The Myth of Western Civilization

 Nicolae Ceaușescu, African Big Man

I finished Tony Judt's Postwar--a book which ends as it begins, with Europe in process--just in time to catch the most recent reported musings of Phil Robertson. Here he is offering Christian marriage counseling to a young man:

I said "Well son, I'm going give you some river rat counseling, here. Make that sure she can cook a meal. You need to eat some meals that she cooks. Check that out. Make sure she carries her Bible. That'll save you some trouble down the road. And if she picks your ducks, now that's a woman."

They got to where they getting hard to find, mainly because these boys are waiting until they get to be about 20 years old before they marry 'em. Look, you wait ‘til they get to be twenty years-old and the only picking that’s going to take place is your pocket. You got to marry these girls when they’re about fifteen or sixteen and they’ll pick your ducks. You need to check with Mom and Dad about that of course.

In many parts of America, this is an argument for statutory rape. More specifically, it is an argument for men seeking to elide the power of grown women, by seeking their sexual partners among teenage girls. This style of svengalism is generally seen as repugnant to our morality. Phil Robertson believes that society should withhold civil rights from consenting gay men, while allowing men like him to push the age of consent to its breaking point. The contradiction here is as predictable as it is ridiculous. The loudest of doomsayers, so often, carry the weightiest of sin. 

Postwar ends with a Europe of Hitler's nightmares--darker, older, less Christian. The continent is teetering, its welfare state endangered, its peace, uneasy before the genocide in the Balkans. One get the sense that Judt believes that Europe has accomplished something--relative prosperity, democracy in most of its countries, lengthening life spans, acknowledgment of the Holocaust. But Judt believes in a world of actions, not monuments, and not shibboleths. Democracy is a struggle, not a trophy and not a bragging right. This is not a matter of being polite and sensitive. It is understanding that we live on the edge of the volcano, that the volcano is in us. Judt is keenly aware that late 20th century Europe's accomplishments could be wrecked by the simple actions of men.

When I lived in Paris, this summer, I loved walking across Pont Neuf. There was something to the idea that I was standing on a bridge older (by centuries) than my entire homeland. When the murderous demagogue Slobodan Milošević rallied the Serbs, at Blackbird's Field, he was appealing to a memory older than Columbus. But Pont Neuf could fall next week. And everyone knows what followed Milošević's words.

Vulgar nationalists often point to Europe as evidence of something that all humans, from Phil Robertson on down, strive for--certain civilized ground. And yet the greatest proponents of such certainty, of Utopia, of exceptionalism, of soloutionism, of Stalinism, of Bibles, of Qurans, of great civilization, and complete theories, are so often themselves engineers on the road to barbarism. What Judt wants us to see is the tenuousness of human creations, and thus the tenuousness of the West, itself. Having concluded that Europe (though not its Eastern half) has finally, in fits and starts, come to grapple with the Holocaust, he grows skeptical:

Evil, above all evil on the scale practiced by Nazi Germany, can never be satisfactorily remembered. The very enormity of the crime renders all memorialisation incomplete. Its inherent implausibility—the sheer difficulty of conceiving of it in calm retrospect—opens the door to diminution and even denial. Impossible to remember as it truly was, it is inherently vulnerable to being remembered as it wasn’t. Against this challenge memory itself is helpless

But memory is constantly invoked. When Nicolae Ceauşescu's henchmen begin to turn on him, they condemn him in predictable terms: 

Romania is and remains a European country. . . . You have begun to change the geography of the rural areas, but you cannot move Romania into Africa.

But Romania, is, indeed, in Africa--the Africa of European imagination, the Africa which justified slavery, which brims with rape, murder and cannibalism. All of Europe lives in that imagined, projected Africa. In a little over a decade, in the middle of the civilized continent, 14 million people were killed.  

From Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands:

No matter which technology was used, the killing was personal. People who starved were observed, often from watchtowers, by those who denied them food. People who were shot were seen through the sights of rifles at very close range, or held by two men while a third placed a pistol at the base of the skull. People who were asphyxiated were rounded up, put on trains, and then rushed into the gas chambers. They lost their possessions and then their clothes and then, if they were women, their hair. Each one of them died a different death, since each one of them had lived a different life.

Snyder quotes the poet Anna Ahkmotova addressing the legions of the dead--"I'd like to call you all by name."

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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