The March of Civilization

The world watches on anxiously as the Americans are about to embark on a highly dangerous experiment. They are about to hand over the keys of the White House to a “grotesque man-baby*”. With the keys come the world’s largest economy and by far the world’s largest military operation and the codes to a huge arsenal of nuclear weapons. It feels like the onward progress of humankind, the “march of civilization” has been thrown into a terrifying reverse.

(*thank you to Polly Toynbee for this memorable, and chillingly accurate, turn of phrase.)

Ascent and descent of man
Ascent and Descent


What do we mean by civilization? My dictionary defines it as follows: “an advanced stage or system of human social development”. This is fine as far as it goes, but begs the question about the word “advanced”. I think it is easier to spot which societies are civilized and which are not, rather than come up with a precise definition. But bound up in the idea is the sense of advancement, of moving forward, of progress.  My own world view is strongly bound up in this notion of advancement: the “march of civilization”, if you like. As we learn and discover more, as we spread our knowledge and improve our skills in education, we become more “civilized”.

At the 1908 London Olympics, the gold medallist in the men’s high jump cleared 1.90m. The current Olympic record is 2.39m (world record 2.45m). Better training, fitness and innovative techniques have literally “raised the bar”. So it is with civilization.

Early Civilizations

It’s generally accepted by historians that civilizations arose independently in several parts of the world: the Middle East, Asia, China and Meso- and South America. The earliest were in Mesopotamia (roughly modern Iraq and parts of neighbouring countries), the east coast of the Mediterranean and in Egypt, beginning around 3500BCE. And of course, classical Greece is seen as the foundation for Western democratic civilization.

If we were transported back in time, clearly we would be shocked by many aspects of what we would see. None of these early “civilizations” would feel “civilized” to a 21st century western eye. Slavery, random acts of violence, arbitrary rule with little or no concept of equality before the law would be just for starters. A total lack of status for women, early death from violence or disease and near-100% illiteracy would be commonplace, too. What we call “civilized” today has been a long time in the making. Like the high jump, successive generations have raised the bar when it comes to defining civilization.

To the Rear, March

No one is naïve enough to believe that progress has been smooth and steady. To give a random example, the good intentions of the French Revolution were followed by a bloodbath before some new order prevailed. Nevertheless, in the longer term, progress has been in a forward direction.

But two key events in 2016 have given the onward march a violent kick backwards. In June, the Brits stuck two fingers up at our closest neighbours – closest geographically and culturally. And in November, the Americans voted a grotesque caricature of a human being as their next president.

Uncivilized USA

We all presumably carry some kind of mental checklist around in our heads about what it takes for a country to be civilized. For many a year, I’ve said that the USA doesn’t meet my criteria, for two – or three – reasons. The two, either of which alone would, for me, disqualify it, are:

  • The US still commits judicial murder on its own citizens (i.e. capital punishment);
  • It has no comprehensive healthcare system (despite Obama’s attempts) to look after all its citizens when they fall ill, regardless of their ability to pay.

The third, which comes close to the previous two, is the lack of state control on gun ownership, a basic failure of a duty of care for its citizens.

But the United States is about to get a whole lot further from my definition of a civilized nation. Sunday’s Observer doesn’t mince words: “His [i.e. Trump’s] often-demonstrated ignorance, racial bigotry, misogyny, untruthfulness, hostility to free speech, crude bullying and dangerous, rabble-rousing nationalism utterly disqualify him. […]Even if all Trump’s numerous inadequacies and sordid personal baggage were set to one side, his egregious lack of coherent, fact-based, rational and cooperative policy platforms, especially internationally, is potentially disastrous.” Quite.

Assuming we all survive the next four years, there will be some backlash to all this, sooner or later. I have to believe the march of civilization will move forward again one day. Whether that’s in my lifetime, right now, I’m not so sure…



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