Thursday, August 11, 2016

Warning Bells of Civilized Society Unraveling are Ringing Loudly

Eva Illouz/SRF 
In June 1995 Umberto Eco (1932-2016) published an essay in the New York Review of books about the timeless aspects of fascism. The magazine saw fit to bring his article back to readers' attention yesterday, because Trump.  The day before, Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, published a subtle and fine essay in Haaretz  which focuses on the unraveling of civil society in an Israeli context. Israel is considerably farther down this road than we are in the United States, but taking note of and being able to identify the symptoms of civilization's unraveling is, indeed, of great importance for all defenders of civil society. As we look around, many have the feeling that alarm bells are ringing. These essays explain why this perception is correct.
Umberto Eco/AP

Enlightenment Values Civilization

Civilization, noted Norbert Elias, is a historical process by which states progressively monopolized violence, forbade members of the community to use violence against each other, and by which states appropriated and symbolized law that was universally applied. The state in a civilized society acts as a pacifying force in relations amongst its members. Through participation in civilized society, different groups learn to restrain their aggressiveness and to pay attention to others through codes of civility, and through respect for the rule of law.

In a healthy civilization, collective solidarity and strength are built inclusively, not exclusively. By mixing different humanity, civilized multi-cultural societies yield hybrid forms of intelligence that allow a society to adapt and move forward, says Illouz.

This idea of a civilized society, of course, arose from the Enlightenment. Above all, the Enlightenment championed reason as the primary source of authority and legitimacy. Through reason, we can improve the world, or at least our society, for the benefit of everyone. Through reason we can continue to make progress and improve governance, the economy, the lot of mankind, including that of the least among us.

The Enlightenment idea of civilized society gave us the American declaration of independence, the American constitution, and the American ideals that have allowed us to make progress on the road of civilization, with hiccups, faults, and backsliding along the way, but progress all the same. Progress for 240 years and counting. It brought us the French constitution and equality, liberty, and fraternity. It kept the British Raj more decent than it might have been and set the stage for Indian democracy. It inspired the United Nations and formed the basis for the reconstruction of Europe and Japan after World War II.

The Breakdown of Civilized Society

Civilized society suffered tragic breakdowns in the 20th century. The result was war, genocides, and other mass killings. In Europe this breakdown came in the guise of fascism. But the label is incidental.

Civilization breaks down, says Illouz in her essay, when one group inside the collective body starts over-emphasizing its own cohesiveness and unity, and moves to exclude other groups, isolating them spatially and symbolically. Civilization unravels when a cohesive group becomes ready to expropriate the property, dignity, and freedom of others, not because they are ordered to do so, but because they have a sense of being unique and great, and because they have a sense of moral entitlement and moral mission. From a strong group cohesion among a majority group there follows the ability to dis-identify other (minority) groups; to draw rigid boundaries between us and them. Separateness is fostered through the daily and routine exclusion of others in deeds, laws, and ideology.

The Nazi party in Germany in the 1930's adopted a racial view of themselves, which they proceeded to institutionalize through the mechanism of the state. They distinguished between genuine Germans, and those racially impure. The Nazi notion of race divided humanity into un-mixable human groups, making mixing itself a crime and the sign of a degenerate humanity.

This process of separation, which starts the disintegration of civilization, is evil at heart, says Illouz. A distinctive characteristic of evil regimes is their belief in the need to preserve the racial or ethnic or religious purity of a dominant group.  It's what leads to a sense of moral entitlement and moral mission to dominate others. This process of separation is necessary on the way to a state committing collective horrors.

A Problem of Recognition

Civilizations do not unravel overnight. Society is not polarized overnight, reports Illouz. How do we recognize the early signs? How do we guard against the unraveling of civilization?

The capacity to divide sharply between us and them, and to view "them" as a foreign element in our midst, is a historical process that always requires new modes of thought, suggests Illouz. In Nazi Germany the defeat of World War I, harsh economic reparations, economic depression, the demonization of Jews, the mentally ill, degenerate liberals, and other enemies within all played a role in progressively weakening the liberal democratic forces. Slowly, by degrees, the Nazis managed to enact racist laws unhindered. Over time, the Nazi world view became acceptable and a wide variety of Germans adjusted to the gradual changes in norms in light of daily violence--physical and verbal--which was justified, tolerated, and gradually unnoticed. 

Societies in which violence against another specific group is routinized and tolerated are societies in which the mechanisms of civilization have broken down, says Illouz. 

Eco in his article lists several markers of fascism, including: a cult of tradition, a rejection of modernity and the embracing of irrationalism, a glorification of action for action's sake (including violence), a fear of difference, and an embracing of the need for heroic struggle in order to overcome differences. 

A hyper-nationalist policy that is inherent in the unraveling of civilization creates a war of all against all, says Illouz. In such an environment no group is spared hatred. Strongly defined groups, said Reinhold Niebuhr (per Illouz), are inherently selfish and uncaring. Groups have a tendency to close up and to fetishize themselves, and when they crowd too densely around common beliefs about themselves, they undo the delicate normative fabric that holds diverse human beings together. Such rending of the social fabric leads strongly defined groups to legitimize their own violence with a sense of moral entitlement and moral mission.

A Time to Worry

The Illouz article is written in a way that invites any reader reflecting on these warning signals in the context of Israeli society to say: check, check, check .... Indeed, Gideon Levy has drawn all the inferences and reached his conclusions in a follow up article in Haaretz, Stop Living in Denial: Israel is an Evil State. It's not so important what we call it, but it's clear that Enlightenment Civilization is in mortal danger of unraveling in Israel, if it has not done so yet. 

What about the United States? As we look about we see that it's not just Donald Trump. The GOP has been making a concerted effort to overemphasize the cohesiveness, identity, and moral prerogative of White European America for 35 years.  From Willie Horton to "Mexican immigrants are rapists and murderers,"  from "welfare queens" to "Make America Great Again," from voter suppression laws to slogans like "keep out all Muslims," from Joe the Plumber to Sarah Palin, from fighting affirmative action, to enacting criminal drug laws that have resulted in 1/3 of the country's black youth being imprisoned in their lifetime, the GOP has been working on the identity and cohesiveness of white America as a distinct group, and working to segregate and stigmatize minority Americans. 

In Congress, the almost all white GOP has worked hard to delegitimize the Democrats. After the 2008 election, the announced top priority of Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell was not to work with Democrats for the good of the country, but to do everything in his power to deny any success to President Obama so as to make Obama a one term president. The whole "birther movement"  served to delegitimize and make Obama--and by extension black America--"other." Through its emphasis on culture wars, through its appropriation of the flag, the GOP has sought to stigmatize liberal America as "other." Some of the third parties have contributed to this separation with their rhetoric.

From its policies on tax reduction, to shrinking government to the point it can be "drowned in a bathtub," to climate change denial, to touting the gold standard, and debt phobia--all the while running up debts by cutting taxes, and initiating unpaid for wars--the GOP has embraced irrationality. The GOP has embraced the need for heroic action, never mind what action, "to make America great again." 

On the campaign trail Trump engages in daily verbal violence, and he whips up verbal and physical violence among his followers. Through innuendo he is urging his followers to take the law into their own hands. He rejects the role of government in calming the aggressiveness of groups and to foster civility and respect for the rule of law. To the contrary he whips up incivility and encourages aggression. By spreading conspiracy theories about "rigged elections" in case he were to lose, by urging his followers to take their 2nd amendment rights into their own hands, by dividing society into "us" and "them," Trump is undermining the very foundations of civilized society. 

The greatest catastrophe's occur, said James Waller, when the distinctions between war and crime fades away, when there is dissolution of the boundaries between military and criminal conduct. Here, too, there are danger signs. The entire war on terror serves to blur the boundaries between war and crime. We react to terrorist acts with acts of war, and war is extended to the domestic realm through the expansion of the social security state and the erosion of civil rights. 

We may well prefer abstention, or choose to vote for some third party, but warning bells are ringing loudly, and this is no time to sit idly by--or to waste a vote. 

Follow me on Twitter @RolandNikles


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  2. I couldn't agree with you more. Public incivility is another face of an unraveling civilized society. Just go to your local supermarket and see how many customers say "please" or "thank you" to the person, helping them, not to mention the term " I would like...please" instead of "gimme." Then then there are the popular pornographic performances so readily available to anyone with access to a TV or laptop, not to mention the ubiquitous vulgarity of speech, lewdness of dress, and graphic depictions of sadism, sexism, murder, and sex acts (even rape) that are programmed to attract viewers, regardless of the collateral damage. Oh, and the dangerous euphemisms that are now pervasive in American speech: "take out," meaning murder; "regime change" meaning the violent overthrow of governments and unprovoked invasion of sovereign states; "American interests" meaning access to the wealth and resources of other nations. I have even heard "going nuclear" used by prominent news anchors to signify the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. And I do wish American opinion leaders would stop referring to Russia, China, Iran, Syria, etc. as "our enemies." Are we already engaged in WWIII, or is that government propaganda, or just plain wishful thinking on the part of war hawks?