By Penny Smith

One of my book clubs read Brian Morton’s Florence Gordon last month. Its protagonist is a feisty, indeed cranky, elder feminist, who takes few prisoners. When a man tries to jump the line in a local drug store, she immediately admonishes him. To his “What’s it to you?” retort, she replies, “You don’t throw your trash on the street, you don’t serve yourself first, and you don’t cut in line. It’s called civilization.”

Then, last night, I started what is an annual ritual of replaying Kenneth Clarke’s Civilization series, even though I still disagree with the conclusion he reaches in the last episode. In the first installment Clarke sets out some parameters defining civilization that essentially come down to “I know it when I see it.” However, there are some broad generalizations that he claims also apply. One element of civilization, for example, is confidence, a belief in mankind’s ability to move forward. Another is openness to change; civilized man is not a captive of dogma.  As a contrast, Clarke points to the magnificent art and technology of a Viking ship. However, as much an achievement as it was and the Norsemen’s navigation skills were, it is grounded in fear and violence. Fear, Clarke argues, is the opposite of civilization.

Florence Gordon’s definition is more prosaic; civilization is about social conventions that guide our interactions in ways that mitigate selfishness. It’s an acknowledgement of a commons in which the rules apply to everyone, not merely the strong or elite. The line jumper was a well-dressed member of an economically privileged class, who thought that provided him a ticket to preference in all situations. Gordon’s actions quietly suggest “no” to such a claim. Civilization is an acknowledgement of something we share in common; it’s a willingness to play by the rules, to be fair no matter who you are or what your station in life might be, to look beyond self for worth and definition.

Civilization, then, is not simply being the most economically powerful or most heavily armed nation in the world. The Vikings were, for a time, that, as were the barbarians who once ruled Western Europe. As Clarke concludes at the end of his series, there is no guarantee that civilization will persist. It has disappeared before, for example, after Greece’s golden age. It can disappear again.

Like democracy, civilization is a fragile thing, subject to periodic falls, any one of which might be the last. Ayn Rand claimed “if any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” Now that may make perfect sense to a confirmed atheist like Rand, whose primary (only) measure of worth was wealth, but to a Florence Gordon or a Kenneth Clarke that assertion is almost the opposite of what civilization demands. We need more, not less, empathy.

As an aging curmudgeon, I am often surprised at the coarseness of television, both entertainment and news; to the willingness of people on competing political sides to talk through and over each other; of our apparent delight in gladiatorial rhetoric. I grumble when I ride through the Smoky Mountains National Park and see a KFC bag on the side of the road. I am offended by our tolerance of public squalor. Jacob Riis, a Progressive Era muckraker, noted that civilization can be measured by slums – the greater the number of tenements, the lower the state of civilization. Surely a nation striving for civilization does not let children go hungry nor students fear the unexpected arrival of a demented shooter. Such a nation would never sunder families with archaic deportation laws nor would it make them choose between health care and bankruptcy.

It’s almost as though civilization is no longer something for which we strive. We’re content to be contemporary Vikings. We engender fear, rather than reflect generosity. We retreat to tribal affiliations, rather than prefer diversity. We seek a closed, rather than open, society. We build walls, not bridges.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once claimed that “to defend a country you need an army, but to defend a civilization you need education.” Neil Postman may have been right back in 2005, when he penned Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. In 1984 George Orwell suggests order is maintained through propaganda and fear. In Brave New World Aldous Huxley suggests you get the same result by letting people medicate through amusement, sacrificing their rights willingly.

We’re following in the footsteps of Huxley. Rather than education, we increasingly opt for training in our nation’s schools. Rather than education, we play spider solitaire (my secret addiction), Candy Crush, and Call of Duty; we follow Facebook, Instagram and Twitter; we watch The Apprentice, Survival 436, and the latest sequel to any number of film franchises. And then we grumble that the “dad burn gov’ment” can’t get anything done and the world is going to hell in multiple hand baskets.

“We the People” have always been the determiners of what we become as a nation. Today we appear to be Vikings. Even though I am half-Swedish, I wonder if that’s where we wish to stay?