Let me clear from the very beginning: I hate that ISIS exists. I hate fanatics of all stripes: religious, nationalistic, racist, leftist, rightist, anarchistic, capitalist, socialist and those who propose a global state. There is, however, a commonality which runs through each of the above, and may even be considered a meta-fanaticism: the un-examined apologia for civilization.
Since the ISIS attacks on Paris a few weeks ago, there’s been an endless barrage of moralistic finger-wagging, usually applied with philosophical sex-wax describing what civilization really is all about. And folks, you guessed it: ISIS has none of it. At least so we’re told repeatedly.
One such repetition appeared as an op-ed piece in the New York Times just days after the attacks. Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against Timothy Egan. I have no idea who he is. I’ve never read anything by him before. And I rarely, if ever, read the New York rag. Nonetheless, I came across it in a way I cannot now recall and the insidiousness of its all-too-common assumptions struck me as an almost perfect example of the danger of this apologia.
For instance, Egan informs us: “The Islamic State is not, by any stretch, a civilization.”
He then paints a picture of what really constitutes civilization which includes a kumbaya sing-along in a stadium of soccer fans, boulevards of cafes full of people imbibing wine, real religion as opposed to violent religions, and finally the brush-strokes finishing this optimistic portrait:
“Civilization is defiance, embodied in the words of President François Hollande, directed at people who hate all that France stands for. “The terrorists want to erase everything: culture, youth, life, and also history and memory,” he said. “We will not yield to terrorism by suspending our way of life.”
Now, I’m not the intellectual light of the planet, but if this rosy picture is what constitutes ‘civilization,’ then I’m uncertain as to where I live.
Why so? you ask.
For one, Turtle Island became ‘The Land of the Free’ by way of a concerted effort, by the French, the English, the Spanish, and upon ‘independence’ from England, the US, to precisely erase the culture, youth, life, history and memory of whole people indigenous to these lands!
Second, that France itself has been, and remains, a colonial empire upon which its wealth, it’s ‘advancement’ and ‘development,’ is based upon, is hardly something hidden. The same goes for the British, the Germans, the Dutch, the Belgians, etc.
That these civilized, and civilizing, peoples didn’t use torture, genocide, forced conversion, slavery, land-expropriation, enclosure, and so on, then a great many things they taught me in the (civilizing) compulsory schooling was a lie, right? Were there not people sitting in cafes and taverns drinking wine, singing secular songs, along boulevards when all this shit was happening during the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries? I seem to have heard there were…and they were proud of it!
The blueprint ISIS has for the world is pretty shitty indeed. Its version of the City-on-the-Hill looks pretty ghastly, to put it mildly. And yeah, I’d fight them in any way I could. But, I think there’s some pretty fuzzy thinking going on about what civilization ‘is’ and ‘is not’ going on in Egan’s piece as well as every pundit making such pronouncements. Ignorance may not be bliss, but it sure can sprout self-righteous moralism.
Look, civilization simply means ‘city’ at its root. This isn’t a moral claim, as Egan (and nearly every other cacophonous talking-head) makes of it. Although the converse may be closer: that the abstractions a city necessitates (persons become ‘citizens’; gender division; division of labor/specialization; etc.) make headway for abstract morals, that is, ‘rules,’ and laws which require hierarchy and coercion in order to maintain a certain–order. There’s never been, to my knowledge, a civilization which has come into being by way of complete consensus. From the earliest time right up to now the same formula has been used and, to paraphrase another Frenchman, the omelet called civilization has always required the breaking of eggs that– flesh and blood people obliterated.
After the proverbial turd has been polished for awhile, perhaps it loses its stench and begins to look like a ruby…if we believe in thought experiments and self-congratulatory back-patting erases the past . Taking Egan’s formula I can only assume that’s what’s going on. But, the turd is still a turd when you approach it even a little more closely. Because you’ve not done the killing, the enslaving, the colonizing yourself hardly makes you any less of a beneficiary. Hollande, Egan, you and I are all in the same gunboat. Perhaps the difference is some of us realize its a gunboat while others don’t or can’t.
It’s pretty obvious to me that the Islamic State want’s just that…a state. Every single state in history has been a civilization. A social democratic state may be far less brutal than a fascist state seventy years ago, and they are less brutal than ISIS is now. But, every ‘advanced’ Western democracy has had some share in exactly the means ISIS is now unabashedly demonstrating, via the Internet.
And with this in mind, I feel that part of what has folks in such an uproar has everything to do with the ability to see the process of civilizing instantly, on demand (and this instant gratification is exactly a Western demand gone global). That ISIS shares the techniques of terror, torture, rape, killing with every other civilized civilizer makes the former no less a civilizer simply because it can be seen by all. Conquistadors and cowboys both bragged openly about their brutality toward the ‘savages’ while the priests for a ‘real religion’ often wrote it down. The separation by time makes the reality of these atrocities no less real because of that distance no matter how it’s been swept under the proverbial rug of moralism. Am I to take it that the greed of emperors, explorers, plantation-owners, and adventurers as somehow a more justifiable end than an Islamic Caliphate when the means are one and the same?
In addition, we shouldn’t forget that just a century ago the imperialistic powers of the West couldn’t even spare one another their game of industrialized civilization. Millions died in trenches as African colonies switched hands to the winners and they broke up what the Ottomans had in the Middle East. You do recall that France controlled what is now Syria and northern Iraq, right? And then, there was Chapter II (1939-1945), which seemingly wrapped up the European novella of explicit violence among themselves…unless you count cold wars and the breakdown of Yugoslavia in your tally.
Not to worry though, as you soak in the rays from ‘your’ beach-side resort in Martinique, you French-folk can read the newest addition in the same belligerent series as the US takes the helm of explicit violence…usually under cover of censorship, though. Just like you, the US sits upon its hill of corpses built through slavery, genocide and cheap labor to lecture all about what it means to be civilized, good human-beings and what’s right and wrong.
When ‘we’ come to terms that civilization always entails violence, hierarchy and class, dispossession, and so on, maybe then a real conversation with other human beings can begin in earnest and with heart.