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Contradictions in Terms

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I’m going to glide over Cheryl’s comment that somebody once told her that The Da Vinci Code was a great way to learn history, because if  I think about it too much I’m going to cry.

But Robert says that I want three very different things that are not necessarily even compatible with each other, so let me start there.

First, as to everyone having wisdom–yes, of course I want that, anybody sensible would, but I don’t expect that it can ever be achieved.  If there’s anything you learn from being deeply immersed in the Western Canon, it’s that human beings have very little wisdom to share among them and they often seem determined to get rid of that.  Seek the mean in all things, the Greeks said, and then they executed Socrates and took on Alexander the Great.

The other two things I definitely do want, but although  I don’t think attaining either of them will lead to the other, I don’t think they’re incompatible.

The first and most important thing, of course, has to be that civility, that respect for each other and for what we owe each other without which there can be nothing called civilization. 

I think we think of civilization, too often, as something we have.  We live in a civilized country, we tell ourselves, and then we sit back and wait for it to deliver safety, security, prosperity, and enough entertainment to keep us amused.

In reality, civilization is not something we have, but something we do.  It exists to the extent that each and every one of us chooses to go on doing it.   The young mangiving up his seat on the bus to a pregnant woman, the old lady in the store being courteous to the clerk who is waiting on her, are just as important, in the long run, as the rule of law.  In fact, without them, the rule of law cannot exist.

Obviously, we’re not going to convince our fellow citizens to do civilization by “a course of reading,” which is how I vaguely remember Robert putting it.  The habits of mind that produce civilization need to be taught out of school as well as in, and in practice as well as in books. 

On this score, I think it’s less important that a child learn to read  Shakespeare than that he learn that bullying will make him a pariah, cheating will ruin his education, and helpig the weak and unfortunate even at significant cost to himself is an imperative–and that he learns those things not by reading about them in books, but by having them played out in his own life by the people around him.

I’m not saying schools have no place in forming such habits of mind, only that they help to form them not in the contents of their curricula but in the policies and practices of their day to day operation.   A child caught cheating should fail the course he cheated in, absolutely, without question, no reprieve.   A bully should be penalized for bullying, and he should not be validated by seeing his victim sent off to some mandatory course of ‘therapy,” as if the victim is the one who has a “problem” that needs to be “fixed.”

On one level, it would be possible to teach these particular lessons without reference to the Canon at all.  Many good and decent people are both good and decent while knowing almost nothing of the Canon.  Many bad ones know a lot about  Chaucer and  Blake.

But the Canon isn’t negligible either, because there’s something else we have to do if we are to “do” civilization, and that is to know what it is and who we are.

I get a little prickly at the idea of “a course of reading,” maybe because I’ve never thought of the Canon in that way.  I haven’t read what I’ve read because it was assigned to me.  I was well into my doctoral program before a teacher ever gave me an author I hadn’t already read at least something of, and even then the new-to-me books tended to be relatively minor works of history and philosophy from Italy, Spain and Greece.

There’s a lot to be said for reading just to read, which I did, and many of the books I read even as a child were ‘classics.”  Nobody told me to.   They were just there.  And the stuff we were asked to read in school, and the “new” stuff I talked my father into buying for me, often seemed terribly thin in comparison.

The point of introducing people to the Canon, however, is to help them understand who and what they are.   Robert sent me notice of a column by Ralph Peters in  yesterday’s New York Post in which he says that he thinks of the Taliban and other fundamentalist Muslims sort of like aliens–he is sick of hearing about how they are “just like us” and want the same things we want, when they are neither.

I don’t much like the idea of thinking of my fellow human beings as anything but fellow human beings, and I don’t think that doing it goes to places we want to get to, but I do take his point.  We have a very hard time accepting the fact that there are people in the world whose ways of thinking are radically different from our own.  For all the blather about respecting other cultures that has made the rounds in the last couple of decades, the “respect” demanded of us has been largely superficial.  Faced with real differences, we tend to proclaim that anybody who notices them is a racist scumbag who doesn’t deserve to be listened to.

Western civilization is a particular thing with a particular set of ideas and principles that exist noplace else on the  planet, and that are often in contradiction to what does exist.  The idea that each individual human life should be treated as important, that individuals have rights and must be allowed to choose their own “values,” that everything must be examined and questioned, that men and women are morally and should be politically and economincally equal, that sex is a private matter between two consenting adults that should not be interfered with by any third party for any reason whatsoever–I could go on with this list, and it’s very long.

None of these ideas has been accepted in any other culture anywhere, except in so far that compromise with them seems to be necessary in order to participate in the global market.  Some cultures–and that of the Taliban is among them–reject these ideas so strongly that they’re willing to forgo the market, too. 

Robert said once that he did not think that we and Europe still shared a common culture, but we do–we shared that entire orientation with “rights” and “choice” that is Western and nothing else.  That there are differences between Anglo Western culture and the Western  culture of  Europe proper there is no doubt, but we are still all more like each other than we are like the Taliban, or China.

For the sake of m ost of us reading this blog, however, Anglo Western culture is the issue, and it has some particularities we want to hold onto, not least of which is a concentration on the political and moral equality of all citizens that is honored more in the breech than the observance almost anywhere else. 

Of course, to an extent, it can be honored only at least somewhat in the breech even in those countries where it arose and where it is still a vital principle.   Complete equality of condition is achievable only by abandoning m ost of the rest of what we find valuable in the culture in qustion.  You can have liberty or equality, but not both.  The  Anglophone sphere tends to err on the side of liberty, and I think it’s made the better choice.

But it has been a choice, and right now we have a situation where many of the citizens of Anglophone countries don’t know that that’s the case.  They don’t actually know what the founding principles of Anglophone civilization are, they don’t realize that these principles were reached through long and difficult struggle, and they’re completely unaware that most of the world finds them incomprehensible and repugnant.

“Of course there must be freedom of speech,” one of the imams in  London said in the middle of the anish cartoon controversy, “but freedom of speech can’t be absolute.  Nobody has the right to insult cherished religious beliefs.”

Part of the reason I want as many people as possible to be familiar with large areas of the canon is that I want those people to understand what their civilization is and how it differs from others, and because I want to recruit them to a defense of its maintenance.  Western civilization does not posit particularities–“this is true for us, but it may not be true for you.”

In fact, no civilization posits any such thing.   It couldn’t and survive.   The Taliban do not think that their brand of fundamentalist Islam is ‘true for them.”  They think it’s true for everybody and should be imposed on everybody who does not voluntarily agree to get with the program.

Western civilization posits universals–that women and men should be politically and socially equal, that speech should be free of government coercion on any topic at all, that religion is a matter of personal choice and should be left to the conscience of each individual–and therefore also posits that societies that do not accept and practice these universal principles are objectively wrong. 

Contrary to what some people claim to believe, knowing and accepting all this does not require us to invade other people’s countries and impose these principles on them.  It does require that, for the same of the people hurt by injustices like forced conversion, forced abortion, female genital mutilation and all the rest, we understand what we’re supposed to stand for and advocate for it, not just as ‘ours,’ but as univerally applicable, as loudly and as long as we can.

The greatest accomplishment in the history of human life ever achieved was the abolition of slavery across the planet, almost entirely at the will and behest of the British Empire.

In the last three decades or so, as we’ve more and more been declaring that all cultures are the same and equally valuable, slavery has been creeping back, defended by its practitioners as “their culture” that we have no right to judge or interfere with.

We need both the habits of mind thar insure civility and the knowledge of history and ideas that make it possible for us to understand who we are and to defend our principles not as something  “just for us,’ but for all human beings, everywhere.

A world where men and women are political equals, where freedom of expression and conscience are honored, where slavery does not exist–is better than all the other options.

Written by janeh

February 4th, 2009 at 8:42 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Contradictions in Terms'

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  1. If you pay attention, at times you’ll see that civility still exists, sometimes in unlikely places. In a local park, there were about 8 or 10 basketball courts. Year round, these courts were filled with young men, from the middle of the day to park closing. Sometimes there would be as many as 200 people, playing or waiting to play. These young men, many of them people of color, had clear but unspoken rules about how to get on a court, what constituted a foul, and what happened when a foul occurred. There were no park officials on site, nobody kept order except the young men themselves. They were always exceptionally civil to one another, and we never saw any signs of altercation, even when the play was quite spirited. We observed this over 10 years, as we used the park to walk in.

    Of course this situation couldn’t persist. Although the park was separated from surrounding neighborhoods by wide, busy streets and flood-control channels, the city came in and razed the courts, the most-utilized part of the park. They replaced it with a play area that gets perhaps one-hundredth of the traffic the courts did. Although we have no proof, we suspect the (mostly white) people of the city didn’t like having so many young men of color even driving through their city or using their park.

    I know who I think the civil people are in the situation above. It seems odd to me that institutional destruction of a situation that was, among other things, educating people in civil behavior is acceptable in this day & age. Why isn’t it a priority of government to encourage such situations? Why are we getting stupid “smoking kills” public service announcements when I’d far rather see “be kind to one another”?

    It’s not enough to be polite ourselves (in our family we emphasize the use of please & thank-you and being *more* polite to family members than we are to strangers). I hate to advocate any kind of government action, but in many ways our government is a force for civilization, there has to be some way to encourage or reward the civilization-building force of civility. After all, both words come from the same root.


    4 Feb 09 at 2:15 pm

  2. Drat! I find an educated and intelligent man whose life is changed for the better by the fiction he’s read, and you don’t like his taste in metaphors? No pleasing some people. As far as I’m concerned, a great deal that is human is alien to me, and I mean to keep it that way. To the main point(s):

    I did not mean to say your goals and interests were incompatible, but they they didn’t connect. The repeated themes have been (1) the unpreparedness of your students in ignorance, study habits and attitudes, (2) the unsatisfactory conduct of present-day adults–short attention spans, poor choices of entertainment and general lack of interest in serious reading, (3) the Canon–and a lot more firepower is expended in defense of the literary Canon than the non-fiction Canon.

    If you don’t like wisdom for what the adults lack, pick your own word or words–but you clearly feel the situation was better in the recent past–that it’s something we’ve lost, and not something we never had any more of. But whatever it is, I don’t think increased reading of the literary Canon will bring it back.

    You’ve bridled when I refer to the literary Canon has a hobby, but if it doesn’t change lives, that’s the proper English word. It’s not a religion–one hopes. It’s not a profession. The (non-fiction) Western Canon explains the basic arguments which define our civilization. This is a rational and comprehensible purpose. This IS the “Great Conversation.” But it has nothing to do with one’s taste in fiction. If reading THE GREAT GATSBY or MADAME BOVARY doesn’t make an observable change in behavior, it’s a pleasant intellectual pastime, like chess, or historical miniatures gaming.

    I don’t say it’s incompatible with greater wisdom adn civility. I say it’s sideways to them, and if you also don’t think they connect, I can’t think why you’re using so much firepower in defense of Trollope.

    As for civilizations, yes, of course the United States and Europe share a common ancestry. I share quite a bit of common ancestry with chimps, but we are no longer a single species. We have diverged. So too, the United States and Europe seem to me to be speciating, if indeed we have not already done so. It happens. Japan was once a distant outpost of Chinese culture, and we of the West share a great deal of ancestry with the dar al Islam.

    Which brings me to the last point–yes, of course, a confident healthy civilization believes its values are applicable everywhere, and that it is the best available model for mankind. But that is a belief prevalent right now in the Muslim world and held only by isolated pockets in the West. I do not expect Western culture to cease to exist. But I also do not expect it to shake off its black mood like recovering from a bad day at work. Western culture has changed vastly and many times since the days of Herodotus. It will again. Cultural and political power will to one of those confident, healthy groups, and the cycle will begin anew.

    But if I live to see it, I probably won’t like it. Alexandrian Macedonia, Republican Rome and Puritan Englishmen were invogorating and necessary too–but rather uncomfortable neighbors.


    4 Feb 09 at 6:58 pm

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