Book Review: The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

Some of the best advice I ever received came in three parts—read the negative critical reviews first, on everything, but read this book (or any book) on critical thinking before anything else; the third, I’ll save for another time.

This book is incredibly dense and filled with academic jargon that will, quite literally, make your eyes squint and roll, and your head hurt in frustration. If you’re a college dropout and as fabulously ignorant of ancient history (or history in general) as I am, there is an enormous amount of information you will need to trod through that will confuse and stagger you, but I urge you to proceed and persevere regardless, even if you have no clue what she’s referencing. It is remarkably pointed and well researched and pertains to everything currently being criticized, condemned, banned, denounced, excoriated and censured. Parts of this book will make you gasp and burn in unease and rage and others, scratch your head in confusion and ponder the idiocy of human stupidity and depravity, which doesn’t come as a shock to a lot of us that have lived on this rock for more than a few years.

There are many plain and penetrating lines that easily glean and embody the overall conversation being had (or not)—for example:

“What we can see depends heavily on what our culture has trained us to look for.”

This right here explains considerably the sum of western culture:

“For Roman purposes, politics and warfare defined ethnic identities.”

Oh, and there’s plenty more for you to rage—this one is a gem and the root of the malignance still:

“According to Caesar, this process of civilizing and softening proceeds by degrees. Conquest has already more or less wrecked Gallic bravery. The land of the Gauls lies subdued, so that only the Belgae, living remote from centers of Roman culture, can still claim relative manliness: “the Belgae are the bravest, for they are furthest away from the civilization and culture of the Province. Merchants very rarely travel to them or import such goods as make men’s courage weak and womanish. They live, moreover, in close proximity to the Germans who inhabit the land across the Rhine, and they are continually at war with them.” The Suebi Germans, swearing not to fall into that trap, forbade the import of wine from the South, thinking that “it makes men soft and incapable of enduring hard toil.” Here lies one of Caesar’s central themes, setting up a tension between barbarism and civilization that reverberated for two thousand years.

“Of course, Caesar did not speak in terms of race, a discourse invented many centuries later. But in the nineteenth century, when race talk ruled, his descriptions of the Germani served theorists searching for immutable Teutonic traits. Looking backward, they magnified the differences Caesar traced between Gauls and Germans, as though they were racial rather than cultural, permanent rather than in flux. Unless we take their word for it, we must turn to Caesar for ourselves.

“Speaking always as an imperialist focused on military conquest, Caesar highlights German traits related to war. The sparsely settled Germani, he notes, fiercely ravaged their borderlands, driving away all who drew near, German-speaking or not. And, then, in a step dear to later racial theorists, Caesar apparently linked German sexual ethics, morality, and war. German men, he said, show an admirable sexual restraint; though they live alongside women who bathe in the rivers beside them and wear scanty hides and skins, sex remains off limits until the men reach twenty. Chastity relates to war, for the Germani were said to believe that abstinence makes men taller and braver, evidently channeling sexual frustration into healthy violence: “acts of robbery which take place outside the borders of each state: in fact, Germani claim that these take place to train their young men and reduce their laziness.”

“Others of Caesar’s comments fit poorly into the lore of Teutonists. Consider the central role of women in war. As soothsayers, Caesar notes, women decide when to wage war, and once an enemy is engaged, women and children accompany their warriors into the field to bolster their bravery. Latter-day Teutonists made war a strictly characteristically masculine affair.”

Yes, you will need lots of patience to get through this read and not for Painter’s erudite words and wit—of which she so elegantly and academically constructs—but for the significant and striking research and patterns she recognizes, exposes and asserts, all so blaringly and egregiously obvious once you finish. You’ll most certainly be scratching your head and wondering how in the hell this has not been the center of western education thus far—but not really because we know why this information has been strangled again and again and again ad nauseam; it’s staring and smacking us ridiculously in the face; it’s the thing announced, delivered, and declared throughout time in a big, bright white box and bow filled with a bomb of avoidance and hate and decline and ignorance and deterioration—the absolute bottom of humanity. Choosing repeatedly to deny and avoid that which is inherently regressive, is to choose ignorance and a stench of weakness that continues to permeate in all our bones and society as evidenced currently and at any point in history; whether it be from the lack of education to health care to forever wars to pollution and climate change to racism and misogyny and on and on and on. It reeks of failure and weakness and inadequacy and impotence.

This is a must-read and highly recommended.

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