Civil Dialogue

Civil Dialogue January 19, 2015

The problem with the columnists, commentators, politicians, pundits, and pastors is that they honestly believe that they are the linchpins of civilization.

It is amazing how quickly the intelligensia of the left and right moved from an attack on a satirical magazine by militant Islamists to the end of civilization as we know it. The forces destroying us were quickly enumerated:

1. Religious fundamentalist fanatics who want to establish one of a variety of misogynist theocracies.

2. Hyper-assertive post-modernists so vicious and hateful of religion that they will pull civilization down around themselves with the wrecking ball of blasphemous satire / caricature.

3. Conspiratorial capitalist/colonialists whose exploitative policies crush human hope until it reaches a critical mass of explosive rebellion and turns the social environment into a wasteland.

4. The media (excepting the person reporting) who are the sometimes willing and sometimes clueless shills for all of the above.

5. Consumers whose populist taste in and lust for material goods and entertainment is leading them like sheep to the slaughter by any or all of the forces above.

6. And so on.

I’m beginning to think that columnists, talk show hosts, bloggers, pundits, religious leaders, and politicians need to get out more. Observe what is actually happening outside their own echo chambers. Get over their disappointment with Fukuyama’s failed thesis, flush Huntington’s apocalyticism out of their bloated guts and think about actual humans and human history.

Let’s go back about 70 years. Could there have been a more sustained and violent threat to European civilization than the one-two punch of Facism and Stalanism? At the same time Chinese civilization suffered great leaps backwards and cultural revolutions. From 1930 to 1970 one could make a serious argument that civilization was on the brink, with MAD to insure that the final suicide would be quick and painful.

Now its 2015 and Europe appears (from one who has lived here and visits regularly) doing okay. The US culture of near pure pop consumerism continues to thrive, becoming ever more firmly rooted in every aspect of life from religion to education to the arts. China, and indeed Asia, is booming economically, with even stagnant Japan being a rather pleasant backwater if one wishes a respite from growth. Latin America? Vibrant. Africa – troubled for sure but we can’t put the Boko Haram up against the horrors of Hitler and Stalin and Mao.

Equally noteworthy – despite Mao’s best efforts the fundamental values of Chinese culture have a firm grasp on its people. Family is valued, Confucius is studied along with Lao Tse, the Tao gives birth to yin and yang and the myriad of things and people still note that this is so and plan their lives and menus around it. In the US we still refer to (and sometimes even read) Adams and Franklin and Jefferson, and listen to deep south hymns and spirituals and Jerome Kern and Louise Armstrong and the whole American songbook. Across Europe symphonies play and operas are performed and Goethe is read with Voltaire and Dickens and Shakespeare and on and on. While (I note from personal observation) Japanese in their formal wear and woollen skirts and Arabs and Turks with their headscarves and fresh-off-the-Italian press suits sit quietly and watch. Good heavens, Mary Poppins in German is packing the house in Vienna.

Civilization won the 20th century.

The attack on Charlie Hebdo, with those in London and Madrid and New York and (make a long list) don’t threaten civilization because they offer no seriously desired alternative. Muslims in Europe (still a small minority of the population) aren’t going to rise up and overthrow the societies to which they willingly migrated. They came for employment and failing that, social welfare. They may be angry and frustrated but only a handful are stupid and neurotic enough to imagine life would be better under ISIS.

And the same is true in the US, and India, and even Pakistan and Iraq. Nor do I see any great rush by non-Muslims back to fascism and racial purity. Of course we have our anti-immigrant movements, and continuing racism. Vigilance is necessary. But walk down the street in most American cities, or better watch those popular TV shows and better the TV ads (because in the US “the dollar bill shall lead them.”) Note well the diversity of races and religions, the growing pace of inter-religious and inter-racial marriage, the carefully constructed appeals to an ethnically diverse demographic.

The problem with the columnists, commentators, politicians, pundits, and pastors is that they honestly believe that they are the linchpins of civilization. They seem to believe that all of the rest of us, the billions who actually get up each day, care for our families, greet our neighbors, and dream small dreams at night are just sheep waiting to fall haplessly into violence and despair.

It is true that we can be led badly astray if our circumstances are sufficiently dire and the vision before us sufficiently compelling. We have seen that happen. But we, like our civilization are also enormously resilient. Because the source of civilization is the human instinct to be civil, to live together in the widest possible unity of diverse persons. The town is more distinctively human than the village, the city more than the town, and the metropolis than the city.

The breakup of Babel was merely to insure the more total and complete triumph of a diverse urban culture in the New Jerusalem.

Universities, democratic political institutions, religious institutions, a free press, artistic freedom: these are the expressions and artifacts of our civilization, not their creators. The sooner their stewards recognize this the sooner they can let go of their anxiety, release us from their nervous embrace, and get back to work being civil. Like the rest of us.

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  • Y. A. Warren

    I see a move away from religions spouting fear of “God(s)” and toward a culture of fear driven by media hype. I agree with you that more preachers and pundits should report from the streets. There is an organization, in which I actively volunteer, that trains “citizen journalists” reporting from the grassroots of their lives in 190 countries. I hope they are successful in putting many of these stories into mainstream thought, if not mainstream media.