Recently on the Foundation for Economic Education’s podcast, Words & Numbers, the hosts had a conversation with Robert Anthony Peters, an actor and director, about his new documentary titled Tank Man. The film focuses on the man in the famous photo of him standing in front of tanks after the Tiananmen Square massacre in China. Being unfamiliar with this event, I was shocked to hear that this event is not taught in Chinese history books and Peters explained how locals are aware they’re not supposed to talk about this event.
I was struck because erasing history essentially generates a new reality. Citizens do not question those in power as they should, and those lessons are forever lost. China, however, is not the only group or nation to alter the reality of people through erasure or ignorance of history.
Those who have read my previous writing know that I am no fan of the concept and alleged superiority of “the West” and “Western values.” I think the concept is silly, considering many of those values that are considered the exclusive discovery of the West came from collaborations between other regions, or were plainly not exclusive. Like those Chinese officials, certain citizens of the West have chosen to ignore history for the gain of particular ideas.
Previously, I wrote about how Thomas Jefferson took inspiration for religious freedom from Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire, where all were free to practice their religion and culture as long as they swore allegiance to the Khan. Jefferson even frequently gave out copies of a Genghis Khan biography as gifts because the knowledge enthused him so much.
Mathematics was largely a creation of the Muslim world. The word “algorithm” comes from Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi, a Persian scholar who presented in 820 AD the first solutions of linear and quadratic equations in algebra. He also introduced the methods of reduction and balancing (i.e., taking an equation like 1x-5y=6x-8y and simplifying the terms to uncover what x and y designate) to the discipline. His work introduced the decimal point.
Rationality was something expressed by many philosophers in the East. For example, many champions of Western culture are likely familiar with John Locke’s view of man beginning in a state of nature and joining society only when either protection or the size of his family moves him to become a part of a community. Locke believed that whenever a man’s family reached a certain size or whenever one’s property was threatened, government would become a necessity.
This view of man’s beginning in a natural setting only to be disturbed into action, creating society, wasn’t limited to Lockean thought. Daoism held a similar view of man’s nature is a sort of balanced state of dormancy, and that outside circumstances disturbed him into motion. Liu An, Chinese prince and advisor to the Han dynasty, stated in section five of his 140 BC work, Yuan Dao:
“a man is quiescent when born-
This is his Heaven-endowed nature.
He moves when aroused-
This is the stirring of that nature.
The human spirit responds when things come
on the scene-
This is the movement of the intellect.”
While these two philosophies take this idea to different contexts and were written over a millennium apart, they both demonstrate what’s considered a statute of “the West”.
In another previous article, I had discussed Zera Yacob, the Ethiopian philosopher whose meditations in a cave were similar to that of Descartes despite never having met the man or studied Greek philosophy. These ideas were not exclusive to the West, and history shows that they could have and did develop in other veins around the world.
There was a massive translation movement in 10th century Baghdad that aimed to gather Greek writings and make Arabic versions thereof. Muslim intellectuals intended to use these resources to better understand and argue for their own religion, and it was speculated that this was a political move by the neighboring Persians. This movement saw many collaborations between Christian and Muslim scholars to accurately translate these works.
During the “Dark Ages” of medieval history, typically described as being between the fall of Rome and the Enlightenment, many of these works had disappeared. Due to the efforts of Baghdad, the region become an intellectual hub with many scholars writing about their own works on these Greek classics.
History demonstrates that those values that have become largely embedded into most of the world’s culture, were associations of mixing ideas and working together to preserve and create new knowledge. Perhaps these ideas were not generated because of the superiority of the West, but because of many actors unknowingly working toward a common goal of bettering humankind.
Denying this history is akin to China denying their citizens the ability to discuss the Tiananmen Square Massacre, or the Chilean regime of Pinochet assassinating alleged communists. Though the immediate actions of these groups were more extreme, the effect is the same: Denying history, ideas, and narratives to alter reality. If a movement, thought, or piece of rhetoric requires denial, then perhaps it is not as grand as thought to be.