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Contentions

Civilization, Barbarism and the Burning Streets of London

Watching the streets of London and other British cities burn is painful for anyone who has visited that great nation. Abe has a fine post on how to explain what has unfolded in Great Britain during the last four  days. “There are parts of our society that are not just broken but frankly sick,” Prime Minister David Cameron said. “When we see children of 12 or 13 looting it’s clear there are things that are badly wrong in our society. There is a complete lack of responsibility in some parts of our society. People are allowed to feel the world owes them something and that their actions don’t have consequences.”

But what is happening in Great Britain has also happened, to one degree or another, in Greece, in France and in other European nations. One can sense a growing fear that what is occurring is not isolated but a deeper discontent afflicting the West.

I have written elsewhere that what is unfolding in nations throughout the West, including in America, are the predictable effects of increasing dependency on the state, which creates certain expectations and patterns of thought, including an entitlement mentality, and where every concession that has ever been gained is viewed as an unalienable right and therefore irreversible. This may also be the result of an increasingly large underclass out of which rises a tangle of pathologies.

But what may also be at play here is something else: the danger of democratic mediocrity and the erosion of understanding of what it means to be a citizen in a free nation, the de-linkage between rights and responsibilities, and the weakening of society’s allegiance to what is true and good.

In another age, but one with some similarities to our own, the Scottish writer and politician John Buchan wrote, “My fear was not barbarism, which is civilisation submerged or not yet born, but de-civilisation, which is civilisation gone rotten.” Buchan went on to say, “It was not the return of the Dark Ages that I feared, but the coming of a too garish age, when life would be lived in the glare of neon lamps and the spirit would have no solitude… a civilization bemused by an opulent materialism has been met by a rude challenge.”

One needs to be careful not to overstate the matter. It would be too easy to declare the West is irredeemably corrupt, that free societies contain the seeds of their own destruction, and democracy will turn out to be, as Jean-Francois Revel wrote in 1983, “a historical accident, a brief parenthesis that is closing before our eyes.” Whittaker Chambers famously said in leaving communism and joining the West, he joined the losing side. In fact, free societies have proven to be resilient and adaptable, able to summon will and resolve at key moments. America in particular finds ways to rise to the challenge time and again.

Still, it would be foolish to ignore what political philosophers have long known: the membrane separating civilization and barbarism is thinner than we might think and can be ruptured more easily than we might hope. See scenes  from the London riots for more.

 



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