Against the White Male Theory of History

Michelangelo’s David at the Accademia Museum in Florence, Italy. (Max Rossi/Reuters)
Whether advanced by the Left or the Right, it is a dangerous oversimplification

In current American political discourse, there is ascendant a highly inane interpretation of history — an interpretation that one might call the White Male Theory of History, or WMTH for short. As with other pathological political movements and ideas (e.g., support for government censorship, or loathing of liberal democracy), the WTMH comes in rightist and leftist variants.

First there is the left-wing version, which more or less dominates the academy. In this version, human history starts in 1492, when white people first made contact with indigenous people in the Americas, beginning immediately to oppress them. Then, in the subsequent 500-plus years, whites spread from Europe to the rest of the world, colonizing and enslaving peoples from India to Africa. Many indigenous groups in those lands were exterminated, and the ones that survived were either enslaved or made into second-class citizens. Plunder of natural resources ensued, from the Spanish heist of Incan silver to the Belgian theft of Congolese rubber. Meanwhile, whites installed themselves in positions of power throughout the world — from South Africa to Latin America — and invented the ideology of white supremacy to legitimate their rule.

Manifestations of the Left WMTH abound. Consider for example this sentence, written by Chauncey Devega at Salon, referring to the “white male anger” and fabricated “victimhood” that Donald Trump’s ideology represents: “Rich white men control every social, economic and political institution in the United States; the lies of white male victimhood remain compelling and intoxicating, as they have since before the founding.” Devega neglects to mention, however, that the category of “rich white men” has not remained static since the era before the Founding (Irish and Polish people were for a long time not considered white); that there are plenty of institutions in the United States not run by rich white men today; and, most crucially, that rich white men have not acted historically as a homogeneous and unified bloc. Referring to the supposed lies of “rich white men” as a collective entity is therefore meaningless.

There is also a right-wing WMTH, less popular among intellectuals and more morally objectionable due to its affinity with fascist politics. It goes something like this: White people have historically been at the forefront of scientific, cultural, and political innovation. They created spectacular works of art, contributed mightily to our scientific understanding of the world, spread food-distribution networks that rescued billions from hunger, and so forth. Sometimes, proponents of the Right WMTH reach back into the Greek and Roman past and attempt to reminisce about an ancient glory that whites no longer enjoy. In any case, the right-wing WMTH posits the following: White men historically have been a boon to the advancement of the human species, and they should be recognized for having done as much. Stefan Molyneux is today probably the most popular propagandist for the Right WMTH.

What both the Right and the Left White Male Theories of History share is the fundamental assumption that the telling of history must monomaniacally focus on the actions of white men — an identity category that is silently assumed to have always existed, but which is in reality a recent concoction. (Homer and Plato were not “white men” in the same way that Donald Trump is a white man.) In the Right WMTH, white men are held to be the epitome of science and progress and glory; in the Left WMTH, they are presented as oppressors, enslavers, and colonizers. In both versions, groups other than whites are assumed to have had little to no agency to decide their future for themselves, whether for good or ill; and even today, they still don’t. In both versions, the world’s peoples are divided into ludicrous binaries: civilizer vs. barbarian on the right, oppressor vs. victim on the left. In both versions, the cleavages that divided men with white skin are dismissed as unimportant; distinctions in class, nation, ideology, and religion are systematically ignored. For the proponents of the White Male Theory of History, there is whiteness, and there is maleness, and such nuisances as the subtleties of history do not much matter.

The influence of the WMTH can be most clearly seen in the debate over the record of “Western civilization.” The loudest and most obnoxious voices in that debate tend to be rightists and leftists who subscribe to their side’s respective version of the WMTH, invariably conflating the history of the West with the history of “white” people. In both cases, historical illiteracy replaces sober thought.

For instance, when Congressman Steve King, Stefan Molyneux, and Faith Goldy hide their white-nationalist prejudices by rattling on about the importance of “defending Western values,” they ignore that much of what makes the West great is precisely its efforts, however imperfect, to abandon tribal bigotry and extend legal rights and protections to people who are not white — an achievement that the Steve Kings of the world rarely trumpet, and that if anything probably oppose. The irony of racists’ and sexists’ championing a culture that has sought to emancipate minorities and women is, of course, lost on such people.

In a homologous fashion, the leftists who chant that “Western Civ has got to go!” do so because they equate Western values and history with white oppression, thereby neglecting to acknowledge that their demand for political equality and individual dignity for minorities was itself influenced by a Western (not “white”) heritage that produced theories of legal, political, and social equality. William F. Buckley made a related point convincingly in his famous debate with James Baldwin. As he put it, “anyone who argued that English civilization ought to have been jettisoned because Catholics were not allowed to vote as late as 1829 and Jews not until 1832 should consider the other possibility. Precisely the reason why they did get the right to vote was because English civilization was not jettisoned.” Buckley reached the conclusion that we should not “rush forward to overthrow our civilization because we don’t live up to our high ideals.”

The point, then, is that exclusively analyzing race (or gender), as both White Male Theories of History do, precludes sound judgment. Without a doubt, any understanding of the history of Western civilization must include a reckoning with and recognition of what the construction of whiteness has entailed — often, an ideological justification for exclusion and oppression. But whiteness is manifestly not the only force in world history, and it is absurd to behave or speak as though it were. By all means let us assess and contest the negative and positive aspects of the Western legacy — but let us begin to do so by properly formulating our identity categories and not reducing everything to skin color.

What is needed is a total rejection of the racial obsessions of the far Right and the radical Left, i.e., a rejection of all conceptions of history that make race the fundamental and omnipresent unit of analysis, at the expense of nuance, precision, and ultimately truth. Peering back through thousands of years of history and lumping people into an unchanging (insofar as it caused good or evil) category of “white” actually reifies that category; it ignores that whiteness has not always been the operative and determinant causal factor behind the actions of people with light skin.

Indeed, if the sole operative identity we have for analyzing history is “white males,” how are we to explain (for example) the European wars of religion, or the Napoleonic wars, or the existence of white abolitionists, or all the various things that caused “white people” to ferociously disagree and go to war with one other? We can’t, because by using an inappropriate historical lens, a relatively recent identity category is extended far beyond helpful applicability. Instead, to really grasp the events of history, we must introduce other categories into our analysis — Catholic and Huguenot, British and French, serf and lord, middle class and aristocrat, conservative and liberal, and so forth.

The error to be avoided, then, is the essentializing of “the white race,” a rhetorical move that functions mainly to turn “whites” into abstractions capable only of great good or great evil. White chauvinists and white-bashers must face the fact that white people are neither inherently more evil nor more capable of greatness than any other “race.” The right-wing and the left-wing White Male Theories of History are wrong morally and historically — and for that reason they should be categorically rejected.


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