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The Politics of Oxymoron

Huntington’s “uncivilized civilizations”

The New Criterion, Summer 2003

One of the stranger things about The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order was the debt it owed to anthropology. Throughout much of the past one hundred years anthropologists had been talking about “culture clash”, or “culture conflict”, but the spectacle of Huntington’s clashing civilizations raised this fairly mundane phenomenon to an altogether more eye-catching level.

Soon numerous critics questioned the author’s political conclusions. They pointed out that men are far from being mere prisoners of their cultures; that states with widely varying histories, but with democracy, free markets, and the rule of law, peacefully cooperate everywhere; and that our international procedures for managing conflict have given the world an unprecedented stability.

But it is only Huntington’s usage that concerns us here. For behind the seeming innocent claim that the modern world consists of ‘civilizations’ (plural), and not just ‘civilization’ (singular), a lot of linguistic mischief is afoot. What Huntington does by degrading the concept of universal ‘civilization’, and elevating a multiplicity of ‘challenger civilizations’ in its stead, closely resembles a disastrous precedent—the 20th-century transformation of ‘culture’ (singular) into a multiplicity of uncultures, noncultures, and ugly anticultures all over the place.

The contrasting rhetoric of Mr George W. Bush and Mr Mahathir Mohammad a year or so ago was revealing. When war with Iraq seemed increasingly in prospect the premier of Malaysia seized enthusiastically on Huntington’s analysis to announce another bout in “the clash of civilizations”—the civilization of the West in one corner, the civilization of Islam in the other, a bare canvas spread expectantly between the two. He sounded like a fight promoter looking forward to a long-awaited stoush.

Mr Bush, on the other hand, when speaking to the United Nations, was having nothing of civilizations plural, and declined to imply that either Saddam Hussein or Arab terrorists represented anything so specious. According to the president there was something called ‘civilization’, as singular and universal as it is admired, and its wellbeing was both America’s and the world’s concern. The difference between the universalism of Bush’s language and the self-interested usage of Mahathir might seem small. In fact it is very important. And while it is doubtless easy to exaggerate the historical significance of the meanings of words, the consequence of disattending meanings, when politicians and professors lay their hands on our language, can be dire.

More than fifty years have passed since Orwell wrote of “the need to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end … ”  Tendentious political language, he went on, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”

This was written in 1946 at the height of Stalin’s power, and he developed these thoughts further in his novel 1984. In the book’s appendix on The Principles of Newspeak he wrote that the special function of Oceania’s vocabulary “was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them.” Words could be destroyed, he said, by wantonly expanding their meanings so that they came completely to replace a whole range of older, more specific, and more definite terms and usages.

Linguistic stability

Some words are surprisingly stable. Language is the great case study in cultural conservatism, much of it changing little in centuries, and there are even a handful of words still used in Egypt which have come all the way down to the present day from 5,000 years ago. Other words gradually contract in response to their shrinking significance, ‘philosophy’ being one example. When Francis Bacon wrote of the “the new philosophy” in the early 1600s he was in fact referring to modern science, and the anachronistic inclusion of ‘philosophy’ in the titles of some scientific chairs persisted until quite recently.

More common however is the tendency Orwell pointed to—steady inflation. A spectacular example of this is the word ‘community’. From meaning a smallish social group like a village, or small town, it has mysteriously expanded until now no international communiqué is complete without “the global community” making a vaporous appearance. But far more worrying than these largely innocuous shifts are words which have been consciously expanded for ideological purposes, and it will help us see more clearly what is going on and where it all is leading—as a prologue to examining the words ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’—if we first define some typical forms of wilful semantic change.

Bald inversion

Orwell dramatized this with a number of invented phrases and names, some of them remarkably close to communist realities. It involves taking an established and highly prestigious word (‘truth’ for example) and brazenly using it to denote its opposite. So if a government department is concerned with lies and lying you call it the Ministry of Truth. Bald Inversion carries euphemism to its totalitarian extreme. Something as blatant as this is an effect of power, and is uncommon in democracies. It is unlikely to succeed as a semantic manoeuvre, or be widely accepted by the general populace, unless those who use it for the purposes of official redefinition are prepared to shoot the inevitable sceptics and scoffers.

Adjectival expansion

Here the original term is retained but adjectives are added which gradually extend its range of meaning. For example, one inserts ‘cultural’ before ‘genocide’. By this simple device it can be implied that allowing an already dying language to quietly become extinct, even when it has only a few score speakers and no literature, is morally analogous to murdering millions in a Nazi camp. It is an unhappy fact that there are always hundreds of verbal free-riders eager to capitalise on the miseries of others, and nowadays adjectival genocide can be made up to suit any occasion. This fall in the value of strong words is part of a routine semantic process of adulteration. In a political market place where assorted groups compete for attention, and wish their misfortunes to be acknowledged and their opportunistic claims for reparations acted on, strong, distinctive, and uniquely horrific terms like genocide are seized on for whatever advertizing advantage they offer. It’s me-too-ism played with other people’s corpses.

Barefaced oxymoron

In 1935 the English anthropologist Tom Harrisson visited the Big Nambas of Malekula in the New Hebrides. There was little about the Big Nambas to distinguish them from a thousand other stone age people in the ethnographic record, but upon his return to England Harrison wrote a book about them with the title A Savage Civilization. There was in fact no civilization whatever in the old-time New Hebrides. The old-time Malekulans had no metals or metallurgy, no alphabet, no writing, no books, no literature, no libraries, no architecture (no building larger than a hut), no separation of powers, no judicial independence, no scientific understanding, no mature religion with a universal message for mankind; and as for the attributes of modern civilization, they possessed not even the dimmest prefiguring of the open and humane political order of civil society. What they had was a very primitive stone age culture indeed. So what was Harrisson’s purpose? The goals which Adjectival Expansion achieves imperceptibly by semantic creep, Barefaced Oxymoron seeks to achieve by ambush—by a violent wrench of meaning—and that is what the strange coupling of ‘savage’ and ‘civilization’ is meant to do. It aims to surprise and capture the semantic redoubt before anyone knows it is happening.

What exactly is going on here? Three important terms have been subverted, weakened, corrupted, and destroyed. The contemporary attack on truth and rationality is significant, but in the long term it is bound to fail. The free-loading on ‘genocide’ is repulsive, but the task of chastisement must fall to others. Here we’re exclusively concerned with the fate of the words ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’, because the semantic assault on the vocabulary of high prestige and value, of artistic distinction and moral excellence, of the very attributes we necessarily assume when we use the word ‘civilization’, appears everywhere and invariably as the work of Ressentiment Man.

One hundred years ago

In the humanities, one hundred years ago, the meaning of ‘culture’ was very like ‘civilization’. It denoted both a universal process of human improvement and the condition to which that process leads: an increase in amenity, an amelioration of the harsher aspects of life, a diminution of ignorance and fear, a flowering of the arts and sciences, and finally, crowning all, a ‘civility’ which only peoples blessed with the mature religious, legal, political, and economic arrangements of ‘civil society’ are fortunate enough to know.

This evaluative meaning was entirely compatible with Matthew Arnold’s humanistic ideal—culture as acquaintance with the best that humanity had thought or said or done. It was not pluralistic. It did not involve ‘cultures’ (plural) scattered all over the globe. It did not pretend that all cultures were broadly equal. Instead it visualized a single universal scale of achievement in which some things were decidedly better than others.

Anything as high and prestigious was bound to excite envy. To resentful minds its very nobility was a fault. But how could it be attacked? Direct frontal assault was still out of the question in 1920 at a time when literature and music, art and architecture, remained in high esteem, and their supporting institutions were in tolerably good health. What nobody in those days ever suspected was that a Trojan Horse might be wheeled into the citadel of high culture from social science, might stealthily release a swarm of agents “paltering in a double tongue”, and might sow confusion everywhere. Yet within fifty years this came to pass, and as a measure of value the word ‘culture’ was utterly destroyed.

This discombobulation throughout the English-speaking world largely came about because of a deep ambiguity underlying the concept of culture itself—a flaw or crack which could be exploited. It was noticed that the word had not just one meaning but two, and each of these meanings was very far apart. Matthew Arnold’s usage had been universal, hierarchic, and singular, fearlessly arranging things on a vertical scale of value from the worst up to the best. The other meaning lurking in the shadows was the meaning of ‘culture’ in social science. This was local and pluralistic, and it had nothing whatever to do with better or worse. It simply denoted a social system—any kind of social system at all, at any level, anywhere.

The egalitarian attack

To egalitarians convinced that a natural Equality of Cultures followed logically from the Equality of Man this seemed to provide intellectual warrant for their views. With a ceteris paribus clause judiciously inserted, it looked as if this indeed was how social science saw the matter. For the scientific purposes of neutral description and analysis it is often useful to speak of “other things being equal”, in which case all cultures (like all human beings whether big or small, or black or white, when considered generically by medical science) are treated analytically as “the same”.

Taking a mere procedural convenience for an empirical fact, egalitarians drew the political conclusion that all cultures were of equal value regardless of their apparent differences, and deserved to be morally treated as such. This bizarre skewing of an entirely appropriate and necessary feature of the scientific outlook, by uncomprehending ideologues in the humanities, could and did have devastating effects.

Two very influential figures now entered upon the scene. The first was a man of singular nobility of mind, T. S. Eliot. The second was a man of singular ignobility–the resentful and highly destructive British literary critic, Marxist, admirer of Stalin and devotee of Pol Pot, Raymond Williams. Both of them were social critics in the widest sense. Both of them took as their subject the condition of the British polity as a whole. And both were drawn to the anthropological conception of culture, though aside from that they could not have been more unlike.

As Robert Crawford shows in The Savage and the City in the Work of T. S. Eliot, the poet had been interested in anthropology for a very long time, and even in his student days before the First World War had read more widely in this field than any but the most curious nonspecialists. He knew the work of Sir James Frazer, Lucien Levy-Bruhl, R. R. Marett, Max Muller, and E. B. Tylor’s pioneering anthropological exposition Primitive Culture.

Crawford points to many instances where Eliot’s explorations of The Golden Bough find later echoes in his verse, and his book is a fascinating exploration of that link between primitivism and urbanity which, he claims, illuminates Eliot’s thinking overall. But it is not the effect of this reading on his poetry which concerns us here: it is the deep influence on the concept of culture which found later expression in Eliot’s mature and developed social thought.

Eliot’s flirtation with anthropology

It was in primitive societies that he discovered an organic coherence and solidarity that provided a welcome contrast to the dissociating tendencies of modern life. It was also a world in which religion, economy, power, rank, status, and esteem, appeared indissolubly combined, and in 1948 there seemed to be a lesson here for the reform of Britain. The whole country appeared to be in a condition of imminent collapse. Because the whole of society was in danger, the “whole way of life” was therefore in need of repair, and he made it clear in his Notes Towards a Definition of Culture that the “organicism” he had in mind would ultimately require a much closer relation between religion and life in general than hitherto.:

The way of looking at culture and religion which I have been trying to adumbrate is so difficult that I am not sure I grasp it myself except in flashes, or that I comprehend all its implications. It is also one which involves the risk of error at every moment, by some unperceived alteration of the meaning which either term has when the two are coupled in this way, into some meaning which either may have when taken alone. . .  ‘religion’ and ‘culture’, besides meaning different things from each other, should mean for the individual and for the group something towards which they strive, not merely something which they possess. Yet there is an aspect in which we can see a religion as the whole way of life of a people, from birth to the grave, from morning to night and even in sleep, and that way of life is also its culture. (p31)

Eliot felt that the Arnoldian view of culture was too thin, too anaemic, too lacking in social texture and political depth. If the reforms he had in mind were to be realised then a lot more ordinary matter from the ordinary world would need to be added. A “whole way of life” was an inclusive conception which required that Arnold’s view now be amplified and extended, and he proceeded to do so in the Notes. But as he moved away from a definition of culture as a vertical scale of values, from high to low and from better to worse, he also found himself moving in the direction of a horizontal inventory or list: and whatever else it may be, a list or inventory is not a scale of values. Considering the world as a unity in which religion and culture were ideally indistinguishable (a view he remained ambivalent about) he wrote that

the reader must remind himself as the author has constantly to do, of how much is here embraced by the term culture. It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dart board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.

Enter the destroyer

Eliot must have thought he was among friends. Only someone with this relaxed conviction would have then gone on to add in his next sentence that  “The reader can make up his own list”, inviting others to join him in a shared endeavour. But in England in 1948 he was not among friends—indeed, one of his most inveterate enemies was keenly monitoring every word. What his biographer calls a “settled resentment” possessed Raymond Williams whenever he thought of England’s bourgeoisie, its cultural elite, and the vocabulary in which their privileges were enshrined. There were words of power, words which had to be captured, controlled, and exploited for revolutionary purposes—“keywords” he called them in a little book by that name—and the keyword of all keywords was ‘culture’ itself.

Perhaps if you could take control of this word away from its effete custodians, and change it by an Orwellian expansion of its meaning, a previously unimaginable victory might be won. As he explained in Keywords, the Arnoldian meaning of the word ‘culture’ embarrassed people, offended their amour propre, and was inseparably associated with privilege. What needed to replace it was the anthropological conception—that was the key.

Soon general confusion prevailed. You could see it happening in arts departments everywhere. Students and teachers in the humanities knew something was happening—something bewildering—but most of them didn’t know what. There were even occasions when the older understanding of ‘culture’ as the best that art and music and literature had to offer, acquired by students in their first year at university, had entirely changed by the time of graduation. Although people on campus were still using the same word, and still seemed to be talking about the same thing, the semantic ground beneath them had radically shifted and ‘culture’ no longer meant what it had. The old meaning had a lot to do with standards of evaluation in the arts. The new meaning had absolutely nothing to do with artistic ideals, or literary standards, or the moral world of better or worse: for some strange reason it apparently referred to primitive societies—though why this should be was altogether unclear.

‘Primitive society’ as a sociological category was well known and clear enough: it meant social systems which were earlier, simpler, more rudimentary. ‘Society’ is what British anthropologists saw themselves as studying, and there were lots of primitive societies scattered about the world. But in Arnoldian terms ‘primitive culture’ was an oxymoron. How could it possibly make sense? Of course it couldn’t and didn’t. It was like speaking of ‘primitive refinement’ or ‘primitive sophistication’, a downright contradiction in terms.

Eventually it became obvious that the anthropological meaning of ‘culture’ in no way implied ranking human achievement on a scale of high or low, better or worse, beautiful or hideous, true or false, and certainly not right or wrong. What the anthropologists meant was simply a ‘way of life’—any way of life you might name—and if you try to describe a way of life you end up, not with a scale, not with a hierarchy of value, but with an indiscriminate collection of customs, manners, and things. In this aesthetic flatland Michelangelo shakes hands with Maya Angelou; while Donatellos are scarcely better than doner kebabs.

A triumphant anthropology legitimated them all. Soon it appeared that whereas the singular Arnoldian vision had consistently stood for the best, the plurality of anthropological ‘cultures’ could just as easily represent the worst—the least amenity, the deepest ignorance, the grossest delusions, the most vicious habits, and the absence of any art or science worth the name. However one chooses to define the semantic process involved (inversion, extension, expansion, or whatever) usages which would at first have seemed oxymoronic now won acceptance everywhere: street culture, jail culture, porno culture—while a generously accommodating modern sensibility found a place for drug culture too.

Huntington’s semantic nemesis

Does Huntington’s usage suggest a fate like this for ‘civilization’? Notice that in the historical case of ‘culture’ three strategic moves were made. First, something singular was pluralised. Second, a hierarchic scale of values was flattened out and expanded to avoid any suggestion of better or worse. Third, examples of the new non-evaluative something which resulted (let us call it X) were discovered everywhere you looked; and regardless of scale, or history, or achievement, or degree of complexity, regardless of whether they were advanced or backward, vital or moribund, or even alive or dead, all Xs got lumped together as if they were equal—as though ‘the culture of Easter Island’ and ‘the culture of Europe’ were entities which might reasonably be compared. But regardless of Huntington’s verbal endeavors, is the word ‘civilization’ now so degraded that as a cipher for humanity’s highest achievements it has lost all credit and become unusable?

The evidence is mixed. On the one hand it is clear that ‘civilization’, singular, meaning universal standards of civil and humane conduct, lingers on in public consciousness as an ideal which in extreme circumstances our leaders are obliged to invoke, and although today such usage is only employed in great extremity, the president’s claim that all of us are facing a “threat to civilization” is not entirely unusual.

This sense of a high and singular universal human achievement in whose welfare we all have an interest contrasts starkly with Huntington’s usage. In a number of places the latter tells us that “civilizations are cultures writ large”, reducing the first to the second, and making it sound as if size and scope and complexity matter little.

This is followed by a conscious muddling together of ‘cultures’ and ‘civilizations’, of the great and the small, of the significant and the insignificant, of the ancient and ossified alongside the modern and progressive and the new—a muddle in which even “Caribbean Civilization” makes a brief and tentative appearance. Over and over we find ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’ used either interchangeably or in mutually reinforcing combinations, and alert readers will find that the author generally employs the lesser term ‘culture’ when that is all the traffic will bear, and goes for the grander term ‘civilization’ when he thinks no-one will notice.

Then the relativizing point of it all is frankly spelled out. On page 41 he explains to his readers that the pluralising of ‘civilization’ is necessary in order to diminish the hegemonic claims of the West, to remove it as a source of high and universal standards—and to consign to oblivion whatever standards it upholds. We are told that it was a mistake of the French to suppose that to be civilized was good, while to be uncivilized was bad. And just as Raymond Williams argued in the case of ‘culture’, Huntington argues that this merely reflects the arrogance of the privileged, asserting that “civilizations in the plural” are his own concern.

“The concept of civilization provided a standard by which to judge societies, and during the nineteenth century, Europeans devoted much intellectual, diplomatic, and political energy to elaborating the criteria by which non-European societies might be judged sufficiently ‘civilized’ to be accepted as members of the European-dominated international system. At the same time, however, people increasingly spoke of civilizations in the plural. This meant ‘renunciation of civilization defined as an ideal, or rather as the ideal’ and a shift away from the assumption there was a single standard for what was civilized, ‘confined’, in Braudel’s phrase, ‘to a few privileged peoples or groups, humanity’s elite’. Instead there were many civilizations, each of which was civilized in its own way. Civilization in the singular, in short, ‘lost some of its cachet,’ and a civilization in the plural sense could in fact be quite uncivilized in the singular sense.” (Italics added.)

That each should be regarded as “civilized in its own way” is alarming enough, but then comes the crunch. We next learn that what he is really talking about are not so much ‘civilizations’ as ‘uncivilizations’. Huntington doesn’t say exactly how uncivilized they have to be before harsher language would be more fitting. I suppose that if things got really uncivilized—crashing passenger planes into skyscrapers for example, or incinerating hundreds at a tourist resort—then it might be more appropriate to use the classic antithesis of civilization and barbarism. At all events Huntington’s ‘uncivilized civilizations’ represents a crowning paradox.

But have we here something more than paradoxymoron, so to speak? It is not my purpose to delve too deeply into the empirical realities behind the verbal façade, but there is plenty of evidence that the huge and threatening civilizations of India, China, and Islam, looming so ominously in his argument, are not really quite the threat he imagines. Do the men who destroyed the World Trade Center represent a “challenger civilization”, as Huntington has it, or is it something very much less grand?

The world the hijackers came from was certainly not that of the Abbasids and Omar Khayyam. It is the world of Saudi Arabia today, a place—as Victor David Hanson pointed out not long ago—of primeval political arrangements involving the 7,000 royal cousins of the House of Saud, a place where freedom of religion is unknown and women are veiled and kept out of sight, a place of flogging and amputations which the UN Committee Against Torture has repeatedly asked the Saudis to curtail, but “so far they have answered that such punishments have been an integral part of Islamic law ‘for 1,400 years’ and so ‘cannot be changed’.” Fifty years of pragmatism, opportunism, and cynicism have left the US in a situation of much diplomatic perplexity, and what it can do about replacing Saudi oil with something else is now occupying some of Washington’s best minds.

The clash of uncivilization and modernity

But one thing is clear. When those planes hit the World Trade Center it wasn’t a “clash of civilizations”. There can no longer be anything honorable in “giving an appearance of solidity to pure wind” as Orwell said, and now is surely the time to call things by their proper names. A number of sick homicidal malcontents is not a civilization. Nor is a conspiracy of religious fanatics. Nor is a savage Arab chieftain like Saddam Hussein. Such men are the tragic byproducts of a backward, chauvinistic, highly aggressive tribal culture—a culture deeply and mortally at odds with the modern world.

The plain fact is that in contemporary India and China and Islam not only is there plenty that is “uncivilized in the singular sense” there is a great deal that is downright barbaric as well. Caste in India, the burden of universal, corrupt, one-party bureaucracy in China, the assorted atavisms of the Islamic states, all present huge obstacles to the growth of civil society as we know it.

Great the achievements of these ancient historic collectivities once were, and it is appropriate to remember this from time to time. But civilizations in any genuinely modern sense they are not. At the political and social level they represent work in progress—which of course is why millions of Indians and Chinese and Arabs each year flee their homelands for a better life in the West. Fugitives from uncivilization is what these people are:  and it is the clash of uncivilization with the modern world that we shall be dealing with in the Middle East in the years ahead.

Posted in Civilization, Arts and Letters, Tribalism.

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