived as always in a state of crisis, and always in danger of decay or extinction (36).

1 comment:

Josh said...

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