Discovery, Conquest and Capitulation
Mankind and its immediate predecessors have occupied the world for hundreds of thousands of years. Initially that occupation was dominated by tribes of hunter/gatherers of no more than a hundred or so individuals.
The initial population of the earth was sourced by the movement out of Africa by hominids and humans often in waves. In Europe, in particular, Cro Magnons, Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens all seemed to have jostled for a position in populating those areas that would best support hunter/gatherer societies. In Australia, anthropologists suggest at least three waves of migration occurred from Asia each one supplanting, contending with and then often mingling with the earlier immigrants.
Physical separation and geographical barriers often ensured that tribal societies prevailed. But in time, aided by the agrarian evolution that commenced in the Middle East, human societies began to aggregate, forming cities and nations. In Australia for whatever reasons (probably partly due to our infertile soils and lack of water) agriculture did not evolve beyond the most basic level ensuring its inhabitants were trapped in tribal, hunter/gatherer societies.
Now we saw in a previous essay, how the Scientific Revolution arose in Europe and part of its huge success was due to the fact that scientists began to understand the breadth of their ignorance and the necessity to test their hypotheses. The physical discovery of the world only began to escalate when discoverers finally realised there was much of the world left to discover. So again some humility about what was known and what had previously been assumed with little basis was a stimulus to further discovery.
Claudius Ptolemy was a Roman mathematician, astronomer and geographer who lived in the Egyptian city of Alexandria 2,000 years ago. For 1300 years Ptolemy’s map of the world dominated the thinking of the Europeans. Ptolemy, of course had a limited knowledge of the world except for the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe and the Middle East. But he used his imagination to fill in the gaps. Eventually his map gained an authenticity way beyond what its true nature deserved.
But even in the ancient world the development of trade between civilisations motivated adventurous merchants to venture out into the world and learn about the geography and anthropology of distant states. The legendary journey of the Italian merchant, Marco Polo, to China and back illustrates such motivation. In the late thirteenth century he set off through Asia along the Silk Road eventually reaching China where he stayed for 17 years before returning by sea.
But the knowledge of the world was increased by such people, even in far more ancient times. There are records of the ancient Egyptians as long ago as 1500 BC mounting expeditions down the Red Sea to a land they called Punt (probably present-day Somalia) to obtain incense from myrrh trees that they used in their religious ceremonies.
At the same time the Minoans and Phoenicians, who had superior sailing vessels, were exploring the extremes of the Mediterranean.
So even in ancient times, largely driven by trade, civilisations were exploring their immediate locale.
But the drive to further explore the remote parts of the world required a repudiation of the assumed authority of Ptolemy. More than anything else it was Columbus’s discovery of the New World that finally discredited Ptolemy. Columbus had discovered a continent previously unknown in European history and conjecture. Often geographers turned not only to Ptolemy to guide their thinking but also to other “infallible” sources such as the Bible to inform their deliberations. Yet there were no hints from any of these sources that such a land mass as the Americas existed. This spurred the Europeans to more closely explore the world in the likelihood that there were other, as yet undiscovered, lands that they might find in the parts of the world remote from Europe.
(It is interesting to observe that, according to Columbus’s understanding of the size of the earth, when he arrived in the Bahamas he thought he was in the longitude of Japan. Both in reality and metaphorically the world was always bigger than it seemed.)
You might wonder why I have concentrated on the European approach to exploration (and subsequently colonisation). The contemporary great empires of Asia – the Ottoman, the Safavid, the Mughal and the Chinese – showed little interest in pursuing new discoveries even though they had the wealth, technology and often closer proximity to compete with the Europeans for these new discoveries and conquests.
China, for example, had previously shown an interest in exploration. History records the voyages of Admiral Zheng He. Zheng He, during the Ming dynasty, between 1403 and 1433 led seven huge armadas from China to the far reaches of the Indian Ocean. But on the death of the Chinese Emperor who sponsored Zheng He such naval expeditions ceased.
Hence the impetus for discovery over the last five or six hundred years was largely led by the Europeans. In Europe we had the happy intersection of the Scientific Revolution and the growing curiosity to fill in the gaps in the maps. Consequently many of the major voyages of discovery included on board not only cartographers to map the newly discovered land but scientists eager to extend our knowledge of the physical and natural world.
Captain James Cook’s first voyage into the Pacific was driven by a desire to observe the transit of Venus. Astronomers had predicted there would occur transits of Venus (when Venus passed between the earth and the sun) in 1761 and 1769. If the transit could be viewed from widely separated geographical sites, using triangulation methods would enable an accurate assessment of the earth’s distance from the sun to be calculated. Expeditions were sent from Europe to observe the transit in 1761 from sites in Siberia, North America, Madagascar and South Africa. To complete the picture scientists were dispatched to Canada and California to observe the 1769 transit. The Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge deemed that this would not be sufficient and in order to improve the accuracy of the calculation a scientific observer should be sent all the way to the south-western Pacific Ocean. Accordingly Cook was commissioned to transport the eminent astronomer, Charles Green, to Tahiti to make such an observation.
After completing his scientific task, Cook sailed to the south. His intention was to look for the mooted “Great Southern Land”. After sailing as far south as he comfortably could with no indication of land, he finally turned westward and soon encountered New Zealand. He circumnavigated and mapped New Zealand before heading off west again where he encountered Australia’s east coast.
Of course this amounted to a “rediscovery of Australia”, by the English. Other Europeans and Asians had been there many times before.
But it is worthwhile contemplating that Cook’s discoveries were an adjunct to what was essentially a scientific voyage. On Board he carried Joseph Banks with (to Cook’s mind) an unduly large entourage that had taken innumerable botanical samples and made scientific observations about the natural world in the lands they had encountered.
On their return to England much of the excitement about Cook’s voyage was stirred by the rich haul of specimens the naturalists had collected.
Banks, among many others, urged the government to sponsor Cook for a further voyage of discovery. Unfortunately, when such a voyage was subsequently approved, Banks who wished to take an even larger retinue could not be accommodated because Cook was steadfast in insisting that the ships under his command should continue to be sturdy colliers, just like the Endeavour. These little ships did not afford the capacity to accommodate the swollen entourage that Banks insisted accompany him. Banks subsequently went off in a huff to Iceland.
Cook became famous not only for his maritime discoveries but because he learned how to combat scurvy which was the scourge of long distance maritime expeditions. He learned that scurvy could be avoided by ensuring his sailors had an adequate intake of vitamin C. He provided this essential element to their diet by the way of citrus fruits and sauerkraut.
So, in an age of enquiry, many explorers were motivated by the joy of discovery. The idea of colonisation (and to put it frankly, conquest) was not front of mind for many of them.
But sometimes the priority of conquest and discovery were reversed. In the eighteenth century the acquisition of knowledge and the conquest of territory became ever more tightly intertwined. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century almost every important military expedition that left Europe for distant lands had on board scientists who set out not to fight but to make scientific discoveries. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, for example, he took 165 scholars with him. Among other things, they founded an entirely new discipline – Egyptology – which made important contributions to the study of linguistics, religion and botany.
Now I am loath to imply that the European colonisation of the world was never underpinned by selfish motives which of course it often was. After Columbus’s discovery of the New World, Spain quickly moved to colonise Central and South America and the principal reason for doing so was to fill Spain’s coffers with gold. Part of the reason for this is that Spain had earned the distrust of prospective lenders by defaulting on loans, and consequently needed to amass its own wealth to finance the government without resort to borrowing.
But it is true that both these major influences on world history, the Scientific Revolution and the unveiling of the world’s geography were probably more inspired by the quest for knowledge than the quest for wealth. And it must be noted that both the scientific developments and the geographic discovery was dominated by the Europeans, facilitated by an admission of ignorance and built on a rigorous platform of testing and confirming as well as possible the knowledge thus acquired.
By the twentieth century the British Empire comprised of 25% of the earth’s land mass and it was beyond refutation that “the sun never set on the British Empire.” The Portuguese, the Dutch, the Germans and even the Russians had acquired their own territories and created their own empires.
Now, postmodern commentators are scathing of colonisation and its consequent subjugation of native peoples by arrogant Europeans. It cannot be denied that colonisation was often accompanied by atrocities and indignities imposed upon indigenous populations. Colonisation, however, provided advantages with greater access to the rule of law, Western technologies and the social advantages of improved education, health and democratic processes. Without making a personal judgment on whether these benefits outweighed the downsides of colonisation, I would argue they should at least be considered rationally which is rarely the case as modern academics and left wing critics seek to denigrate the achievements of the West.
Although some European states had sought to improve their wealth by colonisation, because of the impact of the Scientific Revolution, by the second half of the twentieth century, the acquisition of physical territory was not an effective way to amass wealth. With the emergence of the “knowledge economy” most of the wealth of the world was no longer underpinned by physical capital but by intellectual capital.
(There are some exceptions of course. Control of major maritime seaways is still important as recent disputes centring on the Straits of Hormuz and the South China Sea will attest.)
In the early years of the European settlement of the USA for example, the ownership of California would have brought with it great wealth because of its gold. California is today a fabulously wealthy place still, but ownership of the territory would not give you access to the wealth because it is largely accrued in the intellectual property of those working in information technology. Since the advent of the knowledge economy ownership of physical assets has become far less important than access to intellectual capital.
Now this flux of discovery and conquest over the last three or four centuries was driven largely by the West. Indeed the historian John Roberts, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton hosted a BBC documentary series and published a book controversially titled The Triumph of the West. Since the middle of the twentieth century progressive academics began to question this view of history.
Prior to this time it was generally accepted that the march of scientific discovery and the colonisation by European powers of much of the non-European world was a good thing. Capitalism, which had emerged from this process, was lauded as a means of improving the lot of all who were exposed to its inexorable progress.
It is hard to dispute that the rise of the West brought with it huge improvements to human well-being. It lifted the standard of living, brought freedom and democracy and extended the lives of those within its purview.
The rise of capitalism and its attendant features – the advancement of science, and the colonisation of non-European countries – seems in retrospect largely due to the advances in the physical sciences and mathematics.
But early in the twentieth century, the impact of the works of people like Jung, Freud and Adler led people to believe that there was another field of knowledge that was at least as important as the physical sciences – the study of human behaviour. And of course this is an important intellectual pursuit.
But, in comparison with physical science this was a largely subjective field of knowledge and hardly seemed to be a branch of science at all. But the proponents of this field of study began to try and make their theories and findings more acceptable scientifically by trying to bring to their field of knowledge the disciplines of physical science. They tried to apply to their studies the rigours of physics by using statistics and the basics of the scientific method.
In the late twentieth century the purveyors of social science began to take us in a different direction. The fundamentals of the “Triumph of the West” began to be undermined.
After the horrors of the two world wars those in the West emerged optimistic. By and large people believed that things were getting better and better and it was inevitable that progress would continue. There was confidence that the technological progress that had underpinned the rise of the West would inexorably lead to greater wealth and enhance the well-being of those in Western society.
But it was not only Western technology that was admired, it was also the underpinning cultural, social, political and philosophical history of Western progress that was lauded. Due regard was paid to Shakespeare, Coleridge, Beethoven, Mozart, Burke, Spinoza, Nietzsche, and many others.
Perhaps the most controversial acknowledgement of this Western progress was that it largely occurred in Christian countries. Even though Christianity is now on the wane in Western countries, many continue to argue that Christian belief was a significant contributor to the advancement of the West.
But, as mentioned above, the notion that the rise of Western Civilisation was a positive development, which furthered humanity’s cause, began to be seriously questioned in the late twentieth century. The challenge was led by those enamoured of the philosophies of deconstructionism and postmodernism. The adherents to these schools of thought believe that truth is relative. Consequently there is no such thing as “the truth” which could be acknowledged by everybody. We each have to arrive somehow at our own truth. In this world of no anchors, everything is interpretation.
These new belief systems drew their inspiration from many sources but significantly they were greatly influenced by the Marxist humanists. One such figure was Max Horkheimer, who developed critical theory in the 1930’s. Horkheimer believed that Western principles of individual freedom or the free market were subterfuges that served to disguise the true nature of the West which he asserted was characterised by inequality, domination and exploitation. Horkheimer insisted that intellectual endeavour should be devoted to social change and not merely to better understanding.
In the 1970’s Horkheimer’s baton was taken up by the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. Derrida, who became the leader of the postmodernism movement, described his philosophy as a radicalised form of Marxism. He concluded that our society, our political structures and even our language were replete with hierarchies designed only to profit the elites and exclude all others. Consequently he maintained that politics was there for the benefit of politicians, science for the benefit of scientists and so on. He even suggested that women are acknowledged only because men gain by excluding them.
So when the postmodernists cut loose the traditional understanding of history they began to postulate that the Western tradition was again a self-serving hierarchy that championed colonialism, patriarchy, racial discrimination, environmental degradation and all the other shortcomings of the contemporary world.
This is a destructive, nihilistic philosophy. Every act of categorisation thus becomes tainted. We can see this insidious effect on gender politics.
Jordan Peterson writes:
Despite the existence of an overwhelming, multi-disciplinary scientific literature indicating that sex differences are powerfully influenced by biological factors, science is just another game of power for Derrida and his post-modern Marxist acolytes, making claims to benefit those at the pinnacle of the scientific world. There are no facts. Hierarchical position and reputation as a consequence of skills and competence? All definitions of skills and competence are merely made up by those who benefit from them, to exclude others and to benefit personally and selfishly.
So the postmodernists downplay the importance of the scientific method with its discipline of trying to establish underlying principles that can be built upon to enhance knowledge. Under the influence of their nebulous framework nothing is certain, there can be no natural progression from discerning facts and testing theses to explain the physical universe and history has no meaning.
Now I mentioned earlier the rise of psychology and the study of human behaviour. This movement has continued to influence the social conditions of those in the West. Whilst there was much useful work carried out to better illuminate the human condition unfortunately there emerged some trends that were not so helpful. In the second half of the twentieth century psychology became popularised and often “dumbed down” to be more accessible to the general public. This movement became known as “Pop Psychology”. A central theme of Pop Psychology became a concerted effort to enhance the self-esteem of individuals.
It is indeed true that a robust concept of self tends to enhance the sense of well-being of individuals. But in many Western societies, parents, in an effort to bolster the sense of self-esteem of their children, went too far. Instead of reinforcing in the minds of their children that they were perfectly acceptable human beings, they contrived to have their children believe that they were somehow special. To do this they had to shield their children from reality. As a consequence excellence and achievement could not be given too much stock because each child had to have an award. But in the end when you have to engage the world you can’t be sheltered from reality. Out from the cloistered lives of their childhoods these children had to confront a world that did not affirm their specialness but had them confront their ordinariness. Rather than promoting robustness, the outcome was a widespread sense of fragility. This led to the notion that such fragile human beings needed to be protected from reality. Consequently we ended up with the ridiculous notion of “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”. We had to contend in our universities of the “deplatforming” of speakers who might challenge the beliefs of these fragile souls and the concocting of devices to shield them from any intellectual challenge.
And layered on this was the notion of identity politics. The underlying driver of identity politics is that if I can’t feel significant as an individual I can at least belong to a group that makes me feel significant. Consequently I seek out others like me based on race, gender, political allegiances or whatever identifier suits me best. So here I can feel safe because collectively we will ward off challenges to our identity and I am sheltered from having to think about alternatives.
And out of this irrational melange arose the scourge of political correctness. According to Francis Fukuyama:
Political Correctness refers to things you can’t say in public without fearing withering moral opprobrium. Every society has certain ideas that run counter to its foundational ideas of legitimacy and therefore are off-limits in public discourse.
Political correctness is in fact often a close adjunct to identity politics. Its main driving force is the protection of fragile identities and the strengthening of the social artefacts that bolster identity politics.
For example under the edicts of political correctness we are not allowed to:
- Dispute the conventional wisdom about climate change,
- Argue that the different traits of men and women are biologically determined,
- Question the morality of providing children access to surgery and hormonal treatment if they decide they are uncomfortable with the sex they have been assigned at birth,
- Challenge the notion that indigenous disadvantage is due to colonisation and the weakening of indigenous culture,
- And many other debatable arguments that are shut down by such measures.
We are also assailed by such trivia that manholes must now be called maintenance holes; Australia Day must be called Invasion Day; shark drum lines that protect humans must be removed because of the trauma they cause sharks. More importantly, economy destroying mandates are encouraged such as coal-fired power stations should all be shut down. There have also been efforts, perhaps in trying to modify history by tearing down the statues of Cecil Rhodes, James Cook or American Confederate heroes. Rather than accept most famous figures in history had moral foibles like the rest of us, history has to be denied and its symbols obliterated because it challenges our ideas of human progress.
Now these new constructs have begun to govern our world even though it is more than likely that most people don’t agree with them. But they are seldom questioned because of the opprobrium that is attracted by challenging them. They have been promoted by left wing politicians, the media and academia whose pervasive influence makes it appear that these beliefs are mainstream. This has resulted in many perverse outcomes.
That those who propagate these ideas believe they are mainstream is evidenced by the dismay they feel when the conventional wisdom is overturned as happened with the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump and Scott Morrison
Political correctness impedes rational debate in other, more insidious, ways. For example, in Germany in Cologne in 2016 at a New Year’s Eve celebration there was an incident involving mass groping and sexual assault by a crowd of mostly Muslim men. The reporting of this incident was suppressed for some time for fear of stoking Islamophobia. Consequently our understanding of our society is reduced by the coloured reporting that we get which is designed not to offend the sensibilities associated with political correctness.
But perhaps the most alarming outcome of the propagation of identity politics and political correctness has been the promotion of victimhood.
In the first of the Four Noble Truths, Buddhism teaches that in life suffering is inevitable. And indeed this is a great truth to be reconciled with. But the postmodernists are not contented with merely the normal suffering that one encounters in a lifetime, they must manufacture additional suffering which becomes currency in their subsequent distortion of the world.
In examining the effect of victimhood in the postmodern world, it is hard not to think back to the concluding chapters of George Orwell’s Animal Farm where the commandments have been rewritten and it is declared:
All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.
Identity politics thrives on victimhood and it often seems a competition exists between identity categories about which category has suffered more and therefore has earnt the right to be “more equal”.
American journalist and blogger, Daniel Greenfield, writes about what he calls the Victim Value Index. He explains:
Suffering is the central ideological component of the Victim Value Index. ‘He who suffers most wins!’ But suffering is relative. Ego means that most people feel their own pain first. And even when they feel someone else’s pain, this is a personal egotistical identification, a selective empathy that derives from their own background and psychological makeup
Historical suffering transmuted into guilt is the gold standard of liberalism, but suffering is relative. In our wonderful multi-everything society, there are so many groups with so many claims to pain. Everyone agrees that the Heteronormative Caucasian Patriarchy of Doom is to blame for all of it, but that still leaves the question of dividing up the spoils of the system and all the privileges to be gained from denouncing privilege. A caste system doesn’t work without priority, and calculating the priority of privilege claims by the perpetually underprivileged is complicated.
(What a fabulous piece of writing! My special thanks to my e-mail correspondent Alistair for bringing it to my attention.)
So then let us look back and mourn. After centuries of progress that raised our standards of living, prolonged our lives, delivered us the relative freedom of democracy and provided us with optimism for the future we are now being assailed by liberal postmodernists that want us to abandon our Western culture, debase our history and overthrow our optimism by succumbing to a nihilist philosophy that has no underpinnings of substance. Rather than celebrate the multitudinous successes of the West they want to denigrate our history by exaggerating its shortcomings and downplaying its achievements.
Threatened with the opprobrium of political correctness, people are afraid to say what they really think. The burgeoning rise of psychological fragility amongst our young people is exemplified by the rush to claim victimhood status and shut down debate with those who don’t align with the conventional wisdom.
Even our science is threatened. Scientific method requires that any scientific thesis must be tested against the facts and its predictive capability. The so-called science of climate change seems to depend on an echo-chamber of adherents who refuse to be challenged by contrary ideas. It claims its authority on claims of some sort of consensus rather than how well it explains the world. Scientists who challenge the orthodoxy are treated in much the same way as Galileo was treated in the early seventeenth century when he tried to convince the world that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa. Galileo found himself opposing the church which as a result of a literal interpretation of the bible could not admit the possibility of Galileo’s thesis even though it provided a better explanation of observed celestial phenomena. The dogma of climate change is similar to the dogma of the church and non-conformity is just as surely punished as Professor Peter Ridd, late of James Cook University will surely attest.
The postmodern philosophy is nihilistic and depressing. Climate change fits snugly into its glove of pessimism and has succeeded in convincing our young people that the world is coming to an end, unduly stressing and frightening them.
Now those who perpetrate this appalling philosophy, which emphasises victimhood and facilitates psychological fragility, have captured much of the media and many of our politicians. The reporting in favour of these beliefs is so pervasive one could be forgiven for believing that these beliefs are mainstream – but they are not. As outlined earlier, it has created an atmosphere where many are afraid to take issues with these beliefs for fear of being labelled as politically incorrect.
So we are now faced with the prospect of surrendering perhaps the most successful society the world has ever developed to postmodernist naysayers, nihilists and prophets of doomsday, and all because they have successfully made their opponents fearful of being ostracised and vilified for not accepting the conventional wisdom. It is time to halt this capitulation and stand up to be counted in pursuing a future that has more substance and is more optimistic.
An objective reading of history easily confirms that the Triumph of the West resulted in huge benefits that have spread more broadly around the world. Whilst it cannot be denied that there were no casualties as a result of this movement in history (as indeed there was in association with most historical developments) it resulted in overwhelming benefits to modern society. What chance is there that following the edicts of postmodern liberals will enhance our society? In societies that provide their citizens with material welfare, longevity and freedom beyond the dreams of our ancestors they encourage suffering, pessimism and the abandonment of reason.
It is time we stood up to fight this scourge!