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Looking For Civilization

This past weekend at a book expo, Naomi Klein plagiarized Gandhi a bit when she said of the war with Islamic fundamentalism : I’m not against fighting for civilization and all that,” Klein said, “It’s just that I’m still not … Read More

By / June 11, 2007

This past weekend at a book expo, Naomi Klein plagiarized Gandhi a bit when she said of the war with Islamic fundamentalism :

I’m not against fighting for civilization and all that,” Klein said, “It’s just that I’m still not sure where ‘civilization’ is… I’m still looking.

Post-colonial and subaltern studies have rightfully made us suspicious of using the term 'civilization' without great care. From what privileged vantage point is anyone allowed to say what is and isn't 'civilization?' This is a familiar enough argument even to those unfamiliar with the hotshot philosophers that made this worldview popular. While it didn't originate with 20th century French thinkers, the most recent vintage of this thought was almost certainly fermented in the casks of existentialism.

In a nutshell, existentialists believed that the Ultimate and Divine, and the revealed capital 'T' Truth are falsehoods (or in some cases, the Divine did exist but was unknowable due to its Divinity and all). The Klein principle translates to 'civilization' insofar as it emphasizes that there isn't a perfect arbiter to flawlessly reveal what is 'civilized,' and so one is forced into an agnostic position. But existentialists made a big deal out of responsibility–i.e., 'if God isn't responsible for me and the truth, then I am.' Definitions are more grey, more difficult and less comforting because they are always up for debate and redefinition, however we must take the leap–do something and say something in spite of the fear that uncertainty brings, in spite of the near certainty that somebody will come along at some point with something better. The one who refuses (or who is incapable) of taking that leap is the tragic figure–not the principled hero–of the existentialist world.

It may be true that none of us can or should be so arrogant as to say we know about Civilization and everybody else had best get on board with it. But today, the most well-meaning people think this position excuses them from the hard work of trying to define what is civil, what civilization is, and then fighting to make sure it survives. They seem almost too disappointed in the lower-case 'c' to put any force of will behind the struggle.

Then again, Klein may not be mired in a philosophical conundrum. In her case it's probably just idealism gone haywire. Since the current state of things doesn't meet her standard, she won't be pinned down saying anything definitive about civilization. This is a cop-out and its dangerous–it makes the best the enemy of the good. Besides, existence is a clear-cut issue. Either one exists or one does not, which means that there can be no agnosticism– no matter how idealistic–in an existential struggle.

As for Klein's confusion, somebody should tell her to take a glimpse at the Islamic civilization that is wrecked on a daily basis by Islamic fundamentalists. A picture of Kandahar 100 years ago compared with today maybe? Or how about Bamiyan? Might Ms. Klein agree that the gargantuan stone statues represented a great many hours when people were carving rock instead of killing or maiming one another? More importantly, the Afghan peoples' reverence for them as historic and cultural landmarks was testament to their pride in the accomplishments of humanity. It was a very pluralist respect for others–a respect for art, religious difference, and shared history that the Taliban blew apart. Irresponsible is too mild a way to characterize those who won't come right out and say that the fight against people who do this is a fight for civilization.

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