After Donald Trump’s statement that immigration is “a very negative thing”, Brian Catlos takes a look at how the demagogues of the political right harken back to a supposedly pure, white European culture, and how these arguments are based on a false, romanticized view of the past.
This summer President Trump warned European leaders that immigration is “a very negative thing” and is in danger of “changing their culture.” It is a statement that resonates with anxieties felt broadly on the political right and which has crystalized in the nativist ethno-national, neo-fascist and racist political movements that have shockingly become mainstream in recent years. Pundits and politicians have been ringing alarm bells for some time regarding the supposed threat to “Western culture” and “Judeo-Christian values” posed by outsiders, especially people who look different or whose cultural priorities are assumed to be at odds with our own. It is Islamic culture that provokes the most fear in this regard, and candidates and talking heads now openly claim that as a religion and culture it is incompatible with western values. These demagogues harken back to a supposedly pure, white European culture of the past, one rooted in nations that trace their landed pedigree back for millennia, uncontaminated by outside influences, and that can be traced back ultimately to the supposedly-European legacy of imperial Rome, Classical Greece and the Hebrew Old Testament. However, their arguments are based on a false, romanticized view of the past, and an absolute misunderstanding of how culture works, what “Western culture” is, and what Islam’s role in its formation has been.
First of all, the notion that there are pure cultures is an illusion. Of course, there have been some exceptions historically – the Inuit of the Arctic, the so-called Aboriginals of Australia, the Guanches of the Canaries, and so on. One might say these people had pure cultures because for millennia they were absolutely isolated from outsiders. But rich and complex as their interior lives may have been, they are hardly the sort that white nationalists would look to as a model. They generally lived in very poor, subsistence-type societies characterized not only by extremely low technological levels but often technological loss, and with little of what we would call “high culture.”
The northern European culture so cherished by ethno-nationalists, on the other hand, has never been completely isolated, and it was contact with peoples moving up from Africa and southern Europe and west from eastern Europe and central Asia that slowly pulled this region out of the Stone Age beginning about five thousand years ago. Very slowly, in fact. Northern Europe remained a Neolithic backwater almost until the arrival of its Roman conquerors just over two thousand years ago. Now, the city of Rome may be in Europe, but the Roman Empire was hardly European – it was an empire that stretched across North Africa and the Middle East (where its richest and most populous provinces were) and which grew out of the ferment of the Egyptian, Persian and Hellenistic cultures of the eastern Mediterranean. The same can be said of Christianity, a heresy of Judaism – itself a western Asian religion that was itself deeply rooted in the traditions of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Persia. Seen by the primitive and pagan northern Europeans at the time, both Christianity and the Roman domination that brought it may have certainly seemed to be “a very negative thing,” and definitely “changed their culture.” But most today would say for the better.
With the disintegration of the Roman Empire northern Europe sank once more into isolation and cultural and technological decline. Around the year 1000 when Europe began to re-emerge from its “Dark Age,” it was largely thanks to technological adaptations brought from the east: such as stirrups, the horse-collar, and perhaps, windmills. But most decisive would be Europe’s engagement with the Islamic world through the Mediterranean. At this time the world of Islam constituted a clearing house for commodities, ideas, technologies and peoples — a massive free trade zone, stretching from the Atlantic to south-east Asia, and from southern Europe to sub-Saharan Africa. Thanks to the movement and mixing of peoples and ideas within the Islamic world — peoples of diverse languages, traditions and religions (including Judaism and Christianity) — the region developed a technological, cultural and intellectual sophistication that far exceeded that of the isolated north. Thanks to its embrace of diversity, Arabo-Islamic society had quickly evolved from being a narrow, primitive, and ethnically-defined phenomenon into a sophisticated and inclusive world culture.
In the centuries after 1000, through their eager engagement in the Mediterranean, Europeans would adopt wholesale the advances of the Islamic world, transforming their understanding of medicine, astronomy, chemistry, physics, philosophy, theology, geography, music, literature, fashion, cuisine, and so on. The principle zones of contact and acculturation were Spain, southern Italy and Sicily, and the eastern Mediterranean — areas where Christians, Muslims and Jews, had long lived side-by-side and continued to do so even after they had been conquered by European princes. It was this process of borrowing and innovation that laid the foundations for the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution, the emergence of what we often refer to as “western civilization,” and eventually the global domination of the European world, and then America.
In other words, American and European culture exists as it does today thanks to the influence of outside peoples, fellow inhabitants of a “west” that stretches at least from the Indus to the Atlantic and from near the Arctic circle to below the Sahara. The ideas, principles and technologies that we admire most in it arose as the consequence of contact, exchange and integration with different peoples from across this wider west and beyond. No one “owns” culture and it is never static; it is created, renewed and transformed continuously through processes of immigration, integration, adaptation, borrowing, and “appropriation” (don’t even get me started about “liberal identity politics”…). As such it is the shared patrimony of humanity. On the other hand, innovation does not thrive in isolation, and cultures and societies that to do not remain open to the outside and to change stagnate and decline. Thus, one might say that embracing outside cultures is as American as apple pie. [Apples, by the way, originated in what is now Kazakhstan, and the apples we eat today from California to China are the descendants of fruit that was carried (and dropped) by hungry Central Asia merchants as they plied their way east and west along the Silk Road some two thousand years ago.]