Is America Civilized?

The barbarization of America

Consider this: how many times in this election cycle have you heard the phrase, “Every other civilized nation has…” something that we really ought to have?

If you’re reading this, then you, personally, are most likely a civilized person, granting that “civilized” is a slippery term. However, if civilization refers to a nation or culture that values its own well-being, its relations with neighbors, and belief in higher ideals, then America’s claim to civilization is highly debatable.

Ours is one of the most violent societies in the world, both in philosophy and practice. While I break from most of the left in my belief in the right to bear arms, I also recognize that the continuing need for same is a sad commentary on the state of our nation.

Domestically, about half the country enjoys violence as a spectator sport — literally, in many cases — while condemning its virtual variants as “a threat to our children.” I’m sorry, how is The Matrix a greater threat to our cultural integrity than “role models” such as Mike Tyson and WWE? Guns may be valuable tools against oppression, but much of their poor reputation comes from their current status as a symbol of manliness in red state culture. Meanwhile, that culture glorifies strength and domination while denigrating intelligence, artistry, and diplomacy.

Meanwhile, our nation is victim to brutal, self-inflicted tragedies ranging from Waco to the Oklahoma City bombing to the Columbine shootings. Domestic movements ranging from the martial to the theocratic seek to dominate the country through manipulation and violence, in some cases openly advocating the murder of those engaged in acts they disapprove of.

Internationally, the situation is even worse. Our surplus-killing military budget is vastly greater than the rest of the world’s military spending combined. The Great Iraqi Adventure has proven to be an exercise in strength gone bad, while the genuinely necessary action in Afghanistan has suffered as it becomes less exciting (not enough “good targets”). While a strong military is important for any nation, the fixation on raw power borders on the barbaric.

Recent events throw that border into sharp relief. The Abu Ghraib scandal is constantly called the work of a “few bad apples.” While the majority of our armed forces are clearly decent, honorable people, there is no denying that there was at least a wink and a nod from higher levels of the chain of command (I leave the question of how much they knew until further evidence arrives), or that the more brutal side of our society is exposed in the pictures coming from this infamous prison. Meanwhile, the evidence is mounting that such “techniques” were imported from places where this sort of behavior was — and is, to some — considered “acceptable.” Is this civilized?

Meanwhile, our proudest barbarians cheer savagery on, calling for more and worse. A Senator with the same apparent outlook — an American elected official — has the fantastic gall to proclaim himself “outraged” at “humanitarian do-gooders” because they reveal the truth, to be “outraged at the outrage” over horrific crimes. Between Senator Inhofe, a Vice President who enjoys being an evil genius in the corner, and a Secretary of Defense who quotes Al Capone admiringly, one has to wonder: when did our leaders start sounding like the Legion of Doom?

Civilization is also measured in how we care for one another. While a lower standard may have been acceptable in times of lesser technology and enlightenment, our nation’s wealth makes our treatment of the needy and less fortunate a travesty when compared to less wealthy nations that are, nevertheless, more than capable of caring for all their people.

Health care, of course, is the most glaring example today, with huge numbers of uninsured and comparable numbers of “underinsured” who can afford to see a doctor but will be crushed by severe illness all the same. Every other nation with comparable wealth has universal health care, as has been repeated endlessly. Yet when Dennis Kucinich declares our need for the same in a debate, a shocked Larry King blurts, “but that’s socialism!”

Is it really? Are Great Britain and Italy “socialist?” Great Britain, America’s great ally in our Iraq misadventure, has “socialized medicine,” meaning doctors are employees of the government. Italy, another ally in Iraq, with arguably the most right-wing leader in Europe, uses the “single-payer” method that most of Europe does. And yet a single word prevents health care relief for millions of Americans.

Meanwhile, our criteria for leadership become less and less rational. Certainly, John Kerry is more intelligent, more balanced, more diplomatic, and more capable than our current misleader, but his campaign isn’t “engaging” enough! He talks endlessly about, you know, issues. Whatever else you can say about Bush, at least he’s personable, decisive, and exciting, right? Well, I can’t argue that — turning the world into a bad parody of a Tom Clancy novel certainly is exciting, and he’s decisive to the point of dementia. No WMD? What’s the difference? Not that he won’t flip to lose a flop when Rove tells him the polls are slipping, but he’s folksy and convincing about it! Who needs civilization when we have Bush?

Who indeed?

In the past, I have been offended by accusations of American barbarism. I always considered the infamous Oscar Wilde quote — “America is the first country to have gone from barbarism to decadence without the usual intervening period of civilization” — to be grossly unfair. Instead, I find myself wondering if America has managed to wed barbarism and decadence while rejecting civilization entirely.

(/) Roland X
“Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim.” — George Santayana

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