The De-Civilization of America

Photo by Beverly & Pack | CC BY 2.0

There is more to being civilized than being a citizen of some political entity. This is so despite the fact that both the verb civilize and noun citizen are derived from the Latin civitas. To be civilized demands more than just having the language and mannerisms of the 5th century BCE Greeks, or the 2nd century BCE Han Chinese, or the 16th Century CE French. All of these groups believed that being civilized meant living and acting like them. Today the Americans have joined the chorus. They sing to the world that theirs is the home of the brave and land of the free, and claim that they are the real model for civilization. They throw in that rather ill-defined notion of freedom as a modern customizing point.

None of these claims are very convincing. After all, each claimant has waged bloody wars of aggression, discriminated against outsiders and their own minorities, and generally sought aggrandizement by stealing other people’s land. Only recently, since the end of World War II, has there grown up an understanding that: (1) language, mannerisms, and race are so varied that they cannot be used as prerequisites for civilized status without breeding mass intolerance toward minorities and “others,” and (2) aggressive war and the pursuit of conquest actually dehumanizes your nation and destroys one’s civilized standing. Postwar international law has been designed to make intolerance on a large scale illegal – a crime against humanity – and the same goes for the waging of wars of aggression. It is questionable how effective such laws have been. Nonetheless, they are undeniably a step in a civilizing direction.

If you dig under the surface of ethnic- or nation-based claims to civilized standing, you often find that they rest on such things as military prowess, technological advancement, and/or a dubious claim to be some god’s favorite. Collective cultural expressions of racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia and other such displays of intolerance, as well as the carrying on of a “muscular” foreign policy, seem not to complicate claims to civilized status for many average citizens. But, of course, they should. In fact, not being or doing any of these things should be a necessary prerequisite for any group’s appeal to civilized status.

Based on such a requirement, the claim of the United States to be a civilized society seems in serious trouble. For instance, no one is going to accuse Donald Trump of being a model of tolerance.  Indeed, it would seem that his election as president has inaugurated an time of intolerance embracing just those prejudices that erode a nation’s civilized standing.

Hillary’s Greatest Gaffe

It is true that during her run for the presidency Hillary Clinton made many mistakes. She was wedded to a traditional, and very corrupt, version of U.S. politics – a version that put her in the pocket of an array of special interests that, themselves, were not very civilized (for example, the Zionists). And, as Secretary of State under President Obama, she did her part to wage aggressive war. Yet, she was, at least in terms of her rhetoric, ready to take a stand for tolerance when it comes to social and cultural diversity within the United States. Ironically, that willingness to, in this regard, be publicly civil – and call out those who were not – led to her biggest political gaffe of the election.

The campaign faux pas came on 9 September 2016, during a speech to a group of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) supporters. Here is what she said:

We are living in a volatile political environment. You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he [Trump] has lifted them up. He has given voice to their websites that used to only have 11,000 people – now 11 million. He tweets and retweets their offensive hateful mean-spirited rhetoric. Now, some of those folks – they are irredeemable, but thankfully they are not America.”

The Trump campaign people jumped on this statement and declared that it was a sign of “her true contempt for everyday Americans.” In other words, from the Trump perspective, “those folks” were the real America. Trump’s  supporters proceeded to turn the term “deplorable” into something of a battle cry. I remember driving through the small Pennsylvania town of Red Lion soon after Clinton’s speech. There was a big sign declaring “Welcome to the Home of the Proud Deplorables.”

Trump the Decivilizer

Of course, Clinton was correct in her criticism of Trump and some of his supporters. In fact, they were more than just deplorable. They were downright uncivilized. And, she was right that Trump has incited and manipulated them and their prejudices during the campaign. And, he has continued to do so  as president. I think this became quite obvious at the 12 August 2017 “unite the right” protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. That event signaled the fact that Trump, a wealthy, self-righteous, impulsive, one-dimensional man who, in his simplistic ignorance, cannot tell the difference between his own opinion and fact, had let loose a substantial group of racist and reactionary citizens. These people see themselves not as the uncivilized of America, but rather as saviors of an anachronistic pseudo-civilization – one based on white supremacy and mass intolerance. Regardless of how they see themselves, the behavior of both these “average Americans” and their approving president, is actually tipping America toward being unquestionably a“deplorable” and uncivilized place.

It must be kept in mind that President Trump did originate all this prejudicial horror. It has always been there in the U.S. However, since the 1960s it has, for the most part, been kept out of the public realm. That is what the Civil Rights Movement and President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs accomplished – to make it socially unacceptable, and in some cases illegal, to practice these prejudices publicly. This was actually a great step forward in the process of civilizing the United States, and if it had been maintained for say, another five generations, the number of “deplorable” voters may have shrunk to the point that the election of a decivilizer such as Trump would have been much less likely.

However, as it was, those who harbored simmering prejudices, restless anachronistic traditions, and a fear of losing privileges in an ever more diverse society, almost immediately came together to support Donald Trump when he appeared on the political scene. And the rest of us were caught unawares.

The fact is that most people do not think about what it means to be civilized, often assuming that this status is synonymous with having an i-phone and a twitter account. Among those who do think about it, some may identify the term with those who are snobbish and think they are better than others. Or, perhaps they see civilization as a class thing to be identified with wealth. Those who think in these terms may develop resentment toward the concept of civilization. They may come to see it as a threat to their local culture and ways of life.

Finally, who knows how many macho males there are out there who might see too much civilization as a subversive factor – something that would make the nation effete. Too much enlightenment could undermine that “muscular” foreign policy (perhaps reviving, in the case of the United States, the dreaded Vietnam Syndrome) that has always been a mark of nationstate greatness.

Of course, this is not just an American problem. The deplorables are to be found in all populations – more in some and less in others – but never absent.  In the U.S. Donald Trump is their leader. No doubt he also serves as a symbol of leadership for deplorables worldwide. As such President Trump and his following subvert our future – luring us in the direction of barbarism. Remember Arnold Toynbee observation: “civilizations die from suicide and not by murder.”


Lawrence Davidson is a retired professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.