Passing Bull 151 – Civilisation of the West


You can stand by for a tsunami of bullshit about ‘western civilisation’ following the efforts of private patrons to stimulate the study of that subject at tertiary level.  A devotion to western civilisation has become popular if not de rigeur to those on one side of what are called culture wars.

Civilisation is a bit like an elephant – you may not be able to define it, but you know it when you see it.  Well, that used to be the case, but I doubt it now.  Elsewhere I said:

In my view a nation or people cannot call itself civilised unless each of the following five criteria is met. 

  • It has a moral code that respects the person and the dignity and the right to property of each person in the group.
  • It has a mature and stable form of democratic government that is willing and reasonably able enforce that respect and those rights, and to preserve its own democratic structure. (I have opted for democracy because it seems to be the fairest mode of government and to be the best able to deliver the other objectives.)
  • It observes the rule of law, including the proposition that all are equal before the law, and it seeks to protect the legal rights of its members.
  • Its working is not clogged or threatened by corruption.
  • It seeks to allow its members to be able to subsist and, after providing for their subsistence, to have sufficient leisure to pursue happiness or improvement in such ways as they may choose, provided that they do not harm others.

All that would have been Greek to Kenneth Clark.  There is no mention of religion, art, beauty, courtesy or refinement.  (Just imagine if you sought to apply any of those five criteria to the current White House.)  If Clark ever spoke about the rule of law or corruption I missed it.

Most of Asia, Africa and South America have trouble on each heading and face disqualification on each of the middle three.  But when you look at the rest – referred to as ‘the western world’ – you get little cause for comfort.  One Oxbridge version of civilisation was said to have been born in ancient Greece and Rome.  I regard that suggestion as silly – slavery and empire alone are two disqualifiers – but modern Greece and Italy do not offer good government and they pose as big a threat to the European Union as the U K.  Poland and Hungary look equally unattractive for other reasons.  Spain may recover and survive.  That leaves France and northern (Protestant) Europe.  The U K and the U S are sharply divided on issues that affect how their historical inheritance of good government and economic management may pass on to the next generation.  Their moral and intellectual collapse has appalled their friends.  It would be idle to suggest that Donald Trump understands much less respects ‘western civilisation’.  His supporter, Nigel Farage, is not much better.  The U S is forfeiting its status as leader of the western world.

The people who are called ‘populists’ are driven by those with a chip on their shoulder who want to throw over the establishment and inherited traditions.  They are not there to promote civilisation in any of its forms.  The glue that held together the old view of western civilisation – Christianity – is dissolving.  It and other major institutions have ceased to command respect.  Philosophy died years ago and has not left much treasure.  Inequalities of wealth and income are getting worse and do not look like getting better.  And that’s before we recall that the unimaginably rich tyros of technology are providing us with toys that dull minds and abolish manners.

It will therefore be interesting to see how the champions of western civilisation tout its values during the next rounds of the culture wars.  It’s probably just as well that most people frankly couldn’t give a damn.  Indeed, that may just be the foundation of their claim to be civilised.


Politicians, like the rest of us, need to get back to the basics. If they can prioritise the core tasks and responsibilities, and implement them efficiently while ignoring the white noise, they may be surprised by how much voter support they will garner.

Chris Kenny, The Australian, 5 May, 2018.

A banal homily from one who makes a living from white noise.


President Trump’s peace through strength policies are working and bringing peace to the Korean Peninsula,’ Messer wrote in his letter.  ‘We can think of no one more deserving of the Committee’s recognition in 2019 than President Trump for his tireless work to bring peace to our world.’

The Guardian, 15 May, 2018

For some reason, ‘peace through strength’ reminded me of Arbeit macht frei.

2 thoughts on “Passing Bull 151 – Civilisation of the West

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