The Myth of Western Civilization

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 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."

I don't think there's anything original in the blood of Europe that allows for this kind of human misery. And  I don't think there's anything in the blood that allows for Pont Neuf, either. Nations seem to require myth. Romania's governing history is filled with big men, autocrats and despots. But the European super-nation has long needed to believe itself above the world, above native America, above Asia, and particularly above Africa. The truth is more disconcerting: The dark continent has never been South of the Sahara, but South of Minsk and East of Aachen in the jungles of the European soul. 

That the enemy is us, is never easy to take. Yesterday, Confederates routinely accused Northerners of attempting to reduce them to slavery. Today, men who convene with Confederate flags at the White House, accuse the president of racism. Yesterday, the civilized man accuses you of barbarism, while practicing sophisticated human sacrifice to the God Of Nations, while reducing his lordly estate to a house of the dead. The homophobe accuses you of sexual immorality and damns you to hell, while preaching a gospel which would make wives of children. 

I don't have any gospel of my own. Postwar, and the early pages of Bloodlands, have revealed a truth to me: I am an atheist. (I have recently realized this.) I don't believe the arc of the universe bends towards justice. I don't even believe in an arc. I believe in chaos. I believe powerful people who think they can make Utopia out of chaos should be watched closely. I don't know that it all ends badly. But I think it probably does. 

I'm also not a cynic. I think that those of us who reject divinity, who understand that there is no order, there is no arc, that we are night travelers on a great tundra, that stars can't guide us, will understand that the only work that will matter, will be the work done by us. Or perhaps not. Maybe the very myths I decry are necessary for that work. I don't know. But history is a brawny refutation for that religion brings morality. And I now feel myself more historian than journalist.  

"History contributes to the disenchantment of the world," writes Judt.

...most of what it has to offer is discomforting, even disruptive—which is why it is not always politically prudent to wield the past as a moral cudgel with which to beat and berate a people for its past sins.  But history does need to be learned—and periodically re-learned. In a popular Soviet-era joke, a listener calls up ‘Armenian Radio’ with a question: ‘Is it possible’, he asks, ‘to foretell the future?’ Answer: ‘Yes, no problem. We know exactly what the future will be. Our problem is with the past: that keeps changing’.  So it does—and not only in totalitarian societies. 

 
All the same, the rigorous investigation and interrogation of Europe’s competing pasts—and the place occupied by those pasts in Europeans’ collective sense of themselves—has been one of the unsung achievements and sources of European unity in recent decades. It is, however, an achievement that will surely lapse unless ceaselessly renewed. Europe’s barbarous recent history, the dark ‘other’ against which post-war Europe was laboriously constructed, is already beyond recall for young Europeans. 

Within a generation the memorials and museums will be gathering dust—visited, like the battlefields of the Western Front today, only by aficionados and relatives. If in years to come we are to remember why it seemed so important to build a certain sort of Europe out of the crematoria of Auschwitz, only history can help us. The new Europe, bound together by the signs and symbols of its terrible past, is a remarkable accomplishment; but it remains forever mortgaged to that past.  If Europeans are to maintain this vital link—if Europe’s past is to continue to furnish Europe’s present with admonitory meaning and moral purpose—then it will have to be taught afresh with each passing generation. ‘European Union’ may be a response to history, but it can never be a substitute.

Happy New Year all.

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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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