Does the West exist? Huntingdon revisited

By Dr. William D. E. Mallinson

What could arguments for eating insects possibly have to do with a naive essay by a Harvard academic masquerading as a historian?

In 1885, a book was published in England called ‘Why not eat Insects?’  The author, Vincent Holt, noted how almost all insects were clean-feeding vegetarians, and extremely tasty and nutritious.  Clever people like the Hottentots ate them, but not Europeans.  He noted how people preferred such delights as lobster and pig, even though they were ‘filthy-feeders’, while noses were turned up at the clean-feeding locust and grasshopper.  He quoted from the Bible (Leviticus): ‘These ye may eat, the locust after his kind, the bald locust after his kind, and the beetle after his kind.’

Significantly, Holt also wrote of those who disdained the idea of eating insects: ‘It is hard, very hard, to overcome the feelings that have been instilled into us from our youth upwards.’  So it is with some academics, brought up in a particular environment, from which they cannot ‘explode’ and free themselves from environmental and intellectual traps they have themselves constructed; rather, they ‘implode’, dividing and sub-dividing their inculcated ideas, in the illusion that they will discover something new.  They fabricate theories and propound them, and ‘new respectable academic papers’ are thrust upon the world. They are rather like sea-squirts which, when tiny, float around until they find a rock on which to cling, then eating their own brains.

Such is the case with many academics who claim expertise in what they term ‘Western civilisation.’  One such academic thruster may be Samuel P. Huntingdon, judging from his paper ‘The West: Unique, Not Universal,’ which we shall now revisit. Obviously not an insect-eater, he makes some blunders, contradictory into the bargain.  He apparently believes that what he terms ‘Western civilisation’ emerged in the eighth and ninth centuries.  He then drops into vagueness, saying that it had a ‘classical legacy.’  This is all ‘pure piffel’, as the Dutch would say, since his version of the West would not exist if it were not for the ‘classical legacy’, including the very Roman alphabet that he uses, derived to a large extent from the Greek one.  Modern American and European philosophy and political theory is either copied or based on Greek ideas.  Huntingdon must be aware of this, as well as of how much of his own language derives from Greek, but his cocooned thinking has caused him to escape from the basics.

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Most extraordinarily, he writes: ‘There was a well developed sense of community among Western Christian peoples, one that made them feel distinct from Turks, Moors, Byzantines and others.’  Community? Ask the millions of Catholics slaughtered by Protestants, and vice-versa.  Ask the victims of St. Bartholomew’s Day, or of Wexford and Drogheda in Ireland, where the brave ‘soldiers’ of Oliver Cromwell slaughtered priests, women and children.  Ask the French, who, in a mental orgy of raison d’état, often allied with the (Moslem) Turks against the Holy Roman Empire.

What, precisely, does Huntingdon mean by ‘Byzantines.’?  He lumps them together with races like the Turks, Moors ‘and others.’  Does he mean the Greeks? Or does he mean the inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire in, in other words, at various times, Greeks, Serbs, Armenians, Kurds, Jews, North Africans, Selçuk Turks, Slavs, Albanians, Italians and…others?

Incredibly, Huntingdon forgets to mention that the Greeks, as rulers of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire, defended Huntingdon’s version of the West, first against the Arabs, and then the Turkic tribes, until 1453.

It appears, then, that in promoting his idea that the ‘West’ is unique, Huntingdon displays a warped and partial view of history.  This makes it difficult to attach credibility to anything he says, even though some bits sound reasonable.  Huntingdon’s version of Western civilisation is, simply put, one based on ‘Western Christianity, European languages, the rule of law, pluralism and individualism.’  This simplistic exposé is hardly earth-shattering.

The ‘West’, of course, means different things to different people.  Miguel de Unamuno, that tortured Roman Catholic, wrote of the ‘Graeco-Roman’ or ‘Western civilisation.’  His concept is broader than Huntingdon’s, since it places ‘Graeco-Roman’ at the centre.  He was, of course, writing this in the 1920’s.  Since then, we have had the Cold War, when the West simply meant the anti-Communist antithesis of the East, ‘democracy’ against ‘Marxism’, free trade against extreme dirigisme and pluralism against totalitarianism.

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Then we have a purely geographic concept; but many people forget Africa and South America, while others include, for ideological reasons, Japan.  The ideological view sullies the geographic one.

Finally, we have the blue-jeans and hamburger American cultural west; in other words, consumerism, allied to certain styles of rock music and ‘artistic’ fashions.  Here, of course, countries such as Turkey, the Iran of the 1970’s and Israel can claim membership, although if you scratch beneath the surface, you will find that this ‘Western culture’ actually wears rather thin, a point, it must be said, that Huntingdon does at least recognise.

In truth, there cannot be, nor ever has been, a clear and universal – let alone unique- Western civilisation.  There have only been historians, or pseudo-historians and the like who, like Huntingdon, claim that the ‘future of the West depends in large part on the unity of the West.’  Such expedient and simplistic pigeon-holing of ideas, based on simple historical ignorance, is irresponsible, since it is dangerously discriminating, creating a kind of incipient international apartheid, a sort of exaggerated power-block nationalism, where arrogance and suspicion rule the roost.

By stressing NATO as the ‘security organisation of Western civilisation’, Huntingdon inadvertently shows that his motive is not to teach history, but rather to use it to spread his political ideas.  It would be safer for the world if he redirected his faculties into a study on eating insects. He could then perhaps learn something.

Athens, 14 November, 2008, amended on 29 October 2010.