Civilisation and its Malcontents

In the conservative-far right lexicon, few words have the same emotive power as ‘civilisation’ – a term that usually equates with ‘Western civilisation’ or simply ‘the West.’ It’s one of those words that automatically gives depth and gravitas to the hollowest and tinniest of human mouthpieces.  Use it enough and you begin to sound a little bit like Kenneth Clark or Arnold Toynbee, even if you’ve never heard of these people.  The word conjures up so many noble things: the underwater heating systems of ancient Rome; Beethoven; Velazquez; viaducts and motorways; the rule of law; great novels; farming systems; cities; botanical gardens; the Sistine Chapel; Leonardo da Vinci; womens rights.

Historically, the self-identification by certain societies and countries as civilised has often acted as a justification for war and conquest, particularly when such wars have been waged against ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ peoples.  In such circumstances, even the most extreme violence becomes an altruistic expression of the onward march of civilisation, removing obstacles to human progress and allowing the forces of light to reach those who survive these wars.

This trope has appeared again and again, in the history of European colonial conquests; in the Nazi representation of the invasion of the Soviet Union as a defense of civilisation against ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’; in the propaganda of the Confederacy; in the wars of the French colonels in Indochina and Algeria, and on many Cold War battlefronts.  With communism now vanquished, post-9/11 conservatives have attempted to replace communism with ‘Islamofascism’, ‘Islamic radicalism’ or ‘jihadism’ as the main threat to civilisation.  For diplomatic and strategic reasons, the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative was generally removed from official discourse in the ‘War on Terror’, but it was often present amongst supporters of those wars.

In 2001 Silvio Berlusconi broke protocol when he described 9/11 attacks as ‘attacks not only on the United States but on our civilisation, of which we are proud bearers, conscious of the supremacy of our civilisation, of its discoveries and inventions, which have brought us democratic institutions, respect for the human, civil, religious and political rights of our citizens, openness to diversity and tolerance of everything.’

The idea that Berlusconi spent much time thinking about the ‘discoveries and inventions’ of ‘our civilisation’ is not one to detain us for long.   And this week, civilisation found an even more improbable defender in the shape of Donald Trump, who sprinkled  his Warsaw speech  with references  to civilisation and the need to defend it. Like most of those who say such things, Trump referenced communism as a vanquished threat, before evoking its replacement’ in the form of ‘another oppressive ideology — one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe.’

Yep, it’s Islamofascism all over again.  And it’s threatening not just our lives, but our common civilisation – a term Trump helpfully explained by telling his audience ‘ You are the proud nation of Copernicus — think of that.’  Yeah, think of that.   And while you do, think also, that this is a man who has ignored the consensus of most scientists that the planet is in grave danger from global warming, who has stacked his cabinet with climate change deniers and called for deep cuts to government-funded scientific research in his 2018 budget.   As Boris Johnson would say, Copernicus go whistle.

Trump also had a great deal to say about Chopin, our love of symphonies and ‘  works of art that honor God’, about the right to free speech and free expression’ and our respect for the ‘dignity of every human life’ and other ‘priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.’

One of these ‘allies’ is Saudi Arabia, which executed six people yesterday.  According to Amnesty International ‘The rise in death sentences against Saudi Arabian Shia is alarming and suggests that the authorities are using the death penalty to settle scores and crush dissent under the guise of combating “terrorism” and maintaining national security’.   Trump didn’t mention the arrest and flogging of the blogger Raif Badawi, whose ‘crimes’ included a satirical attack on the obscurantism of his country’s religious scholars by reference to the same scientific tradition that he invoked yesterday.

But then no one would expect him to.  Because for politicians like Trump, ‘civilisation’ is only useful insofar as it serves to drum up support for civilisational war and ‘defense’ against its enemies.   No sooner were these wise words spoken, than the  Sun  stepped in to support them, with an approving editorial from Trevor Kavanagh,  warning that refugees have to be kept out, because the refugee crisis is ‘nothing less than an oil-and-water clash of civilisations.’

How so?  Because many refugees ‘have no ­experience of civil society.  They have mostly known only poverty, repression and corruption — the reason they upped sticks’. Therefore it naturally follows that ‘Some will recreate these ­conditions rather than adopt a Western respect for the rule of law.’  Actually, it’s not just ‘some’, it’s really a lot, because ‘More painfully to the point, almost all [refugees] are Muslim’ and ‘Individually, Muslims are no worse and no better than ­anyone else, but they belong to an exclusive and frequently intolerant faith. They might accept our rule of law, but their first duty is to Allah.’

Is it?  The sneaky bastards.  Even more worrying, these Muslims also ‘believe the entire world belongs to Allah, not the nations in which they happen to reside.  No Muslim dares question the Koran, the holy book which sets out these 7th Century teachings of the Prophet Mohammed.  Increasingly, in the cowed West, nor does anyone else.’

Call me cowed, but I really don’t believe that Muslim women who were working out in the gym with me today, or the charming Muslim women who gave me directions this morning, or the children of the Asian taxi drivers who I hear playing most days a few houses away are intent on the downfall of ‘our’ civilisation.  And I just can’t swallow this kind of racist tripe coming from anyone, let alone from the Murdoch newspapers which once lied about the Hillsborough disaster, which hacked a murdered schoolgirl’s telephone to sell more papers, and which once called dead refugee children ‘cockroaches.’

If that’s civilisation, you know what to do with it.   In principle, I feel a little closer to the concept invoked by Brexit secretary David Davis yesterday, who  told the Commons Select Committee that the issue of EU nationals rights were ‘an issue of civilisation as much as anything else.’  I say in principle, because if you equate civilisation with a moral and ethical concept of human dignity,  then it is indeed uncivilised to take away the rights of EU nationals to have their families live with them, just as it should be an ‘issue of civilisation’ that non-EU migrants married to Britons are prevented from living with their families in the UK just because they can’t meet the £18,000 threshold.

Davis told the committee that he and his team had ‘agonised’ about whether to give EU nationals the rights to family reunion that they currently enjoy, before deciding that it would be unfair to give them rights that British nationals don’t have, because of the UK government’s brutal immigration laws.  And that’s not just a testament to the very shallow conception of morality of David and his team.  It’s also the problem with this civilisational discourse thing.  Too many people like to invoke the idea, and too few of those who do actually want to practice the principles they invoke.

Too often civilisation is just another metaphorical wall to wrap around ourselves and demonise those who don’t – and can’t – belong to it.   Not for nothing was Osama bin Laden a big fan of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis.  It was as useful for him as it now is for the Cheeto millionaire, Steve Bannon and Rupert Murdoch, and that’s why when I hear the word ‘civilisation’ coming from such men, I tend to reach for my metaphorical revolver and a very large pinch of salt…





In the evening when The Sun goes down

I have to say that I can’t really get too exercised about the supposed threat to press freedom posed by the arrests of senior Sun journalists, on the basis of information given to the police by News International’s crisis management team.   In fact I can’t help finding it quite pleasing to watch these bastards treat each other with the same ruthless and cynical contempt with which they have treated so many people for so many years.

The whole thing feels like a somewhat contrived but dramatically satisfying ending to a thriller or tv series, in which a corrupt gangland dynasty or political conspiracy is finally unravelled and its members get their collective comeuppance even as they turn on each other in a desperate attempt to save themselves.

In this case however,  there are some details that a writer or scriptwriter might choose to leave out because they would seem, in fictional terms, just too far-fetched and dramatically improbable.   Take Trevor Kavanagh’s bleating about the ‘witch hunt’ against his colleagues:

It is important that we do not jump to conclusions.  Nobody has been charged with any offence, still less tried or convicted.  Yet all are now on open-ended police bail, their lives disrupted and their careers on hold and potentially ruined.

Well don’t tell me that isn’t enough to move even the hardest of hearts?   This from a newspaper whose entire history has been based on inventions and fabrications, regardless of their consequences for those they were directed against.    Wasn’t that  The Sun which ‘jumped to conclusions’ about Liverpool fans urinating on the dead and picking their pockets at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, which invented stories about Elton John having sex with rent boys in 1987,  and which published a story in 1984 in which an American psychiatrist declared Tony Benn to be ‘insane’ during a Chesterfield byelection?

You bet it was.     And when it comes to ‘lives disrupted’ some of you might remember The Sun‘s treatment of ‘Bonkers Bruno’ during the boxer Frank Bruno’s nervous breakdown in 2003?  Or  The Sun photographers who broke into  a psychiatric hospital to ask the dying actor Jeremy Brett, who had been admitted to hospital with manic depression whether he was ‘dying of AIDS’ in 1995.

He wasn’t, but whatever.   For as the editor at the time Kelvin MacKenzie later memorably remarked:

Look, I am not here to be helpful. I am here to help myself, right, so I have no regrets to how I treated some people

A philosophy to which many Sun journalists would undoubtedly subscribe.   MacKenzie may have been a spectacularly vicious and amoral thug,  but he presided over a newspaper that has rarely,  if ever,  allowed ethics, moral scruples or even the most elementary notions of human decency to get in the way of circulation figures or its headlong rush to the lowest common denominator.

We are, after all, talking about a newspaper which once celebrated the torpedoing of the Belgrano with the headline ‘Gotcha’, which once showed a Page 3 girl caressing a missile that would be used to ‘kill Argies’,  which once dismissed suggestions that heterosexuals could transmit HIV as ‘homosexual propaganda’, and which described Australian Aborigines as ‘  Brutal and Treacherous’.

As for The Sun  asking the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) to help them launch a case against News International, don’t make me laugh.    I remember numerous weekends during the Wapping strike of 1984-5 in which members of the NUJ and the SOGAT printers’ union and their families were clobbered by police, precisely in order to ensure that these unions would be kept out of News International’s barbed wire compound.

All this was done without    a word of protest from the journalists who are now seeking the NUJ’s protection.  And now these guys want the union to take action on their behalf?   And the arrests of their colleagues are supposed to be some kind of cause celebre because they may have paid out tens of thousands of pounds in bribes to public officials?   Oh please.

And then there is the attempt by senior Sun journalists  to mount a legal challenge to News International  using the Human Rights Act.  This from a newspaper that has never in its entire career shown any concern with the human rights of anyone, and which has attacked the European Convention on Human Rights on various occasions.

So no tears for you and your colleagues, Mr Kavanagh, because those who live by the sleaze deserve to be engulfed by it.   And if The Sun goes down with all hands on deck, I will just say ‘Gotcha’ and sing (with apologies to George Harrison)

Sun, Sun, Sun there it goes/ And I say it’s alright/duh duh duh duh duh, duh duh duh duh