Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Civilization Spreads By Conquest…And Other Things We’ve Mostly Forgotten

with 4 comments

It’s Sunday, and I’m still reading Thomas Aquinas and getting agitated over on FB, which seems to me to be what FB is doing to me at the moment.

But right now, I want to go back to a different FB conversation, one I started on the day before Thanksgiving, and that sort of dropped off the radar.

Except that I’ve been thinking about it.

While I’m doing it, I have Anonymous 4 doing medieval Christmas music behind me (The Holly and the Ivy at the moment) and snow in the back yard.

My impossible world seems operational, at least for the moment.

In the possible world, this started when somebody posted one of those FB image cards with a quote from Ayn Rand on it, saying that the settlers in North America had been entirely right to move in and take the Native Americans’ land because the settlers had art and science and philosophy and whatever while the Native Americans “didn’t even have property rights.”

What ensued was a small hail of comments of the kind that make me hold my head and wonder how we’re ever going to survive into the 22nd Century.  Or even to next week.

These started with declarations of what an evil woman Rand must have been to think these things, followed by derisive comments of the “and she must be stupid too” variety–mostly chortling over the idea that “they didn’t even have property rights!” was a significant point in the argument.

It amazes me, really, that so many people these days seem to have NO idea what things were like in even the very recent past.

The idea that there was something wrong–never mind “evil”–in what Rand said in that quote dates back less than a century, and as a commonly accepted idea it dates back to less than half that.

What’s  more, even today, when we in Western Europe and the United States think that such an attitude to indigenous peoples is completely unacceptable, most of the rest of the world simply and emphatically disagrees with us.

As far as China, Russia, the Islamists and most other societies are concerned,  there are superior societies (their own) and inferior societies, and the superior societies have the right to conquer, occupy and control the inferior ones.

How we got to a place where we in the West think it’s wrong to conquer and control other societies is a long story, and not the point for the moment.

What got to me was this–it’s not as easy as people think to look at the history of this and say it shouldn’t have happened, that in every case the unambiguously right thing to do would be to leave the people as they were and not “interfere” in their cultures.

To begin with, cultures and societies are not only not alike, they are not even close to being equally capable of providing the people living in them with advantages, comforts, and the opportunity to live even a minimally decent life.

Contrary to the romanticization of all things indigenous and primitive, life in preliterate or nonliterate societies is not a romp of wonderfulness feeling one with nature.

Hobbes called it solitary, nasty, brutish and short, but even he underestimated the sheer awfulness of living through the daily grind in such societies–the nearly endless warfare, the deaths in childbirth that take almost half of all women, the epidemics, the famines.

And that’s just the problems brought on by impersonal nature.  Any unbiased investigation of such societies uncover evidence of practices that should make any modern Westerner cringe.

For instance, analysis of the skeletons of Native Americans (yes, even the Iroquois) shows the stereotypical brittleness found in the bones of people who do not get enough protein–but it shows that only in the women, who were considered to be inferior to the men.

The arrival of literate invaders bringing not just agriculture but rationalized methods of farming, reading and writing and figuring that meant that knowledge learned could be stored, and the protection of persons and property in codes of conduct and law almost always resulted in a rise in the safety, security and standard of living of those of the conquered that managed to survive.

Of course, not all the conquered managed to survive, and sometimes none of them did–but genocides and near genocides were not invented by literate peoples.  They have existed throughout history.  Before the people we call Native Americans arrived here, there was an indigenous people already in place in North America.  They were wiped out–completely.  No trace of their DNA has ever been found in any living person.

When civilizations spread, they open up possibilities that we don’t even notice any more, but that are crucial if we want people to lead materially decent lives, or spiritually decent ones, for that matter.

A society at peace and protected by law is one in which individuals with ideas can try out those ideas and disseminated what they learn from the tryouts–better, more reliable, more efficient ways to grow crops; the way the human body works and what that means for treating disease; strategies for defending borders against raiders looking for loot; strategies for conquest that, if successful, meant that your society could grow and prosper even more.

It’s to the conquest and the growing and prospering that we owe things like the germ theory of disease, the principles of crop rotation; the understanding of such public health innovations as the scientific management of human waste; and a whole lot more.

To say that it was always and unambiguously evil when a more developed society conquered and controlled a less developed one is to say that such societies were always and ambiguously better off when their people starved half the time, were exposed to the elements and helpless in the face of natural disasters, and died in childbirth at rates that defy understanding.

To do this at least as much to deny the humanity of the people of the less developed society as conquering and controlling them is. 

It is to say that these people–unlike you and me, unlike everybody else on the planet–do not value comfort and security, good health and healthy children.

There is no indication, even now, that indigenous peoples, given the choice, would choose their traditional societies over material progress.

In fact, when they ARE given the choice, they ditch their traditional folkways with a haste that would make the Road Runner look slow. 

We aren’t losing the Amazonian rainforest because big, evil corporations are ravaging Mother Earth.  We’re losing them because the local indigenous tribes have figured out that clearcutting means money which means a better and more reliable supply of food, and education so that that modern medicine stuff can move in and stay and…

Indigenous peoples are not pets.  They want the same things we do.

And they’re not going to thank us for forcing them to be “authentic” in misery.

None of that, unfortunately, answers the question of whether or not it should be considered wrong for more developed societies to conquer and control less developed ones.

“It’s for your own good” is not a rationale I usually accept for initiating the use of force. 

Among other things developed and developing societies bring with them is religion, and one of the things this developed society brought with it was philosophy.

Religion and philosophy brought with them chances in the way we define the human and the understanding of the obligations we owe to our fellow human beings.

I think I’ve come to this conclusion:

In antiquity–really until relatively recently–conquest was the only way civilization COULD spread.

Capitalism didn’t invent the creation of wealth–successful agriculture is a way to create wealth–but it came damned close, and it is only after the rise of capitalism that any societies create enough wealth to lift the vast majority of their peoples out of destitution. 

If what you need to do to advance is marshall enough resources to allow a solid little segment of your population the leisure to think and invent and take risks, to acquire knowledge both practical and theoretical–if that’s what you need, and no wealth creating machinery exists to provide it, what you have to do is go out and conquer it.

I can’t say I’m sorry they went out and conquered it.  I am benefited by too much of what they produced as a result of their conquests–books, medicine, food all year round without ever having to worry about it, a rate of death in childbirth so low that nobody even thinks about it any more…

At the same time, we’ve gotten to the point where we can afford to worry about the ethics of the thing, and I think we should.

We don’t need to go out and conquer somebody to acquire the resources we need to find the cure for cancer or send a manned mission to Mars.

We also understand, in ways in which we didn’t before (and which societies like China and groups like the Islamacists don’t even now) the sense in which we are, as Mr. Jefferson put it, created equal.

So I think I would say, right now, that we should not be in the business of conquer and control, that we should leave other people to make their own decisions about how they want their own societies to develop.

But we should do that in full knowledge of the consequences of what we are advocating.

Decisions like this are not neutral.  They have immediate effects, and some of them are really, really bad.

There are, as we speak, societies in Africa whose governments deny their citizens polio vaccine and AIDS drugs–both considered plots by Western nations to render their men sterile. 

There are societies in Latin America that are truly “rape cultures”–the Yanamamo, for instance, treat gang rape as a sport for young men.

There are all those African Muslim countries where female genital mutilation is passed off as female “circumcision.”

Never mind the ones that execute people for being homosexual.

I have absolutely no compunction in saying that my society is not just different from these, but objectively and demonstrably superior.

To say that, though, is not to say that I have the right to go in and fix what’s wrong.

I admit that I think that, in the long run, if we can keep from committing cultural suicide, most of the people of the world will vote with us, one way or the other.

Many of them already are.  That’s why we have an illegal immigration problem.   I spent half an hour the other day watching video of mothers and children marching steadily over bare ground to get to the Texas border, just walking, wearing backpacks, not knowing if it would work, not really knowing where they were going, only absolutely sure that they wanted something better and they wanted something else.

But while I’m waiting for people to choose voluntarily, there are people in the world today–right now today, right this minute–who will suffer at least in part for my fastidiousness.

There are girls in Africa who will have their clitorises sliced away by rusty knives, children in Southern India who will go blind for lack of beta carotene, women who will be stoned to death on mere accusations of adultery and gay men who will be beheaded for simply being themselves.

I think far too many of us get our kicks feeling morally superior to people whose politics we don’t understand and whose commitments we declare “obviously” wrong without ever having thought about it, or even tried.

But I’d like every one who wants to play that game–all cultures are equally valid! anybody who says one society is superior to another is an idiot! anybody who says superior societies have the right to conquer and control inferior ones is evil!–that the people they’re sneering at may have looked at the reality o n the ground and decided it might be even less moral to let all of that go on.






Written by janeh

November 30th, 2014 at 12:10 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Civilization Spreads By Conquest…And Other Things We’ve Mostly Forgotten'

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  1. Not so much a coherent essay as three comments on aspects of a very interesting essay.

    Conquest as justified in order to build a leisure class I find unconvincing. I’ve seen and studied leisure classes, and I think we’d get better philosophy out of them if they had to farm, trade soldier or manufacture at least part of the time. But it’s worth noting that if your civilization doesn’t grow large and tough enough to defend itself, it will pass on nothing. Those who disagree are invited to read the wisdom of the Ronga-Ronga Boards. They were right to worry in 1861 that a principle of secession, once accepted, might leave no United States at all.

    And a strong word in defense of property rights, which any number of our new “leisure class” think can be distinguished from “human rights.” They can’t be. Your right to worship as you see fit ends pretty abruptly if the “community” owns the land, and somehow can’t spare any “community resources” to build a temple. Your freedom of speech and the press assume you own–or can own–newsprint, ink and some sort of press, and that you can sell your product to buy more paper and ink. This is at least as true if you want to publish a book. A VAST array of human freedoms begin with the right to do as we please with our own–and that doesn’t really exist in any culture in which whatever you have can be taken from you by anyone stronger. The default state of mankind is that of the schoolyard bully, and the first rule of civilization is “leave other peoples’ stuff alone.” Until that rule is enforced, no one will make or grow more of anything than he can quickly eat or hide.

    As for “voting with one’s feet” and immigration, I am MUCH less optimistic. It is one thing to prefer the fruits of a peaceful prosperous civilization, and something very different to understand and accept the principles and behaviors which produce that peace and prosperity. There are many Muslim immigrants who are all in favor of freedom of speech and religion–but who don’t feel the insulting of Islam should be allowed. Those particular immigrants may be here legally and vote in elections–but they are not Americans, and admitting them will have consequences. Latin America is what it all too often is because it has accepted the rule of Big Men who look after their own families and their followers at the expense of both state and individual. It’s going to be a lot easier to hand out green cards and hold citizenship ceremonies than it will be to convince people raised in such a system that the Boss should not loot the treasury to pay back the people who voted for him–and that the Boss’s son shouldn’t inherit the Boss’s job.

    Everyone believes in eating well. If you want to keep your farm going, try to sort for the ones who believe in irrigation, fertilizer and weeding.


    30 Nov 14 at 2:29 pm

  2. I am constantly reminded of the theorem in logic that says if you have a system with a contradiction, then anything can be proven true.

    Specifically, if health care is a fundamental human right (see the debate on the ACA), then we should intervene in the countries where the governments are preventing polio vaccination and AIDS drugs.

    If equal treatment of women is a fundamental human right, then we should intervene in a lot of countries including the Muslim ones.

    But intervening is imperialist colonialism which we say is wrong!

    And I agree with Robert about immigration.


    30 Nov 14 at 4:35 pm

  3. Having lived for a significant time in Papua New Guinea, a country with 700 or so distinct languages and many more tribes/clans with a kill or be killed culture in more places than not, I have no patience with our western armchair/academic philosophers who insist that intervention is colonialism and by definition wrong. As Jane says, given a free choice, such people never vote with their feet in any direction but towards our western societies.

    Like Robert I fear that the current wave of immigration will cause our societies major problems which I piously pray I will not live long enough to see the worst of, but I’m also confident that in two or three generations the descendants of our current wave of immigrants will be indistinguishable from the present society.


    30 Nov 14 at 6:10 pm

  4. Mique, that’s usually the case–but it’s a high-stakes gamble. When you lose, in two or three generations Gaul becomes Frankreich and even though they speak some sort of Latin, they think like invading barbarians. Not many of the last wave of invaders wanted to bring the Roman Empire down–but they also didn’t understand or accept the duties of citizenship. And we’re doing this in a society in which they don’t have to accept the rules in order to vote, and which is less and less inclined to assimilate immigrants.

    There are times to take chances, with due precautions. But our present ruling class doesn’t even seem to realize the dangers. I can only hope they’re the first victims of the new order, but life is seldom so neat.


    30 Nov 14 at 7:40 pm

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