Public commentary, because of recent events here and abroad, has been notably sprinkled with numerous references to “civilization.” It’s to be hoped that, before new headlines are made and attention shifts to new topics, some thought might be given to what “civilization” actually means. This is a subject our academics should have pondered long before they commenced deconstructing the Western variant. They might have learned something.
What is it, then, this concept of “civilization”?
It’s not a matter of tall buildings, advanced technology, or dense literature strewn with footnotes. We have such things, such externalities. But look at our crime rate.
No, “civilization” is an internal thing. It has everything to do with how the members of a given society behave and nothing to do with the accouterments of their society. It’s a matter of self-restraint. Inculcated self-restraint. A society may be considered “civilized” when it possesses instruments that effectively teach its members to restrain their baser impulses. We learn to restrain ourselves by applying these instruments and, with sufficient reinforcement, we internalize the lesson.
The primary instruments are family, religion, school, and, if all else fails, the police. When these instruments are well-maintained and function effectively, various levels of discipline are meted out with the aim of promoting self-discipline or civilized behavior.
Image by AI.
In this connection, I’d like to tell you about Mrs. Barmash. Mrs. Barmash taught at PS 184 in Brooklyn, New York, which I attended in the golden era before the Dodgers departed for L.A. I counted myself lucky that I wasn’t assigned to her class because Mrs. Barmash was known to rap her pupils over the knuckles with a wooden ruler if they misbehaved or failed to pay attention.
Mrs. Barmash and her ruler were instruments of civilization. So, too, were the matrons who patrolled the aisles of the Biltmore Theatre on New Lots Avenue, armed with flashlights. Rowdy kids learned to quiet down lest they found themselves in the beam of those flashlights and were escorted out of the movies.
To coin a technical term, we might call those matrons secondary instruments of civilization. But we don’t have them anymore, and as for our primary instruments… Well, any teacher who tried to discipline an unruly child today would probably lose her job, her license, and perhaps her life if she were unarmed. Schools, by and large have abandoned the task of inculcating self-restraint and, instead, have adopted the dubious project of boosting self-esteem.
Factor in single-parent households, empty houses of worship, and demoralized and de-funded police departments, and you can easily see the trouble we’re in: Our instruments of civilization have fallen into disrepair.
One result is a major problem that hardly anyone in or out of government ever discusses; namely, that an enormous number of American youth have not learned either self-restraint or the difference between right and wrong. These kids’ images appeared in everyone’s living room during the George Floyd riots. They continue to make the evening news when they band together as flashmobs and ransack department stores or commit worse atrocities.
Responsible leaders need to understand that a substantial effort must be made to restore the degree of civilization we once enjoyed.
They need to understand that drugs can be antithetical to civilization. Drugs loosen self-restraint. Why, then, are we legalizing drugs and coddling those addicted to them?
They need to understand that ideology can be antithetical to civilization. When people posit a certain philosophical end and propose to attain it by any means necessary, they have provided themselves an ample justification for casting off all restraints.
The consequences have been wildly evident in France under Robespierre, Russia under Lenin, Germany under Hitler, China under Mao, Cuba under Castro, and on American college campuses under the spell of critical race theory.
Why are responsible people promoting another totalitarian ideology?
It has been suggested that one way of countering beliefs that subvert civilization is to emphasize ethics and civics in secondary and higher education.
Fine. But more essential is to study conditioning, indoctrination, and belief. The next generation of students needs to be inoculated against untenable ideologies. They must learn why we are prone to indoctrination and the process by which beliefs can be instilled.
Of course, it’s one thing to say this or that has to be taught. If you really want to assess the state of our “civilization,” just ask yourself: Who’s going to do the teaching?
Mrs. Barmash isn’t available.