In the conservative-far right lexicon, few words have the same emotive power as ‘civilisation’ – a term that usually equates with ‘Western civilisation’ or simply ‘the West.’ It’s one of those words that automatically gives depth and gravitas to the hollowest and tinniest of human mouthpieces. Use it enough and you begin to sound a little bit like Kenneth Clark or Arnold Toynbee, even if you’ve never heard of these people. The word conjures up so many noble things: the underwater heating systems of ancient Rome; Beethoven; Velazquez; viaducts and motorways; the rule of law; great novels; farming systems; cities; botanical gardens; the Sistine Chapel; Leonardo da Vinci; womens rights.
Historically, the self-identification by certain societies and countries as civilised has often acted as a justification for war and conquest, particularly when such wars have been waged against ‘savage’ or ‘barbarian’ peoples. In such circumstances, even the most extreme violence becomes an altruistic expression of the onward march of civilisation, removing obstacles to human progress and allowing the forces of light to reach those who survive these wars.
This trope has appeared again and again, in the history of European colonial conquests; in the Nazi representation of the invasion of the Soviet Union as a defense of civilisation against ‘Judeo-Bolshevism’; in the propaganda of the Confederacy; in the wars of the French colonels in Indochina and Algeria, and on many Cold War battlefronts. With communism now vanquished, post-9/11 conservatives have attempted to replace communism with ‘Islamofascism’, ‘Islamic radicalism’ or ‘jihadism’ as the main threat to civilisation. For diplomatic and strategic reasons, the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative was generally removed from official discourse in the ‘War on Terror’, but it was often present amongst supporters of those wars.
In 2001 Silvio Berlusconi broke protocol when he described 9/11 attacks as ‘attacks not only on the United States but on our civilisation, of which we are proud bearers, conscious of the supremacy of our civilisation, of its discoveries and inventions, which have brought us democratic institutions, respect for the human, civil, religious and political rights of our citizens, openness to diversity and tolerance of everything.’
The idea that Berlusconi spent much time thinking about the ‘discoveries and inventions’ of ‘our civilisation’ is not one to detain us for long. And this week, civilisation found an even more improbable defender in the shape of Donald Trump, who sprinkled his Warsaw speech with references to civilisation and the need to defend it. Like most of those who say such things, Trump referenced communism as a vanquished threat, before evoking its replacement’ in the form of ‘another oppressive ideology — one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe.’
Yep, it’s Islamofascism all over again. And it’s threatening not just our lives, but our common civilisation – a term Trump helpfully explained by telling his audience ‘ You are the proud nation of Copernicus — think of that.’ Yeah, think of that. And while you do, think also, that this is a man who has ignored the consensus of most scientists that the planet is in grave danger from global warming, who has stacked his cabinet with climate change deniers and called for deep cuts to government-funded scientific research in his 2018 budget. As Boris Johnson would say, Copernicus go whistle.
Trump also had a great deal to say about Chopin, our love of symphonies and ‘ works of art that honor God’, about the right to free speech and free expression’ and our respect for the ‘dignity of every human life’ and other ‘priceless ties that bind us together as nations, as allies, and as a civilization.’
One of these ‘allies’ is Saudi Arabia, which executed six people yesterday. According to Amnesty International ‘The rise in death sentences against Saudi Arabian Shia is alarming and suggests that the authorities are using the death penalty to settle scores and crush dissent under the guise of combating ‘terrorism’ and maintaining national security’. Trump didn’t mention the arrest and flogging of the blogger Raif Badawi, whose ‘crimes’ included a satirical attack on the obscurantism of his country’s religious scholars by reference to the same scientific tradition that he invoked yesterday.
But then no one would expect him to. Because for politicians like Trump, ‘civilisation’ is only useful insofar as it serves to drum up support for civilisational war and ‘defense’ against its enemies. No sooner were these wise words spoken, than the Sun stepped in to support them, with an approving editorial from Trevor Kavanagh, warning that refugees have to be kept out, because the refugee crisis is ‘nothing less than an oil-and-water clash of civilisations.’
How so? Because many refugees ‘have no experience of civil society. They have mostly known only poverty, repression and corruption — the reason they upped sticks’. Therefore it naturally follows that ‘Some will recreate these conditions rather than adopt a Western respect for the rule of law.’ Actually, it’s not just ‘some’, it’s really a lot, because ‘More painfully to the point, almost all [refugees] are Muslim’ and ‘Individually, Muslims are no worse and no better than anyone else, but they belong to an exclusive and frequently intolerant faith. They might accept our rule of law, but their first duty is to Allah.’
Is it? The sneaky bastards. Even more worrying, these Muslims also ‘believe the entire world belongs to Allah, not the nations in which they happen to reside. No Muslim dares question the Koran, the holy book which sets out these 7th Century teachings of the Prophet Mohammed. Increasingly, in the cowed West, nor does anyone else.’
Call me cowed, but I really don’t believe that Muslim women who were working out in the gym with me today, or the charming Muslim women who gave me directions this morning, or the children of the Asian taxi drivers who I hear playing most days a few houses away are intent on the downfall of ‘our’ civilisation. And I just can’t swallow this kind of racist tripe coming from anyone, let alone from the Murdoch newspapers which once lied about the Hillsborough disaster, which hacked a murdered schoolgirl’s telephone to sell more papers, and which once called dead refugee children ‘cockroaches.’
If that’s civilisation, you know what to do with it. In principle, I feel a little closer to the concept invoked by Brexit secretary David Davis yesterday, who told the Commons Select Committee that the issue of EU nationals rights were ‘an issue of civilisation as much as anything else.’ I say in principle, because if you equate civilisation with a moral and ethical concept of human dignity, then it is indeed uncivilised to take away the rights of EU nationals to have their families live with them, just as it should be an ‘issue of civilisation’ that non-EU migrants married to Britons are prevented from living with their families in the UK just because they can’t meet the £18,000 threshold.
Davis told the committee that he and his team had ‘agonised’ about whether to give EU nationals the rights to family reunion that they currently enjoy, before deciding that it would be unfair to give them rights that British nationals don’t have, because of the UK government’s brutal immigration laws. And that’s not just a testament to the very shallow conception of morality of David and his team. It’s also the problem with this civilisational discourse thing. Too many people like to invoke the idea, and too few of those who do actually want to practice the principles they invoke.
Too often civilisation is just another metaphorical wall to wrap around ourselves and demonise those who don’t – and can’t – belong to it. Not for nothing was Osama bin Laden a big fan of Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’ thesis. It was as useful for him as it now is for the Cheeto millionaire, Steve Bannon and Rupert Murdoch, and that’s why when I hear the word ‘civilisation’ coming from such men, I tend to reach for my metaphorical revolver and a very large pinch of salt…