Excuse me, Sir, but are you civilized?

July 25, 2021

Excuse me, Sir, but are you civilized?

by Naresh Jotwani for the Saker Blog

Washington Post recently ran an article with headline which contained the two phrases “civilized nations” and “deter Beijing and Moscow” (see a review here). Use of the latter phrase in the headline shows clearly that the phrase “civilized nations” here has undisguised, in-your-face geopolitical motivation.

But “civilized” and “deter” is in fact a very strange combination of words, tempting and encouraging us to dig deeper into the matter.

One must assume that, in geopolitics, it is “just another day at the office” for one power to attempt to deter another. If two powers are in a state of unstable equilibrium, but not yet openly at war, attempts to deter one another would go on. Such is life. Certain lines – red or otherwise! – must not be crossed, weighty pronouncements must be made, and “swords must be banged against shields”. All this is standard stuff which foreign office trainees must learn, and upon which their “superiors” must base their upward mobility.

Clearly physical power is the one deterrent we all know about, starting from our experiences in school. But what has “being civilized” got to do with all that? Makes you wonder.

Surely I would be deterred by a big guy carrying a big stick – regardless of whether or not he seems to be “civilized”. In the same way, I am also deterred by a growling dog – regardless of whether or not it is fed and groomed by a rich owner! Chengiz Khan attacked other countries with brutal physical force, without any claims of possessing “higher civilization”. Before the sack of Rome, Alaric behaved far more sensibly than the “civilized” ruling elite of Rome.

Around the same time, another article also appeared, this one on the subject of Russian history and civilization (a review here). This article was an honest attempt to educate others, but there was no sign of any attempt to deter anyone. Indeed a resplendent, vibrant, creative civilization attracts others, does not deter them. If a “civilization” is aiming to deter others, then what happens to all the talk of “civilizational values” and “soft power”?

We know that power flows through the barrel of a gun, but today do culture and civilization also flow through the barrel of a gun? Something is surely wrong here! Historically, have the “civilized” always won wars? How do we explain the very recent history of Afghanistan? Which “civilization” has been gaining the upper hand there? What did the “civilized nations” achieve there? Whom did they manage to deter? For how long?

***

What follows is a brief history of how we have got to where we now find ourselves. This is not a work of “academic scholarship” – but rather it connects various “dots” discovered by scholars. The connections are based on the play of human nature we see all around us today.

The word “civilize” derives from the Latin root “civis”, meaning “citizen”, and in this way it is predicated on the idea of a “city”. Nomadic tribes of a period earlier than, say, 10,000 years BC would not have such a word in their language, even while the concept of “fellow tribesman” would be internalized very well.

The earliest cities were in fact trading centres for the surplus primary produce of nearby hamlets and villages. Trading – that is, eminently sensible economic exchanges – happened long before the invention of writing and of money. People were smart even then.

Trade generated surplus wealth. Thus people in cities – that is, traders of one sort or another – were free to explore aspects of life other than the hard work of primary production. Philosophy, religion, politics, law, “higher” arts and literature … all these flourished. Individuals in the city cultivated themselves, while their fellow human beings “out there” cultivated the land. Paeans and hymns were dutifully sung to the glory of the city and her various “gods”.

It was not long before the cultivated ones thought of themselves as “superior” to the others. In any one-on-one interaction with a simpler human being, they could easily run circles around the latter – and probably also justify charging a fee for the privilege!

Aided by writing and money, political power of cities grew rapidly, and it soon reached a point at which cities deemed themselves to be “proud city states”. Thence arose class differentiation between “civilized” city dwellers and the rustic population outside, which was by then economically and politically dependent on the cities. City states eventually grew into empires, following the all-too-familiar dynamic of unlimited human greed and brutality.

The simpler rustic folk were divided into “subjects”, “serfs”, “slaves” … and so on; but when the rustic folk got into friction or warfare with the “civilized” ones, they were dubbed “barbarians”. The preferred words nowadays are “deplorable”, “backward”, “lower caste” et cetera.

This phenomenon has played out repeatedly in recorded history. The phenomenon is grounded in economic motivations, and therefore it also has huge economic consequences.

Before “civilizations” came into being – and therefore before the invention of money and writing – the relationships between primary producers and traders were simple and direct, as depicted below.

Even huge geographical distances could not block trade, since ships and caravans could be used. Traders were brave and ingenious. For probably a couple of millennia, mankind experienced a “golden age of trading”, during which benefits of trade accrued but without onerous economic exploitation, slavery, human trafficking, and so on.

Things changed after the emergence of money, writing and “civilizations”. Multiple layers of political, social, financial, legal and other services emerged, giving opportunity to every “citizen” to climb the hierarchy of choice, depending on his or her aptitude and talent. Of course the two most useful talents would be greed and cunning – but clearly any other talent could be put to use, for example physical beauty, or the ability to declaim in public.

Ever since then, members of the “civilized elite” of most “civilizations” have wanted to get into the act and take their cut. The main goal of such “civilized elite” is to grab every opportunity for easy money, with the view: “After me, the deluge!”

The situation thus evolved to what is shown below, in what is projected as “progress” or the “unstoppable march of human advancement”. Men and women high up in the “pecking order” of a “civilization”, puffed up with their own social position and self-importance, feel free to make profound pronouncements about “the masses” or “the common people”.

[Incidentally, how “civilized” can a society be in which we use the phrase “pecking order”? The verb “peck” applies to poultry birds, and is also seen in the phrase “hen-pecked husband”.]

So much for “civilized”, the word wrongly used in the Washington Post article.

***

Surprisingly, this discussion brings us close to Saker’s recent decision to write and share with us short vignettes about the teachings of Jesus Christ. How so?

Jesus Christ lived through a period of great turmoil in the region, as the ruthless might of the Roman empire came into contact with independent minded Hebrews. His message was of love and charity, rather than greed. He promised deliverance to his followers, mostly poor folk.

When does a poor person cry out for deliverance? For the many poor people that I know, a bit of poverty is alright if only they are allowed to live on in peace. None of them demands perfect economic equality. Many earn their livelihood working for richer people. “I am alright, Jack. Let me be!”, they say – as they adapt, cope and share.

But turmoil most definitely does occur when even the otherwise forbearing poor are in unbearable distress; that possibility can never be ruled out.

Turmoil did occur in the period when Jesus lived and taught. Therefore, his teachings include useful, practical sayings addressing the daily economic and political reality of the poor people who were his followers. We may consider just three of his many profound sayings:

Man shall not live by bread alone …

It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God.

Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s …

By the way, these themes are not readily found in Gautam Buddha’s teachings. Why? Buddha lived in pre-Alexander India. Specific instances of suffering which moved him, when he was a young prince, were disease, old age, death … All of which is really kid stuff compared to what the Romans and other people of the time did on a regular basis.

Gautam Buddha traced the roots of suffering to desire, whereas the followers of Jesus Christ suffered from extreme deprivation and cruelty. It would be inhuman to say that desire was at the root of their suffering, when in fact they desired only deliverance from extreme deprivation and cruelty. Buddha and Jesus Christ addressed two totally different audiences, separated greatly in time, space and economic/political conditions.

***

It’s time to turn our attention back to some economic and political realities.

It is much easier to make money otherwise than by being a primary producer, and typically every human being seeks the easier path rather than the harder one. Primary producers are therefore left further and further behind in the headlong societal rush towards material well-being. However, no self-respecting community or country should accept such a dire economic fate for a significant fraction of its hard-working members.

Political and economic measures must therefore address this issue in a fair manner, and also provide avenues open to all members to benefit from training, education and economic mobility. Any ideology – “capitalism”, “neo-liberalism” or whatever else – which violates this fairness criterion will enrich a very few but also doom the society. Any talk of “trickle down wealth” is no more than false propaganda; “trickle down” just does not happen.

The attitude of “civilizational upper-hand” displayed in the Washington Post headline leads to a bargaining tactic which goes something like this:

Hey, you! Every time we engage in any transaction, negotiation, discussion or collaboration, do keep in mind that – since I am more “civilized” – I am by definition superior to you. Is it not enough for you that I even deign to sit and talk with you?

As against this, realistic bargaining between parties must proceed only on the basis of specific strong and weak points of each party. Any presumed and self-proclaimed – but meaningless! – “civilizational superiority” has nothing to do with any real-life negotiation. Why introduce such a red herring of into “real-politik”? In today’s intellectually multi-polar, competitive world, the adversary easily sees through all such false pretences anyway.

The reality of being “civilized” – if indeed there is such reality! – must not depend on haughty self-proclamation. The word “civilized” must be defined in terms which are universal.

Our only “city” now is the entire Planet Earth. There are no outsiders, and therefore the word “civilized” has to have meaning not limited by this or that so-called great city of the past or present – whether that be Rome, Athens, Washington, Beijing, Jerusalem or Varanasi.

In that spirit, a simple test is proposed here for the reader’s consideration:

Regardless of how highly accomplished an individual may be – in music, literature, politics, law, science, wealth, beauty or any combination thereof – does the person “get it” and accept that the most deprived individual is also a human being deserving of dignity and respect?

Note that the word “charity” does not even occur here. Acknowledgement of the other person’s humanity is far more fundamental that any outward act of “charity”. It follows that laughing at deprived individuals or pouring scorn over them is not civilized behaviour.

Only if the above test is satisfied should a person today be considered “civilized”. Loud, self-serving proclamations do not count. This is a matter not of “politics” or “ideology”, but of humanity. Nobody need fly off at the handle shrieking “Buddha”, “Jesus Christ”, “capitalism”, “communism” or “socialism”! Humanity does not dwell in a person’s brain, wealth or loquacity, but deep inside the heart – or perhaps not even there.

Lest anybody misunderstand, none of the above is a justification for what does or does not happen in my own country. Wherever there are human beings, certain behaviour patterns are bound to be seen. Most of what is described here has gone on blatantly in India for many centuries, and at present there is an intense internal struggle in progress.

The point here is that any “civilization” worth its name should help temper economic injustice rather than exacerbate it. In times of huge diversity and change, an attitude amongst people of “us” versus “them” is inevitable. The key questions ask must be such as these:

What are the terms under which societal injustices and resentments are resolved? How exploitative are these terms? How is extreme deprivation avoided?

No society can be strong if brutal economic exploitation runs rampant amongst its people. The following paradox is too glaring to be missed:

“Leaders” who declaim the loudest about being “civilized”, and try to impose their “civilizational values” on others, represent the very same societies which are going through relatively rapid exacerbation of internal fissures. A recent extensive survey carried out in the UK reported that, according to most younger respondents, the number one priority of the government should be to protect the poorest, weakest and the most vulnerable. An overwhelming majority said “F**k them all” about their own political leaders. (A summary of the survey can be found here.)

Much should be expected from anyone claiming to be “civilized” today.

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