AS THE WORLD TURNS
Apr 27, 1998, Vol. 3, No. 32 • By DAVID FRUM
But while chance has its place, Sowell insists, it explains only so much. What are decisive are the values and institutions groups develop. What determines economic growth is not investment, as Landes believes, but skill sharpened by competition. Sowell observes of czarist Russia: "Lack of capital was not the source of Russian backwardness. Lack of entrepreneurship and technology were the crucial problems. . . . What was lacking in Russia was not capital but the ability to use capital."
The good news is that the ability to use capital can be learned: Human capital can be transferred. The bad news is that sometimes the price for the transfer is an immense cultural catastrophe. That is how Sowell sees the history of Africans in the New World. Deported, enslaved, degraded, the blacks in the New World -- and in the United States above all -- absorbed the European culture of their enslavers and, in the course of time, prospered and rose toward equality. "Haitian blacks, having been independent of whites for more than two centuries, should be the most prosperous in the hemisphere and American blacks the poorest, if racial oppression accounts for poverty, but in fact their respective economic positions are directly the reverse -- again suggesting that human capital has a greater effect than racial discrimination."
That is the sort of thought for which Sowell's critics will never forgive him. But I rather wonder whether it will not be Landes who finds himself in hotter water. For his book is a more direct assault on the favored doctrines of today's historical profession. Perhaps the most disturbing thing to be learned from Landes is how pervasive such beliefs are. One of his footnotes directs you to the Internet motherlode: "H-WORLD" (http://www.h-net.msu.edu/similar to world) , an "online initiative" that "facilitates discussion of research and teaching in world history."
I spent an alarming few hours online there, reading one professor after another explain, as one of them put it,
that Europe was no more highly developed than other civilizations prior to 1492, and had no unique "potential" -- intellectual, social, or environmental -- for modernization, . . . that the "rise" of Europe over other world civilizations occurred because of the wealth obtained in early colonialism, mainly in the mines and slave plantations of the Americas, . . . that the European conquest and exploitation of the Americas resulted from the fact that Europeans were geographically closer to the Americas than were African and Asian maritime-oriented civilizations, and that the conquest itself was facilitated by the great epidemics of Eastern Hemisphere diseases that decimated the populations and destroyed the civilizations of the "New World."
Even after 1492, another H-WORLD professor writes, Europeans
had nothing to offer in exchange that anyone in Asia wanted -- except the money the Europeans were able to bring from the Americas after 1500. Yet for several centuries even that American money afforded the otherwise poor Europeans no more than a toehold anywhere in Asia and thereby a still only quite marginal participation in universal world history. That continued to be made preponderantly in Asia by Asians -- and certainly not by Europeans.
H-WORLD is no domain of cranks. It's funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and maintained by Michigan State University, and the professors who post on it teach at perfectly respectable colleges and universities. But it opens up a strange, alternate universe, in which India would have developed a world-dominant textile industry if not for the beastly British, in which China led the world technologically until 1850, in which medieval Africa was a very considerable industrial power. The only advantage the Europeans had was a superiority in technology for killing and fewer qualms about putting it to use. European hegemony was only a brief episode, and it is now mercifully coming to an end. And to hasten that end along, even the word "Europe" is to be banished from the language, with the old concept of " Eurasia" replaced by the new one of "Afrasia" -- since Europe isn't a continent, really, but a peninsula: like India, only nastier.
This kind of thinking irritates both Landes and Sowell. "In a world of relativistic values and moral equality," Landes fumes,
the very idea of a West-centered (Eurocentric) global history is denounced as arrogant and oppressive. It is intended, we are told, "to justify Western domination over the East by pointing to European superiority." What we should have instead is a multicultural, globalist, egalitarian history that tells something (preferably something good) about everybody. The European contribution -- no more or less than the invention and definition of modernity -- should be seen as accidental or, to use the modish word, contingent.
"In our own times," Sowell writes,
cultural relativism has rewritten history. . . . The concept of discovery has become taboo, unless it is a "reciprocity of discovery" or the even more neutral word "contact" between the two worlds. Yet, plainly, Columbus discovered America in a sense in which the Indians did not discover Europe -- and it was an enormous event in the history of the human race, for good or ill. Quibbles about the fact that some other European explorers touched the hemisphere earlier, or that the Indians knew it was here all along, trivialize this turning point in the history of the world.
In calling the school of history they are attacking "relativist," however, Landes and Sowell may be missing the point. There is really very little relativistic about it. You never hear anyone say, "From our point of view it was wrong for Ferdinand and Isabella to expel the Jews from Spain, but you have to see it from the Spanish point of view," or "We might think it wrong to sell opium to the Chinese, but British India did need the money." Real relativism is intended to excuse; the new world history is intended to blame. Relativism takes no point of view; the new world history has a very specific point of view: the evil of Europe and its inferiority to everything else. This is not a commitment to "moral equality," as Landes claims, but a twisted form of ethnic chauvinism.
It is very strange to tap into a website (made possible only by American technology) to read postings -- in English by professors at Western universities paid for by European techniques of industrialism -- denouncing America, Britain, and the European West. But then again, why not? Human beings are creatures who hunger to belong to something larger than themselves: a community, a tribe, a nation. A history professor in the United States today would never confess himself an American nationalist, but there remains in him a premodern element that wants to be a nationalist for something. The history attacked by Landes and Sowell gives him that something -- something to hate (Europe and European America) and something to love (China, India, pre-Columbian America, Africa). It gives him heroes to glorify and villains to abuse. And it connects seamlessly his view of the past with his view of the present -- for it is not a coincidence that this new nationalism in history has arisen at exactly the same moment that America's identity as a European civilization has come into question.
There are happily few signs that the preoccupations of American academia are spreading beyond the borders of this country. The subtitle of Landes's The Wealth and Poverty of Nations is Why Some Are So Rich and Others Are So Poor, and for Singapore, Ghana, Taiwan, Korea, Chile, and other fast-developing countries, the answer is as obvious as it used to be to America: free trade at home and abroad, low taxes, the honoring of work, stable currency, honest government, good schools. It does not require much more than that.
The danger is that a crippling and unfounded self-hatred is being inflicted on millions of high-school and university students. This sort of thing has real- world consequences. If it is true, as Sowell argues, that America owes its freedom and prosperity to its European cultural inheritance, then what, we have to wonder, will America look like if it teaches its young people to feel ashamed of that inheritance? Landes's Ming Chinese shut themselves off from the world out of overweening arrogance; an equally unthinking self-abasement can be every bit as destructive. It is to that unthinking self-abasement that we seem to be heading. And these two remarkable books by Landes and Sowell are powerful brakes upon that self-destructive course.
By David Frum; David Frum is a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD How the West Won