Note: there are times when humor fails.
We are savages. It is inherent in the human species. The machinery of civilization with its laws, mores, restrictions, and responsibilities, is nothing more than a device for the distillation of savagery into a less toxic spirit. The sheer scale of the civilized undertaking and its frequent breakdowns in operation should tell us how little we have progressed toward a gentler way. Ten thousand years have passed since human beings began to form social units extending beyond the self. For the rest of our time, we lived and died in mindless opposition to the otherman. But the success of our species in bitter circumstances demanded a genius for self-mastery. With self-mastery comes the power of communion with strangers. When two disparate bands of men first came together, driven together by some desperate necessity, their hands gripped weapons of stone. Yet despite the urging of the savage inner mind, they did not kill. They stayed their hands and became men as men would wish to be known.
Nothing has really changed. Over the millennia our mechanisms for parlay have increased in complexity and refinement. Each of us learns, with two decades of apprenticeship, the mechanisms of civilized behavior. We learn the power of subsuming the immediate desire for some more distant goal. Courtship replaces rape. Religion organizes the chaos of the unknown. Language grows from primal howls of pain, rage, and triumph. These are mere refinements on the savage instinct. What is ambition? Competition? Success? These are all aspects of the human desire for supremacy bent into improved form to accommodate the savage inside us. With billions of human beings in this world, equipped with weapons of unimaginable destructive power, we can see that civilization has allowed us to prosper, but our penchant for savagery remains unabated.
All of our civilizing has done nothing to diminish the power of the savage inside. We arrogantly regard it, like the atom, as a source of power for advancing the cause of civilization. Language becomes a goad to drive human beings into savagery: a few words of destruction trump millennia of speaking peace. Religion has always been an instrument of justification for the basest cruelty. The death of the body for the life of the soul. Rape is a tool of civilized policy, deplored on an individual basis, tolerated as required to advance the larger project. What is a slave but a child with no father or mother, only a master? Savagery has insinuated itself into the workings of civilization, and now it is gathering power to destroy us. This is nothing new. Rome was built on savagery and fell when savagery rooted beneath her foundations, buckling the walls of empire. Every civilization has killed itself, unable to contain the base drive to crush and devour, first the world, then itself.
America has fallen prey to the savage inside it. How did it happen? The same way it always does. Savage retribution for a savage act. Abstractions like honor, patriotism, and divine mission were brought out to screen the beast from view. An opportunity to kill was presented. Vengeance against the brown savage from Mesopotamia! Freedom! Terror! Madness. All our justifications for war were nothing more than drapery on the dragon. But they were enough to validate the claim that somebody, somewhere, needed to be slaughtered, raped, destroyed, their goods despoiled, their homeland taken away. Because we are still savages – something the older empires understood of themselves, and thus drew our scorn as we rushed into this campaign – we Americans were eager to strike out at the enemy, whoever that was suggested to be. Armed with righteousness, we triumphed.
But the amateurs in command of our own civilization refused to acknowledge the savage, because they are his slaves. They turned their back on the decades of detailed effort required to wrestle the savage back into its cage. They believed the mad notion that entropy would work in their favor. Now we find an American schoolgirl tugging at the leash around a naked, groveling war prisoner’s neck. We find torture and cruelty for no other purpose than that it was not forbidden. We find more than a hundred thousand of our sons and daughters in a land without rules, without morals, without civilization – because we took it all away and turned our backs. The leader of that country was barbaric, but his land was known as “the Cradle of Civilization” for thousands of years. We dismantled the civilization ourselves, deemed it imperfect, replaced it with nothing, expected a new civilization to grow like a scab over the wound. Unless we find the will to resist history, the next civilization to fall to the savage inside us will be our own.
BEN TRIPP is a screenwriter and cartoonist. Ben also has a lot of outrageously priced crap for sale here. A collection of Tripp’s essays, Square in the Nuts, will be published this summer. If his writing starts to grate on your nerves, buy some and maybe he’ll flee to Mexico. If all else fails, he can be reached at: email@example.com