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Book Review - Utopian Legacy: a history of conquest and oppression in the western world

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UTOPIAN LEGACIES: a history of conquest and oppression in the western world

by John Mohawk

Clear Light Publishers 2000

287 pages, $14.95 paperback

Buy this book from Powell's, an independent bookstore

The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions. This book is the travelogue of Western Civilization's trip along that road.

The last two millennia of Western history, Mohawk says, have been a story of lofty thoughts pressed into the service of base actions. Utopian ideals — Christianity early, materialistic notions of progress late — have justified uniformly dystopian results, particularly from the point of view of those on the receiving end.

Of course, we all know now that the notable excesses committed in the name of Christ were ancient and aberrational. The Crusades were clearly a bit of mass religious hysteria, not even justifiable as disguised empire-building, and not repeated. Well, not until the Inquisition. Or the European religious repression that helped populate North America. Or, for that matter, the present-day use of Christianity in its fundamentalist and Calvinist forms to justify everything from war — sectarian in the Balkans or apocalyptic in the Middle East — to poverty as an expression of failure to join with the elect.

We all know that the Christian-ization of the Americas was a veneer, thin to the point of transparency, over lust for gold, silver, and slaves. Surely the Conquistadors did not truly believe that their depredations were justified by the Indians' refusal to accept the Christianity so freely offered them.

Just as we know today that the champions of global prosperity do not truly believe that the “progress” they offer the residents of the maquiladoras justifies the inhuman conditions in those outposts of industrial salvation.

Oh. Wait. We made the maquiladoras. That's different from the Spanish conquest. Because ... because ... ummmm. Oh, yes. They were misled, and we are privy to the truth.

Which is the point of Mohawk's book. It started, he says, as do all historians, with the Greeks. But where the standard mythology sees in Socrates and his successors an admirable devotion to reason, Mohawk sees a more pernicious trend. He argues that the central tenet of classical Greek thought was belief in the ideal and in an ability to discover ultimate truth.

Harmless as those tenets may sound, admirable as we are taught they are, Mohawk demonstrates that, as applied in the real world, they have been consistently dangerous to everyone. Everyone, that is, except those who hold the combination of knowledge of the truth and the power to impose it.

The truly dangerous manifestation of Western culture results when the Greek belief in ultimate truth is mated with the other two early major strands of thought: Christianity and Roman imperialism.

Mohawk sees an early and highly successful manifestation of this combination in Charlemagne, whose simultaneous projects were to impose Christianity on all of Europe and to recreate the lost glories of the Roman empire.

Charlemagne's campaign, says Mohawk, represents the two themes that recur up to the present to justify conquest and oppression: “As an active attempt to revive the perceived glories of Christian Rome, his conquests exhibited some of the zeal of a revitalization movement. At the same time, he was engaged in the utopian project of attempting to Christianize all of Europe.”

According to Mohawk, belief in Utopia, a future when all live in harmony, having come to know the single truth, may be the single organizing tenet of Western history from Charlemagne on. That thesis makes sense, using that term loosely, of the noted excesses of the past, particularly the Crusades and the Spanish conquest of the New World.

Less comfortably for those who prefer to believe that those ugly chapters are but embarrassing products of less-enlightened times, belief in utopia also accounts for European colonization, for the American habit of treaty-breaking and forceful expropriation, and for massive dislocations and poverty in the underclasses created by the industrial revolution.

These latter episodes are distinguished from the former by the pretense of calling one the product of the primitive aspects of Christianity and the other the product of enlightened progress. As Mohawk demonstrates, the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution, and the gospel of progress are no less utopian than Christianity; they share every bit of the doctrine of received truth and its concomitant justification for almost anything.

The book's last chapter, “Pax Americana,” is a catalog of events since WWII. Oddly, Mohawk fails to make explicit those aspects of this period that fit neatly with his thesis: In the first half of the postwar era, the utopian ideal was American
democracy; since, it has been free-market global capitalism. Both ideals have been fervently advanced as the solution to all problems, if only the unenlightened would submit. Both continue to produce destruction for the targets of conversion.

These modern utopian movements differ from the old ones mainly in labels. Pronunciamentos justifying enslavement come now from the president, instead of the pope. Then, the savages needed only see the light of Christ; now, they need only learn the joys of the consumer.

Lest we be too smug in our condemnation of these modern manifestations of an old evil, consider this: Sustainability and simplicity are pretty utopian, too. If nothing else, we should guard against the co-optation that is already occurring.

Mohawk's book is both an illuminating look under some rocks that mainstream history refuses to lift, and a cautionary tale for the present and future. Those who might believe that the present ascendancy of imperial capitalism or the retrograde direction of American politics are the product of calculated cynicism would do well to consider those trends in light of Mohawk's thesis. Utopian idealism has taken many forms; its practitioners are true believers, and attempts to establish dialogue must consider the difficulties of arguing with those who know the ultimate truth and are determined to impose it.

Review written by Doug Pibel, a freelance writer, who lives in Snohomish, Washington.

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