EDITORIAL: Sepulveda’s Unwanted Offspring

In the mid-sixteenth century, when the Spanish public opinion was shaken by the first truthful reports on the fate of the Indians in the New World, Juan Gines de Sepulveda came up with four famous arguments in defense of the Spanish government’s policy. First, the Indians were barbarians, unable to learn anything, and therefore they needed to be governed by others. Second, they had to accept the European yoke as compensation for idolatry. Third, the Spanish had a moral obligation to put an end to human sacrifices made to Indian gods. Fourth, Spanish rule would facilitate the evangelization of the Indians.

Nearly five centuries later, few would be willing to defend Sepulveda’s arguments. It seems pretty obvious that yanking the Indians out of the hell of barbarism, evangelizing and civilizing them, were not the primary objectives of the conquistadors. Most of the indigenous population of Spanish America was decimated by firearms and diseases already during Sepulveda’s lifetime. And yet his arguments still dominate in the discourse serving to justify armed interventions undertaken by “the West.” Immanuel Wallerstein noted that these interventions were still ostensibly aimed at stopping barbarity and practices violating universal values, the defense of innocent people from the cruelty of others and spreading universal values. Their justification, both today and 500 years ago, invariably assumes a moral shape: natural law and Christianity were invoked in the 16th century, a civilizing mission (“the White Man’s Burden”) in the 19th century, human rights and democracy in the 20th and 21st century (I. Wallerstein, European Universalism: The Rhetoric of Power, 2006).

It is no accident that the notion of a morally justified intervention appeared only in the era of great geographical discoveries. With the colonial expansion in the 18th century, religious rhetoric (“evangelization of savages”) was replaced by the ideology of the white man’s “civilizing mission,” spreading the achievements of progress among “backward peoples” of South America, Africa, and Asia. Today, this concept is enjoying a renaissance in the racist discourse calling for the defense of “Western” or “European” civilization against the supposed threat from the followers of Islam—and there is nothing surprising in that. What may be surprising is that we are astonished by it.

Millions of refugees from Syria and other countries of the Middle East and Africa want to finally take advantage of the benefits of Western civilization, the merits of which they have heard so much about; they want to experience on the spot, so to speak, the blessings of humanitarianism, which we have so far bestowed on them only from a distance. In recent years, leaders of the Western world have repeatedly used the right to intervene, claiming that they were doing this because we had the right to live in a better world. The refugees are saying to us today: “We do too.”

Aleksander Kaczorowski

Aleksander Kaczorowski is an editor-in-chief of Aspen Review Central Europe, former deputy editor-in-chief of Newsweek Polska and chief editor of the Op-ed section of Gazeta Wyborcza. His recent books include biographies of Václav Havel or Bohumil Hrabal. He won Václav Burian Prize for cultural contribution to the Central European dialogue (2016).

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