The Myth of the West VII

November 11, 2021

Part 7 of a series on Whether There Was a West.

In this post I continue my discussion of Myth of the Month 8: “The West” (2019), a special episode of the excellent Historiansplaining podcast. Though I highly recommend the podcast, you don’t need to have listened to it before reading these posts.

The topic is the problems with the concept of some coherent thing called “The West.”

Please read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6 if you haven’t already.

Lepers and Crooks

You’ve been with the professors and
They’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks

— Bob Dylan, “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Highway 61 Revisited (1965)

Yesterday we dismissed arguments that the West might find its one defining feature in science, in individualism, or in rapine.

Biagetti notes the irony in the fact that Spengler puts together his unified definition of the West during World War I, one of Europe’s greatest cataclysms. Spengler’s philosophy is pessimistic, tragic, and Faustian. But it is also classically “declensionist,” following (as discussed in the first instalment) Edward Gibbon’s 18th century Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Biagetti finds consonance between the “decline” narrative and conspiracy theories. If you feel anxious, confused, and uncertain about the future, you may (as Spengler does) conclude that your whole society is declining into moral decadence. You might also assume that there are hidden forces conspiring invisibly behind the scenes.

Conspiracy theories, he notes, have often been anti-Semitic, anti-Marxist, anti-anarchist. During certain periods, certain anarchists really were violent revolutionary conspirators — though there have also been pacifist strands. Today, these accusations have been extended, he argues, to include Post-Modernists, relativists, deconstructionists, and other schools of thought, who are influential within academia, though not found often outside of it. Calling someone a “post-modern neo-Marxist” today is to accuse them of conspiring to tear Western society apart from the inside, and it carries the same connotations as calling someone a “communist” did during one of the Red Scares.

The newer accusation does not necessarily allege a shadowy group of conspirators, as in the fabricated anti-Semitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (1903). But it operates along similar lines. It alleges that a loose affiliation of individuals, in a cultural minority but potentially holding positions of power, are somehow conspiring the culture from within.

Biagetti finds this idea almost inseparable from the idea of the West. Once you think of the West as a body, with the individual countries as parts, this leads to obvious metaphorical leaps. Bodies age (decline), get sick (become decadent), and die (collapse). Bodies can become infected and contaminated. And it plays on the strong feelings people have about their own bodily integrity.

Biagetti finds these worries extremely similar to those in the 14th Century, when High Medieval European culture is on the decline. There are famines, the Hundred Years’ War, and a rather famous plague. People turn to scapegoats and accuse them of literally poisoning Western Christendom.

In Biagetti’s telling, the lepers are the first to be accused. Here’s a related account by Barbara Tuchman, in A Distant Mirror (1978):

The accusation of well-poisoning was as old as the plague of Athens, when it had been applied to the Spartans, and as recent as the epidemics of 1320–21, when it had been applied to the lepers. At that time the lepers were believed to have acted at the instigation of the Jews and the Moslem King of Granada, in a great conspiracy of outcasts to destroy Christians. Hundreds were rounded up and burned throughout France in 1322 and the Jews heavily punished by an official fine and unofficial attacks. When the plague came, the charge was instantly revived against the Jews […]

Tuchman quotes a song by the most significant European composer of the time, Guillame de Machaut (1300–1377), which accuses Jews of poisoning wells. She goes on to trace this anti-Semitism back to the early Church.

Biagetti connects these to the European witch trials, which began in 1329, but reach their zenith (or nadir) in 1580–1630, during which about 50,000 people (80% women) were burned at the stake. He points out that about half of all the people prosecuted and killed in this period were in what is now Germany (then the Holy Roman Empire).1

He refers briefly to the similar treatment of heretics; I’ll return soon to whether heresy is itself a Western phenomenon. But the 12th to 15th Centuries are also the period of the Medieval Inquisition.

Modern Fears

Biagetti sees these same fears as direct antecedents to fears of “cultural Bolshevism” in the last century, and of “cultural Marxism” today. Germany and Central Europe are the “crucible” of this kind of thinking. They don’t even really need to make sense: “Jewish Masonic communist banker conspiracies.”

In Spengler, he sees the search for a coherent West as expressing a fear of the East. Spengler’s thinking is not anti-Semitic and not itself related to Nazism. But Nazism’s xenophobia and anti-Semitism might be more extreme expressions of the same underlying fears.

Here’s Biagetti:

There is still this heavy German background to thinking, to our ideas about the West and Western civilization, but they’ve really taken off now more in the English speaking countries. In Britain and the united States and Canada. This is where the same sort of ideas about the rise and fall of civilizations, about clashes between inherently opposing civilizations, clashes between East and West, the internal weakening of the West by infiltrators from the East. These sorts of ideas are now really strongest in the Anglophone countries.

He calls the West “a ramshackle and unstable idea” which “papers over massive rifts and changes in belief that have happened in Western Europe and America through the centuries.”

None of the people now retrospectively considered “Western” would ever have described themselves as such; they would have described themselves as Polish, or French, or Florentine. He thinks this is an important hint for thinking about civilization today.

Rather than resorting to the murky level of “the West,” he thinks that, if you’re concerned about the West’s decline and “crisis of meaning,” you should consider starting at the local level. “What is your city, your state, your community, and how can it be strengthened? And how can life be improved? And how can its traditions be preserved?” Those are questions that should be easier to answer before referring to anything as abstract as “the West.”

I’ve covered Biagetti’s argument fairly exhaustively but I would still highly recommend the podcast. And on the whole I agree with him: as a historical concept, “the West” is worse than useless; it is deeply misleading.

But we still seem to know what someone means when they talk about the West. From here I am going to argue in favour of patterns that might be distinctly “Western.”

  1. Fascinatingly, the Latin term for witchcraft is sortilegia, i.e., sortilege, the casting of lots, which Julian Jaynes writes about, and which occurs in several famous places in the Bible. And the witch trials outside the Holy Roman Empire mostly took place in France, with Spain and Italy comparatively spared.

Bryan Kam

I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter, follow me on Mastodon, or see more here.