Civilization and the ruthless
Lee Harris’s book Civilization and its Enemies: The Next Stage of History first came out in 2004. 2004 seems like a long time ago. And in a sense it is: ten years. But Harris’s book has only grown more topical every day.
That’s unfortunate, because it’s not a book that offers a lot of comfort. But his writing is insightful, so thoughtful and yet compressed that it’s one of those books where the reader would do well to pause every paragraph or so in order to contemplate and digest what has just been said.
Here’s an excerpt. In the passage that follows, Harris has previously defined his use of the word “ruthlessness” as meaning “dreadfulness, frightfulness, horror, horribleness, terror, terribleness, atrociousness, atrocity”:
…[T]he more the spirit of commerce triumphs, the closer mankind comes to dispensing with war, the nearer we approach the end of history, the greater are the rewards to those who decide to return to the path of war, and the easier it will be for them to conquer. There is nothing that can be done to change this fact; it is built into the structure of the world…
People who have been trained in the practice of civility, and who find it second nature, will be reluctant to challenge the conduct of another on the ground that he is lacking civility The ruthless party therefore knows that he will be able to push very far before a break point is openly acknowledged Because once the break point is acknowledged, all bets are off and you no longer can be sure of the next step.
Before the break point, the civil party thinks that the ruthless party can be accommodated to civilized standards by means of patience and forbearance, much in the same way that we might try to domesticate a feral animal. We are convinced we will bring him around. We attribute his ruthlessness to some defect in is psychology. Perhaps he has an inferiority complex and is acting out with us. (Who knows, he may have had a wicked stepfather somewhere in his childhood.) We may blame ruthlessness on someone’s religion or culture or economic status. We never dream of identifying it for what it is—a strategy that works.
Every society, every culture, every civilization has produced exponents of ruthlessness; none has a monopoly on it. None will ever find a way of eliminating those who are prepared to resort to ruthlessness, as long as it continues to work, and it will continue to work so long as men civilize themselves, and to work all the more effectively whenever a civilization has succeeded so well in its civilizing task that it believes itself within sight of the end of history, because at no time is ruthlessness more effective. It works in some cases because its victims are easy to cow, in some cases because they genuinely can’t fathom ruthlessness, and in some cases because their idealism refuses to countenance such an illiberal truth.
Harris’ point is not just about Islamic terrorism, although that was the impetus for his book and it fits it quite well.
He is saying that in a world of civilized, peace-loving, westernized nations who have put aside their own ruthlessness or at least come to disapprove of it and be reluctant to use it, the ruthless group which is willing to stop at nothing will wield an inordinate amount of power, and that the rest of the world will be very slow to meet it with enough ruthlessness to stop it.
The paradox is that, if we want to preserve a so-called civilized world, we must be prepared to be bloody-minded at times, and to remember the laws of the copybook headings:
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
It originally seemed that 9/11 might have been such a breaking point.
The rise of ISIS and its eagerness to use (and revel in) extreme brutality could be another.
But there is a possibility that the western world has now become so “civilized” and so resistant to thinking ill of other cultures that even ISIS is not enough to get us to defend ourselves and the civilization and civility we profess to prize.
[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]DONATE
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