As long as there have been empires, there have been buzzwords used to support them, and justify their conquests. The Romans, Assyrians, Ottomans, British… you name ‘em, they gave some bs excuse about bringing civilization or some such. Indeed, if you look through the papers left from the colonial powers that established empires in North America during the Early Modern period, they came up with some of the most complex theories relating to rights of war, the onus placed upon Christians to spread their faith, and, the classic, helping to lift the ‘savage’ populations up to a state of civilization.
As Juan Sepulveda, a Spanish Theologian, put it: “The Spanish have a perfect right to rule these barbarians of the New World and the adjacent islands, who in prudence, skill, virtues, and humanity are as inferior to the Spanish as children to adults, or women to men, for there exists between the two as great a difference as between savage and cruel races and the most merciful, between the most intemperate and the moderate and temperate and, I might even say, between apes and men.”1
In response to Sepulveda in what would become known as the Valladolid debate, even Bartolemé de las Casas, an ardent defender of the rights of Native Americans, stated that, in the Americas, “there are important kingdoms, large numbers of people who live settled lives in a society, great cities, kings, judges and laws, persons who engage in commerce, buying, selling, lending, and the other contracts of the law of nations… From the fact that the Indians are barbarians it does not necessarily follow that they are incapable of government…”2
Despite this shmorgishborg of buzzwords for empires to choose from, civilization and savage became the two most prominent for the next 300 to 400 years. As Europeans continued to spread out and encounter new peoples and new cultures, they only became more enamored with themselves. At first, they claimed that their status as Christians gave them not only the right, but the responsibility, to bring the ‘unbelievers’ into the fold, whether through peaceful (if annoying) evangelization, or conquest and forced conversion (however disingenuous these conversions may have in fact been). Even as late as 1757, French missionaries in Quebec described the Abenakis among whom they worked as “our Savages… [who] have excellent dispositions, which may some day make of them Perfect Christians.”3
But, as the elite of the Old World underwent a change from older, medieval ways of approaching the world, to more modern ways during the Renaissance, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment, these self-same elite became convinced that it was not only Christianity that made their empires ‘civilized,’ (though, this obviously did persist) it was their use of reason to understand and master the natural world around them. Of course, such lines of thinking completely ignored the important role that the Arabic world played in keeping alive the intellectual tradition of speculative thinking that had flourished in ancient Greece, and also the marvelous feats of engineering and astronomy by the Aztec, Maya, Chinese, and many more. And, at its darkest, gave rise to scientific racism.
In a phrenological work published in 1839 called Crania Americana, Samuel Moron divided humanity into several different ‘species,’ stating that the Caucasian “race is distinguished for the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments.”4 Compare this to the “American Race,” i.e. Native Americans, who “are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, and wholly destitute of maritime adventure.”5 Or the “Ethiopian Race,” i.e. Africans/African Americans, among whom exist “the lowest grade of humanity.”6 And this text only represents a drop in the bucket of such texts, that only served to justify the conquest and subjugation of countless people across the world.7
And this idea that conquering, imperialist, Western powers had the right to do so due to their dominance in fields such as chemistry and physics, literature and philosophy, persisted up until the 20th-century, when the buzzword switched from civilization to democracy. It was the fact that these nations were governed by those ‘selected by the people’ that made them superior – and everyone else lived in a state of ignorance and unfreedom. While democracy does indeed seem to be a powerful force for establishing political freedoms, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the only means by which polities organize themselves (Athen’s famous democracy lasted less than 200 years!). Yet, throughout the 20th-century, we’ve seen Western powers doing their darndest to topple various regimes across the world – even going to war to enforce democracy on various peoples – and, it seems, they are usually greeted as conquerors more than bringers of freedom.
But is all this to bring ‘freedom’ as it’s conceived of in these Western nations, or to place friendly governments in strategically important positions? When the allied forces created the state of Israel following WWII, rather than taking land from a conquered Germany, or ceding part of their own, allied, territory, they took lands from those who had not been involved in that epic struggle – the people of the Levant, thus giving the allied powers a strong foothold in the Middle East. Only recently had these people gained their independence from the old Ottoman and British empires, and then, once again, they were subject to a foreign state, friendly to Western powers.
While I could be off base here, it seems to me that the tradition of Western imperialism is still alive and well, and that the powers-that-be have just gotten better at picking their buzzwords.
- http://moses.creighton.edu/kripke/jesuitrelations/relations_70.html – pg. 109
- https://archive.org/stream/Craniaamericana00Mort#page/n23/mode/2up, pg. 5 in text, 25 in slider
- Ibid, pg. 6 in text, 26 in slider
- Ibid, pg. 6-7 in text, 26-27 in slider