Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Civilized Barbarians

Timothy Garton Ash is hideously wrong about the conclusions to be drawn from Hurricane Katrina, but he knows how to spin a yarn -- and a funny one too:

"Katrina's big lesson is that the crust of civilisation on which we tread is always wafer thin. One tremor, and you've fallen through, scratching and gouging for your life like a wild dog.

You think the looting, rape and armed terror that emerged within hours in New Orleans would never happen in nice, civilised Europe? Think again. It happened here, all over our continent only 60 years ago. Read the memoirs of Holocaust and gulag survivors, Norman Lewis's account of Naples in 1944, or the recently republished anonymous diary of a German woman in Berlin in 1945. It happened again in Bosnia just 10 years ago. And that wasn't even the force majeure of a natural disaster. Europe's were man-made hurricanes.

The basic point is the same: remove the elementary staples of organised, civilised life - food, shelter, drinkable water, minimal personal security - and we go back within hours to a Hobbesian state of nature, a war of all against all. Some people, some of the time, behave with heroic solidarity; most people, most of the time, engage in a ruthless fight for individual and genetic survival. A few become temporary angels, most revert to being apes.

The word civilisation, in one of its earliest senses, referred to the process of human animals being civilised - by which we mean, I suppose, achieving a mutual recognition of human dignity, or at least accepting in principle the desirability of such a recognition. (As the slave-owning Thomas Jefferson did, even if he failed to practise what he preached.) Reading Jack London the other day, I came across an unusual word: decivilisation. The opposite process, that is, the one by which people cease to be civilised and become barbaric. Katrina tells us about the ever-present possibility of decivilisation.

There are intimations of this even in normal, everyday life. Road rage is a good example. Or think what it's like waiting for a late-night flight which is delayed or cancelled. At first, those carefully guarded cocoons of personal space we carry around with us in airport waiting-areas break down into flickerings of solidarity. The glance of mutual sympathy over the newspaper or laptop screen. A few words of shared frustration or irony. Often this grows into a stronger manifestation of group solidarity, perhaps directed against the hapless check-in staff of BA, Air France or American Airlines. (To find a common enemy is the only sure way to human solidarity.)

But then a rumour creeps out that there are a few seats left on another flight at Gate 37. Instant collapse of solidarity. Angels become apes. The sick, infirm, elderly, women and children are left behind in the stampede. Dark-suited men, with degrees from Harvard or Oxford and impeccable table-manners, turn into gorillas charging through the jungle. When, having elbowed aside the competition, they get their boarding-card, they retreat into a corner, avoiding other people's gaze. The gorilla who got the banana. (Believe me, I know whereof I speak; I have been that ape.) All this just to avoid a night at the Holiday Inn in Des Moines." (Timothy Garton Ash, Guardian Unlimited, Thursday September 8, 2005).


Post a Comment

<< Home