Archive for Sep, 2013

Spotlight History


Spotlight History is my name for the way “world” history in America is mostly about particular times and places, not about the world as a whole.

Here, roughly, are the important periods and regions:

  • 3500 to 500 BC: Middle East
  • 500 BC to AD 500: Greece and Rome
  • 500 to 1500: Western Europe
  • 1500 to present: North America

Other parts of the world make “contributions” from time to time, like gunpowder, millions of slaves or the continent of South America.

It is a narrative fiction: No people, language, culture or even piece of land is always in the Spotlight. Even the Anglos do not matter till they cross into the Roman Empire, into the Spotlight, at the end of Act II. What is being followed by the Spotlight is the development of the American branch of the Western branch of Afro-Asiatic civilization. The “we” is made up. The Spotlight is an effect of hindsight. Even the idea of history being about “civilizations” only goes back to the 1800s.

It is not the history of a culture. If the Spotlight followed Anglo cultural history – “because that’s our heritage” – it would go something like this:

  • 3500 BC to 1700 BC: Eastern Europe
  • 1700 BC to AD 500: Scandinavia
  • 500 to 1500: Britain
  • 1500 to present: Anglosphere: Britain, North America, Australia, South Africa, etc

Because that is where English and the people who speak it come from. Not from Greece or Rome or Egypt or Mesopotamia.

The Spotlight does not even cover the most advanced parts of the world much of the time. For example, the largest city in the world often lies outside the Spotlight – places like Baghdad, Beijing, even Constantinople (after the fall of Rome).

It is highly Eurocentric. A pure Spotlight history would be 75% Western. In practice, people throw in stuff on India and China and so on, lowering the percentage:

How much attention some “world” histories spend the West:

  • 41% 1963: William McNeill (Canadian), “The Rise of the West”
  • 50% 1987: Fernand Braudel (French), “A History of Civilizations”
  • 50% 2003: Michael Cook (British), “A Brief History of the Human Race”
  • 78% 2005: E.H. Gombrich (Austrian), “A Little History of the World”
  • 76% 2007: National Geographic (American), “1000 Events That Shaped World History”

How much attention some news magazines (= current history) spend on the West:

  • 61% 2013: The Economist (British)
  • 97% 2013: Time (American)

How much of the world, in fact, lives in the West:

  • 25% 2010: Earth

Here I am counting the West as being roughly Europe, the Americas and Oceania.

The size of the West through the ages:

  • 1500: 28%
  • 1600: 22%
  • 1700:  21%
  • 1800: 25%
  • 1900: 35%
  • 2000: 26%
  • 2100: 18% (projected)

The Muslim world, India, China and the West each have about 1.5 billion people, give or take 300 million. By 2020 Africa will be that big too and pass the West in 2040. (Note that there is some overlap between these regions.)

Throwing in a few token chapters on China and so on does not work because the West is only a fourth of the world. World history is not Western history with some stuff added. Not anymore than it is Chinese history with some stuff added. The world is way bigger than that.

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