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Just What is This 'Civilization'?
28 October 2001
It's a word that can mean all things to all men, but it's also a concept used in the current conflict to suit many different purposes
War has a face. It belongs to Hamid Ullah, aged one. He lies in a hospital bed in Quetta, near to his mother, Radigul, whose eyes were burned and arm shredded by the US bomb that struck her hamlet outside Kandahar. Hamid is the only one of her five children to survive the blast. Despite shrapnel burns and facial wounds, he will live. Among the several newspapers which carried his image, one version stood out. 'Can you take a picture like this?' the accompanying wording asked brightly. 'Enter the Times /Tabasco Young Photographer of the Year Competition.'
Obviously, it is good that newspapers seek new talent. It is useful that condiment manufacturers sponsor that search. But would the photo of a sedated and badly injured British child be similarly juxtaposed with the twin icons of aspiration and branding? Would such a child be lumped around in the cause of the varied photocall desired by a Western media? First a long shot, then a profile, then a close-up featuring a teddy bear and drugged eyes staring into a camera lens. This is collateral damage, artfully arranged to twitch the heartstrings of the 'civilized' societies whose agents inflicted it in the first place.
How 'civilized' are we? Very, says George Bush, who has repeated that 'this conflict is a fight to save the 'civilized' world'. The mantra of this war is echoed by apostles from Newt Gingrich ('Civilization must win') to Iain Duncan Smith, who advises fighting all states 'which have placed themselves outside the family of 'civilized' nations'.
Assuming the outsiders match the US list of state sponsors of international terrorism, a cultural benchmark acceptable to the Tory leader can be easily achieved once Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Cuba, North Korea and Sudan have been blown away.
Other definitions are less rigorous. To Fernand Braudel, civilization is 'a cultural area' and, to Emile Durkheim, 'a moral milieu'. To Samuel P. Huntington, author of The Clash Of Civilizations, it is seven tectonic plates, ranging from Sinic to Orthodox. To V.S. Naipaul, it is a Britain cleansed of Tony Blair, whom he accused last year of 'destroying the idea of civilization in this country'. Eating canapés with Chris Evans, or liking Ivanhoe, or whatever Blair's cultural sin was supposed to be, seems somehow less terrifying in the age of Bin Laden. Even so, dispensing with Sir Vidia's verdict casts little light on civilization.
Samuel Johnson wouldn't have the word in his dictionary, preferring 'civility'. Virginia Woolf moved beyond the standard interpretation (the opposite of barbarism) for her review of Clive Bell's book on the subject. For him, civilization was 'a lunch party at Number 50 Gordon Square'. That seems also to be the tacit version of Mr Bush, for whom 'civilized' living is likely to embrace God, golf, Texas corn fritters, boots'n'ties dinners and never again having to look like a pantomime bellhop in a Nehru jacket as a sop to the Chinese. Aside from the bereaved, few have had to revise their lives as completely as the President. It shows. When Bush talks of saving civilization, he implies, beyond adventurism, some wistful nostalgia for a lost Utopia.
Even for those more skeptical about the sanctity (or hegemony, for adherents to the Berlusconi line) of Western civilization, there are problems. War makes barbarians of us all. At a recent charity lunch for women, someone proposed a toast to 'our sisters in America'. No mention of our sisters in Afghanistan. The Madison Square Garden rock concert, though frothily hyped, struck one caller to a radio phone-in as a distasteful spectacle in which showbusiness overrode compassion.
He is right. However deep the sympathy for US and British victims, it is excessive to raise millions of dollars for people with insurance policies and compensation packages while offering not a cent to those who starve for little more obvious reason than that they are easier to hurt than Bin Laden. Many families of the US dead might welcome some fraction of the money going to the poor of Afghanistan. For the performers not to propose it fuels the usual suspicion that the rock world's idea of feeding programs begins with its own ego.
At least singers have no formal obligation. Clare Short's refusal to back aid agencies' call to halt air strikes, possibly on the grounds that they will be wanting golden elephants next, looked craven. She is right, however, to chivy an international community that pledged £500 million for Afghanistan, but has given only £50m. In private, the new mercenaries cash in on war. Online chemists plug Cipro; spiritual gurus peddle prayer pashminas at £75 a throw; hustlers hawk Twin Towers pictures. Even those who think 'civilized' living means blackened cod at Nobu must recoil.
Much more alarming is the delusion that the West is a tabernacle of pristine values. On the simplest analysis of rich Britain, this is doubtful. Our hospitals and railways kill some users and frustrate most. One in three children is poor. Asylum-seekers with tuberculosis go unscreened. Vouchers (which David Blunkett must abolish) oblige mothers to water down baby milk.
In Beit Rima, where five Palestinians died because of America's softness on Israel, families unpick children's clothes from olive trees and scratch for money in the rubble of a bombed home. In Lewes, two foster parents are jailed for slowly beating to death a four-year-old boy entrusted to their care. In Norwich, the judge jailing Tracey Wright for killing her small stepdaughter says that Lauren's death, in a friendly village, was as inevitable 'as if she had been cast out alone into the furthest desert'. Another week goes by in civilization.
Of course, few people are mad or vicious, but we are inclined to see society and the state as more benign than they are. That distortion makes us susceptible to the blandishments of Blair and Bush. 'Civilization, goodness, justice. We can all sign up for those. And so mistaken assumptions lead the West into three errors. The first is that we are enviable. To think that every Bin Laden disciple in Tommy Hilfiger jeans and citrus cologne aspires to work for Paribas is as mad as believing that all Toyota owners want to uproot from Oswestry to Osaka.
The second mistake is assuming that most tactics pass muster, if deployed in a just war, as defined by St Augustine or Tony Blair. The third, paradoxical, error is squeamishness. As befits a 'civilized' race, the West has so far avoided the dirty pursuit of ruthless terrorists in favor of a fragrant option in which the innocent die from bombing or starvation.
Their fate was mortgaged to a merciful future. The Taliban would be ousted fast. There would be jam, as opposed to peanut butter airdrops, tomorrow. Three weeks in, that assurance has been amended or revoked. Bright tomorrows, Osama's dirty bomb permitting, may be 50 years away. We are told almost nothing by politicians who seem to understand little and divulge less.
The aims of conflict remain grandiose, but the achievements stack up as bombed aid warehouses and charred children. So far, this does not look like civilization on the march. It looks like barbarism in a borrowed halo.