"How Islam saved Western Civilization"

Ah, the past. It's so comforting because it's already happened and we can control it. Economic and political subjects are also welcome.
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"How Islam saved Western Civilization"

Post by Sycorax »

I watched this over the weekend, thought it was good, decided to share it here: https://youtu.be/C8M4i9fvq1M?si=T-s6kCIICno7xELl

(Fair warning: Dr. Casagranda goes off on long tangents which do contribute to his overall point, but at times it was difficult to keep track mentally of how all his tangents tie together. It's worth the effort though).

I'm attempting to order my thoughts on this lecture, so apologies if I am not coherent.

Anyone with a base-level knowledge of world history knows that the Arabic world made massive contributions to science, math, technology, literature, philosophy, etc. This is discussed at length in the lecture with an emphasis on technology.

What was more of interest to me, however, was that Casagranda correctly identifies an interesting game of identify politics the West plays with the East.

The West traces its roots back to Egypt and Sumer and generally begins about 5,000 years ago with the invention of writing and calendars. This heritage claim made by the West is evidenced partially by the fact that many museums in Europe and North America contain multiple Egyptian/Sumerian artifacts, and how we fight to keep these objects by claiming they are part of our history.

He then points out that if you take a course in the history of Western Civilization 101, you will spend 1-2 classes learning about Egypt and Sumer. Then weeks on the Greek and Roman empires, weeks on the European Dark Ages, and finally the course concludes with Thirty Years' War. Western Civilization 102 is 1648-present. I would agree with that summary, as it reflects my own experience taking similar courses.

But Egypt and Sumer were ancient by the time the Greeks and Romans arrive on the scene. They existed for thousands of years. Yet we only afford them a lecture or two at most. He makes the point that this would be analogous to teaching a course on the Anglosphere and spending one class on England and the rest on the U.S.

How is it that the West can claim connection and cultural ancestry from the East, but spend virtually no time discussing that? Why do we sometimes claim connection to the East, and other times deny it? What function(s) does that serve? Who and what defines what is "West" and what is "East"?

He proposes that it is a combination of individual and government identity politics. Identity is a complex and at times contentious subject. At its best, individual identity politics help people conceptualize themselves and their roles in various group and social systems. It can help people understand their experiences within society and how that intersects with who they are, name these experiences, and work toward change for the better if needed. The obvious example of this would be the Gay Liberation movement. People coming together under the umbrella of a shared identity/lived experiences to enact change and move society forward.

At its worst, however, individual identity politics can be weaponized by individuals, governments, religions, or other organizations for nefarious purposes. If identity is left unquestioned by the individual, it is very easy for malicious entities to assign an identity which aligns with the goals of a government/other interest group to a person. This is in part how we end up with suicide bombers and mass shooters. Less dramatic but still an issue: Identity politics can be (and are) used as a way to distract from serious economic and environmental issues facing the globe. Exploring identity is a normal and healthy thing for an individual to engage in. But individual identity politics combined with the hyper-individualism of our society means (to me anyways) that we have become too distracted with navel-gazing to pay attention to/respond to what is happening to the planet right now both environmentally and economically. Obsessing over the minutiae of individual identity prevents people to some extent from considering what is happening to their neighbours, their countrymen (country people? fellow wage-slaves?) or the other people who live on the planet. It also means that we are not paying attention to or questioning the identity assigned to us by our governments-in this case, the label of "Westerner/The West".

Ultimately, this idea of "East" vs "West is an artificial and dangerous construct. There is no Eastern "other". We are them and they are us. Various governments/organizations/religions throughout history have perpetuated this artificial East/West divide for the usual reasons (money, power, control of the narrative to gain money and power). We now have an entire planet of individuals and governments who all buy into this East/West divide, and at massive cost to both individuals and the planet.
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Re: "How Islam saved Western Civilization"

Post by sharoma »

I thought it was an excellent lecture. All I can think to add to the excellent summary Sycorax provided is to wonder if the distortion of eras or time periods is a deliberate trick by the political class to keep 90% of history obscure and unrelatable. Having to work around a BCE/CE (BC/AD) system doesn’t help when trying to scale the history of human development. It’s easy to just imagine everything before 0 as backward and less advanced. Roman times are familiar to us because the Romans were plunderers, basically proto capitalists; we can understand why they built roads, had law courts, mined salt, bought and sold slaves, and set up monopolies. To glorify this is to glorify our current system. Romans are portrayed as highly civilized based mostly on their architecture. Their genocide or slave-based society doesn’t detract from them as being a society we look up to when really it should motivate us to stop looking back and glorifying them. They were violent and unsympathetic. Yet our current governments gain from a positive portrayal of Rome because it adds legitimacy to their regimes; they inhabit classical style buildings in western capital cities and all monarchs continue to use variations of Caesar for titles. Perhaps then we are only given glimpses of things that are approved and won’t threaten our belief that our system is the correct one. Everything since the Romans is Christian and capitalist with a continual technological development since the 1400s. Romans originally being pagans gives even more credence to Christianity because such a great empire abandoned old gods for a brand new one. European Christian civilization, using the Renaissance, even credits itself with the technology it sought to destroy originally. We are told everything from the fall of Rome until the Renaissance is a ‘dark age’ because the current regimes gain the credit from having brought us out of it.

Going back further, beyond the Greeks, history becomes obscured and abstract. Even though Egypt was ancient by the time Rome was dominant, we are not supposed to question the development of governments but just accept that’s the way it has always been. This time distortion has been more successful than the political class could dream because many of us may struggle to even understand the history of the 20th century. Before long it too will be compressed and unrelatable, with both world wars just being “what they did in olden times”.

The origins of governments is a very important topic for historical discussion yet we cannot do it because the era when government did emerge is trapped in this far away abstract era. The lecturer’s method of stating an event as ‘x thousand years ago’ is very helpful to try and pin down which empires have lasted the longest and what the ones after must have felt to be compared to them.

His statement that historians rely on written words is accurate and does limit what historians can infer. If there is no primary evidence, then there is no reliable history. The fact that government therefore predates history itself is chilling but entirely logical based on the lecturer’s assessment of how writing originated: to track quantities and agriculture for a political class seeking to control and consolidate the output of people’s labour.

Apologies for mentioning 1984: this relates to the confusion over who really invented what. The regime of Big Brother claims it invented the helicopter and Orwell uses this as further evidence that the regime in 1984 is especially evil and abnormal. Even benign and well-intentioned regimes will eventually apply credit in the wrong place and time, because it’s wrapped up in how we identify as a society. Many historians concede now that ancient civilizations understood or harnessed steam. Yet I was taught it was various Englishmen who came up with the idea. Regimes which last for centuries can easily gain ownership of technological breakthroughs. E.g., maybe steam was invented over a thousand years ago, but the first modern Christians to harness it were the British. Imperial ownership is similar. Colombus or other Europeans claim credit for discovering America. The people already there aren’t credited in this narrative. Perhaps because the Church and political class felt so stupid for destroying so much knowledge they considered it a fresh start, with everything free to be discovered again, cleansing themselves of guilt and gaining political prestige from all the rediscoveries. The fact that Arabs had records of existing discoveries was inconvenient and easily hidden from wider knowledge. The fact that Vikings discovered the New World wasn’t advantageous to mention. After all, it was the Spanish/Christian political class which financed Colombus.

The idea that ‘the east is backward’ has certainly been felt in Russia, where during the First and Second Industrial Revolutions they were keenly aware the ‘west’ saw them as technologically inferior. Everything in the west must be golden: we tell ourselves we are the freest and most technologically advanced. The fact that China makes all our high-tech goods is an inconvenience and something we isolate from the narrative we tell ourselves. Having a backward or evil ‘east’ to refer to gives our political class immense power because they are cast as the enlightened regimes.
Robin Sharrock
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