Monday, February 05, 2007

New Barbarians?

Photo: John Calvin

Like most people trained in history, I look for historical examples to explain and inform the present. Without getting caught in a debate about the extent to which there are lessons of history, I do find past examples helpful.

So when I look at something like present religious fundamentalism or the desire to make religious law obligatory in particular communities I can think back, for example, to Calvin and Zwingli. If I want examples of the human tendency to force others to convert or conform, I have an absolute smorgasbord to pick from.

In all this, when I look at the history of European civilisation, I can see just that, the progressive development of a civilisation. I say European civilisation because I do not know enough of other streams to exactly follow the same process there, although I am sure that it exists.

The civilising process was never uniform nor exact. There were major retreats from time to time, but the progress was there.

Alfred North Whitehead's Adventure of Ideas traced this process through in a European context showing how different threads came together to create European civilisation. Whitehead published this book in 1933 and did not see the uniquely European barbarism that was to come with Hitler and the Nazis.

But even here, when we look at the outcomes, the Second World War introduced the concept of war crimes. Further, the German people were not punished, as Rome punished Carthage, through extermination down to ploughing the fields with salt. Instead, Germany was rebuilt, while Europe itself moved to put put previous civil wars behind it by creating the EU.

Now my point in all this is that the suicide bomber who deliberately targets innocent people is an on-going example of the pathology in the human soul between evil and good that the civilising process tries to address.

Being willing to die for a cause is a human trait. The desire to exterminate your enemy is another human trait. The suicide bomber combines both with the use of simple modern technology.

In saying all this, I am not being negative. I am, however, concerned at two levels.

At level one is the risk that in trying to protect the things that we love we will destroy just the things that we want to protect.

At level two, and this is where I think that I part company with Neil in one of his posts, I think that we have become so wishy washy and politically correct that we have become uncertain of and are no longer prepared to defend the core western values that we have developed.

I may be wrong here and stand to be corrected. I also exempt Neil himself from my charge. He does defend his own views strongly, but always with the courtesy and humour that should mark civilised debate.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, as Calvinism is the poisonous fanaticism I escaped from myself... Strangely this helps me empathise with Muslims...

I have added to my post, so thanks for the stimulus Jim. It's a work in progress of course, a thinking aloud. I am sure you know what I mean.

Writing this comment has also led to a rant against Blogspot.

Lexcen said...

It is a bit like walking a tightrope blindfolded, if we fall we lose our western values, but the PC blindfold is still in place.

Jim Belshaw said...

Neil, exactly. Like you I understand the Christian Puritan tradition and can use it to relate to fundamentalist thinking, Christian as well as Muslim.

I was very careful in writing my post not to refer to the Muslim faith. As you know, as soon as you mention the M word then people respond in stereotypes.

I happen to believe strongly in the European tradition. I also believe strongly that one of the great strengths of that tradition is the way in which we have been able to overcome our human barbarism.

My impression of Muslim Spain is that it had a tolerance that puts attitudes further north to shame. In similar vein, China was civilised long before our European ancestors.

All this said, I think that we can take great pride in and should not lose sight of just how far we - the Europeans - have come. A key point here is that we are prepared to apply moral judgements to our own actions.

My plaint against PC - I know that you do not like using the phase - is that PC was based on a moral cringe. As such, it acted to prevent objective discussion by blocking out topics or attitudes.

I have absolutely no doubt that this was true simply because of the abuse I (and others) was subjected to when we tried to present an alternative view.

In this sense I think that Lexcen is right.