White people haven’t been doing so hot, it’s true. Their share of drug overdoses, alcoholism, and suicide (“deaths of despair”) have been high and rising for years, and many are clearly down in the dumps about themselves. According to polls, for instance, a substantial minority think it’s OK to teach “white privilege” in school, aren’t too fussed about themselves becoming a minority, and actually view racial out-groups more favorably than they do their own (a first for any group, says political scientist Eric Kaufmann).
Whether this explains, or is in response to, the barrage of “whiteness is bad” articles and opinion pieces pumped out daily by the mainstream press is unknown. But that’s likely neither here nor there as most of people writing such pieces are white themselves.
Surely, however, one’s heritage can’t only be about blame and shame. After all, the flipside of accepting collective guilt is also getting a collective thumbs-up once in a while. Every race has neat things about it, of course, white folks included. The art, the stories, the tech, the achievements; surely within the whole sweep of indigenous European history, even the most self-loathing of white Vice readers can say: “OK, what we did there was actually pretty cool.”
In the spirit of all those oft-seen “It’s time we acknowledge such-and-such an area of white racism”-articles, perhaps it’s time for white people to relax the handwringing and lighten up a bit. To take a moment, perhaps, and reflect on a few of the cooler things about their own branch of homo sap. There is plenty out there, after all.
Take all the cool battles whites have been in. Like all the ones fought on ice. Perhaps the baddest being the Battle on the Ice, which took place over frozen Lake Peipus in Novgorod, Russia. In the Baltic Crusades (one of the last ones), colonizing Catholic knights from Central and Northern Europe sought to forcibly convert pagans in the Baltic and Slavic regions as well as Orthodox Christians in Russia. The campaign against the latter culminated in a 1242 standoff with 20-year-old Russian prince Alexander Nevsky. By drawing the Crusaders in across the iced-over lake and then outflanking them, several thousand of Nevsky’s infantry, including horse-archers, managed to repel several thousand heavily armored and sometimes mounted Crusaders.
There’s an excellent 30-minute depiction of the battle in the Stalin-commissioned film, “Alexander Nevsky.” It ends with the surviving Crusaders trying to flee back to shore only to break through the ice and fall into the freezing waters below. Nevsky’s victory allowed him to concentrate on even more formidable colonizers from the East: the Mongols.
Just as cool were the fake battles. In Rome’s Colosseum during Emperor Vespasian’s reign, ancient writers record the first of the empire’s simulated sea battles. These events, which usually recreated famous Greek sea campaigns involving actual men (prisoners mostly), entailed diverting water from Rome’s aqueducts and filling up the Colosseum’s grounds so boats could float, then quickly draining it away so gladiator events could take place. Smaller versions of these were enjoyed in the hundreds of Roman coliseums and amphitheaters built around the empire: from England to Israel, to Tunisia to Bulgaria, and dozens of other countries.
Admittedly more important than facilitating aquatic entertainment was the aqueducts’ provision of drinking water throughout the empire. Starting around 300 B.C., the Romans engineered miles and miles of arched waterways built over varied terrain (including valleys) allowing gravity to distribute water sometimes over dozens of miles with the excess used to flush out sewers and supply public fountains and baths. Much like the flushing toilets of ancient Crete, the technology gradually went into disuse due to mismanagement, although some are still in use today. The best-preserved one today stands in Segovia in southern Spain, serving as a constant reminder to the local people of perhaps the greatest engineering feat of the ancient world.
Fast forward to 100 years ago with Holland’s creation of the Afsluitdijk. Pronounced “Off-schly-deck” and meaning shut-off dike, the 20-mile-long, 25-foot-high dam has been saving the lovely lowland nation from devastating floods ever since. The dam, which also serves as a road connecting two coastal provinces, cuts off the North Sea and has created an enclosed freshwater lake. Today, if you drive at night along the Afsluitdijk, you’re treated to the permanent “Gates of Light” art installation where reflective lines along the dam’s sluices get lit up by car headlights, creating an ultracool, Kraftwerkian effect—and with zero energy expenditure.
To the storied, British explorer David Livingstone, an Arab slave-trader in Zanzibar once said: “We travel little by little to get ivory and slaves . . . but you white men only look for rivers and lakes and mountains and you spend your lives for no reason, and to no purpose.” This is true. Europeans have always explored cool and dangerous places. Just for the heck of it.
Take the aquanauts. Despite deep-sea exploration getting far less attention than space travel, it’s arguably just as important and challenging. A couple of hundred years before they discovered North America in 1,000 A.D., the Vikings are recorded to have dropped weights attached to ropes in an attempt to measure water depth. Understanding water depth is the first step needed to examine the sea floor. Fast forward roughly a millennium to 1960 and American Don Walsh along with Swiss explorer Jacques Piccard would descend seven miles into the Mariana Trench; the lowest point on Earth and deeper than Mount Everest is tall by over a mile. Walsh’s son did it again last year as did America’s first woman to walk in space, Kelly Sullivan.
Thanks to underwater exploration, we’ve been able to investigate sunken ships like the Titanic, raise some to the surface like Henry VIII’s Mary Rose, mine the seafloor for its rich deposits of minerals—some of which are vital to developing renewable energy—and, of course, gain insights into the mysteries of deep-sea life. Pretty awesome stuff.
Miracles of Medicine
A chief characteristic among those who view western history as one long trail of “injustice” is their refusal to appreciate just how brutal life was not even a century or two ago. In mid-19th century England, for instance, for every 1,000 children born, 200 to 300 of them died within a day. As for their moms, around six out of 1,000 died during childbirth.
But thanks to a host of Western medical advancements, conditions are quite a bit better for mother and child. Instead of 200 to 300 dying per 1,000, the infant mortality rate in the UK is now around 3.5—a 70-fold drop. And instead of around 0.5-1 percent of British women dying during birth, now only seven for every 100,000 do— nearly a 100-fold drop.
The gains have been impressive outside the West as well. For instance, just since 1990 (when the data roughly begins), Ethiopia has experienced around a four-fold drop in both infant mortalities and maternal mortalities. The country’s life expectancy has also increased 40 percent to 61 years since 1955; far higher than the UK’s 13-percent increase (to 81) during the same period.
In Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now, in which he implores progressives to acknowledge the extent of human accomplishment post-Enlightenment, he quotes an economist saying, “[t]he improvements in health among the global poor in the last few decades are so large and widespread that they are among the greatest achievements in human history.” Amen.
Music as Liberation
Last but not least: the music.
As part of China’s Cultural Revolution in 1966, Mao sought to insulate the proletariat from decadent foreign influences, which entailed banning all foreign music from the country. Having unapproved music got you jailed or worse, and Mao’s infamous Red Guards (students mostly) commonly beat up classical musicians and smashed their instruments. Over the next four years, only “model operas” could be composed, which were more like sycophantic odes to Mao, Maoism, the revolution, etc.
Due to the stress of the period, 18 of the best conductors and music professors in Shanghai (China’s music capital) committed suicide. While rousing himself up from his routine beatings, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra conductor Lu Hongen would hum Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” as an act of defiance. On the eve of his execution, he asked his cellmate for a favor: “if you ever get a chance to escape China, go to Austria, the home of music, and lay flowers by Beethoven’s tomb. Tell him his disciple in China was humming the ‘Missa Solemnis’ as he marched to his death.” Many years later, the cellmate did manage to fulfill the favor.
According to Jindong Cai, who was in China at the time and is now director of the U.S.-China Music Institute, unlike traditional Chinese music which contains just one melody, Western classical music like Beethoven’s has a polyphonic structure which provides a unique level of melodic support. Anyone who’s heard Stokowski’s rendition of Bach’s “Little Fugue,” Liszt’s “Les Préludes,” or Respighi’s “Pines of Rome” can appreciate the importance which multiple, interlocking melodies has on music’s ability to achieve its transcendent and inspirational quality.
A few months after Mao died in 1976, authorities permitted Beijing’s Central Philharmonic to reform and play a concert over the radio. They chose to perform Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. As Cai recounts, for many in China who heard the opening of the Fifth (which starts with the most famous four notes in musical history), they felt something above and beyond the pleasure of the music. For them, it meant the mass psychosis of the Cultural Revolution was finally over.
So, there’s clearly plenty about Western Civilization that spans the spectrum between coolness and awesomeness. The above is just a smattering, of course. If some whites want to be focused on the doom and gloom all the time, fine, but to marinate in past guilt is to ignore and erase all things kick-ass about themselves and their history. And to do that is truly shameful.