Notes From the Margins…

Civilization and its Malcontents

  • July 12, 2017
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In the conservative-far right lexicon, few words have the same emotive power as ‘civilization’ – a term that usually equates with ‘Western civilization’ 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 instantly 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 civilized 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 civilization, 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 civilization 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 civilization.  For diplomatic and strategic reasons, the ‘clash of civilizations’ 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 civilization, of which we are proud bearers, conscious of the supremacy of our civilization, 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 has spent much time thinking about the “discoveries and inventions” of  “our civilization” is not one to detain us for long.   And this week, civilization found an even more improbable defender in the shape of Donald Trump, who sprinkled  his Warsaw speech  with references  to civilization and the need to defend it.

Like most of those who say such things, Trump referenced communism as a vanquished threat, before evoking ” another oppressive ideology — one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe.”

This “ideology” is not only threatening our lives.  As Trump helpfully explained to his audience “You are the proud nation of Copernicus — think of that.”

It’s doubtful that Trump has thought about it much.  This is a man who has ignored the consensus of most scientists that civilization 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, “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, ‘civilization’ is only useful for drumming up support for war against the latest barbarian hordes, or strong borders to keep them out.

All this was heady stuff to the Sun, which commented on Trump’s speech 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.”

Why? 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.”  For Kavanagh, it’s not just ‘some’, it’s really a lot, because ” More painfully to the point, almost all [refugees] are Muslim” and even thought ” Individually, Muslims are no worse and no better than ­anyone else…they belong to an exclusive and frequently intolerant faith. They might accept our rule of law, but their first duty is to Allah.”

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 the 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 civilization.

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 civilization, 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 civilization as much as anything else.’

I say in principle, because if you equate civilization with a moral and ethical concept of human dignity,  then it is indeed uncivilized to take away the rights of EU nationals to have their families live with them, just as it should be an ‘issue of civilization’ 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 ‘agonized’ 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.

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 civilizational 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.

Not for nothing was Osama bin Laden a big fan of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ 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 ‘civilzsation’ coming from such men, I tend to reach for my metaphorical revolver and a very large pinch of salt.





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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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