I love prehistory, history, and future speculation, so I started Yuval Noah Hariri’s Sapiens with great joy. This quickly turned to trepidation, then anger, then rage. Sapiens is a hate crime, a modern work of colonial apologia, and just dismally, dismally wrong. But don’t take my word for it.
Here are the worst things from Sapiens, which I have hate-highlighted for your perusal, along with texts from other people showing why Hariri is an imperialist dolt, an intellectual dilettante, and a pernicious tool.
“When They Become Us”
In each section except the last I’ll use Hariri’s actual headlines. He actually calls a section ‘When They Become Us, with the ‘Us’ being white people and the people they colonized. We are apparently still doing this. As Rudyard Kipling put it, “Your new-caught, sullen peoples, Half devil and half child.”
Hariri says that western colonizers should get credit for inventing the human rights and self-determination they so thoroughly defiled. He said colored people were not even capable of understanding freedom until white people A) took it away for 400 years and then B) coincidentally invented it as they were being kicked out.
To Hariri, the western world can get only credit for ideas but never blame for its actual actions. To Hariri, both the open racism of White Man’s Burden and the actual exploitation people experienced are just differing opinions. Not someone being an asshole and things that actually happened.
Like the myth that Columbus ‘discovered’ America, Hariri gives colonizers credit for naming the evil things they were doing. Clap clap. Thanks for teaching us about human rights by violating them, and self-determination by taking it away. According to him self-determination and human rights and Western legacies. Part of the imperial legacy is apparently anti-imperialism.
This is a pervasive myth that Priyamvada Gopal has thoroughly discombobulated in her book Insurgent Empire. In that she says: “I also wanted to probe the tenacious mythology that ideas of ‘freedom’ are uniquely British in conception and that independence itself was a British ‘gift’ to the colonies along with the railways and the English language.”
Quoting Edward Said she said:
“Edward Said observed correctly that ‘a standard imperialist misrepresentation has it that exclusively Western ideas of freedom led the fight against colonial rule, which mischievously overlooks the reserves in Indian and Arab culture that always resisted imperialism, and claims the fight against imperialism as one of imperialism’s major triumphs’.”
She also quotes Frederick Douglass saying “power concedes nothing without a demand” as he describes the slave rebellions in the Caribbean, which rightly strung white men up on the pedestal of their hypocrisy, a crime for which countries like France and America extort and coup places like Haiti for, to this day.
You can see that Gopal’s thesis stands in stark contrast to the simplistic and racist ideas of Hariri. She sees history as having many people in it, and not just being written by the conquerors. She asks “whether the idea of Britain’s uniquely liberal Empire… might itself have been, at least in part, a response to the claims to humanity, freedom and self-determination made by those very subjects.”
As Gopal continues, “Without merely replicating the inversions of nationalist histories, Insurgent Empire shows how specific states of subjection and struggles against them were fundamental to how freedom — and cognate concepts like ‘liberation’, ‘self-determination’ and ‘emancipation’ — were understood and asserted both by insurgents on the ground and by their interpreters in the diaspora, influencing, in turn, how it was understood and reframed in the imperial centre.”
In short, it was not a case of ‘them’—the sullen colored peoples—dusting off some white book and becoming more like ‘us’. It was about rebellions and direct action by the global majority, showing the oppressive minority what human rights and self-determination actually looked like. In truth ‘us’ became more like ‘them’, but hundred of years later whitey is still trying to take credit for it all. Which is what Sapiens is still doing.