Civilization and Its Discontents

…if the Great War had shown one thing, was it not that European civilization, once hailed as the most progressive and most advanced in the world, was really nothing more than a thin veneer for barbarism?

It has been my contention for some time that civilization, European or otherwise, has long been little more than a thin veneer over the complex layers of human nature. I remember vividly the war-time films we were shown in my high school history classes – I think they are the same ones shown today sometimes on the history channel. Italian planes bombing Ethiopia. Japanese planes bombing China. Norwegian fighters struggling through the mountains on snowshoes to subvert the Nazi occupation, tanks rolling into the Sudentenland, Belgium, France. Anzio. Normandy. Auschwitz. Very stirring, all of it. And I came to one important conclusion.

If the German people, civilized as they were, were capable of these atrocities, then we all are.

That quote from 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War was, for me, a startling reminder of how this year’s politics in the U.S. has been altering views around the world about the benefits of liberal democracy. So far from being a civilization of vibrant peoples, we are close to becoming a collection of Balkan states, closed communities that are fighting – in courts and on the ground – to keep the “other” away. Communities that live one or two streets apart but never meet, each imagining the lives of the others as being something they rarely actually are. Entire police departments are revealed as having never received a course in common courtesy, not to mention effective policing, reduced in the end to genuine acts of barbarism which are too often deemed necessary to preserve law and order. One population which experiences this truth over and over again. Another one, close by, which doesn’t. Technology that exposes this dichotomy to the world.

Barbarism at home and abroad inspires barbarism in return.

Today's news is driven by outrage, every night a new one, one side crying out that it is true, the other that it is false, in tones that preclude the possibility of hearing each other. When yours is the only voice you can hear, you can delude yourself into thinking that someone must be listening. They aren’t. They are just matching your volume.

Civilization is what people develop when they are settled, secure, under reasonable governance. I’m a big fan of civilization. I hope it stays around until I’m gone at least. Civilization keeps the water running and the lights on. It takes away the garbage and plows the streets. It tries to follow its own rules.

Civilization means civility – being civil to one another. Speaking of each other with respect. Being “politically correct,” which is really nothing more than respecting another person’s values without necessarily adopting them. Civil behavior, when it is diligently practiced, is habit-forming. When it is not, it all too easily disintegrates. Civilization has so often failed to live up to the highest ideals that every so often it gets thrown under the bus as no longer worthy. We’re tired of being civilized. We want to say what we think, do what we want, go where and when we please and be ourselves when we get there. We want to yell “Bullshit!” in a crowded theatre. And when we do that, we chip away at civilization.

There will always be unhappy truths hiding under civilization’s skirts. There is always a risk in telling them. Just ask Eddard Stark. Donald Trump is no Eddard Stark, but perhaps he is serving a similar purpose – bringing the bile to the surface. Reminding us that it’s there. Confronting the truths our civilization has been hiding. Fear, racism, classism, anger, distrust, hatred. In 1913, this resulted in the First World War. Which itself planted the seeds for the Second World War. A half century of barbarism. Was it worth the changes it brought? Was there some other way to do the right thing? Is there still?

Civilization rises out of the ashes of barbarism, when we are finally sick of yelling Bullshit!, sick of the carnage, sick of living in the bunkers, and remember that we used to plant gardens. That we thought better of each other. New unsavory truths and the remnants of old ones will creep back under the skirts of civilization, but for a while we will bask in what we have once again achieved. There might be a little more fairness, a little more prosperity for all. The lights will go back on and the water will run once more, with any luck a little cleaner, a little more efficiently.

In the meantime, perhaps we’d best brace ourselves. This could take a while.

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