One of the stranger things about Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order was the debt it owed to anthropology. Throughout much of the past hundred years, anthropologists had been talking about clashes or conflicts among cultures, and at first glance Huntington’s formulations seemed like an attempt to raise this mundane phenomenon to the more grandiose level of international affairs.

Numerous critics have identified the political issues at stake. They point out how foolish it is to imagine that men are mere prisoners of their cultures; how blind it is not to see that states with widely varying peoples and traditions, but also with the benefit of democracy, free markets, and the rule of law, peacefully cooperate all over the globe; and how perverse it is to pretend that well established procedures for conflict management have not given the modern world an unprecedented stability.

These arguments all seem to me convincing. But what chiefly concerns me is Huntington’s use of the term “civilizations.” For behind the claim that the modern world consists of “civilizations” (plural), and not just “civilization” (singular), a lot of linguistic mischief is afoot. By degrading the concept of universal “civilization” and elevating a multiplicity of “civilizations” in its stead, Huntington mimics an already well-established and disastrous precedent—the transformation of “culture” (singular) into a multiplicity of uncultures, noncultures, and unmistakable anticultures.

More than fifty years have passed since Orwell wrote of “the need to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end …” Tendentious political language, he went on, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” This was written in 1946 at the height of Stalin’s power, and Orwell later developed his thoughts on this issue in his novel 1984. In the book’s appendix on The Principles of Newspeak he wrote that the special function of Oceania’s vocabulary “was not so much to express meanings as to destroy them.” Words could be destroyed, he said, by wantonly expanding their meanings so that they came completely to replace a whole range of older, more specific, and more definite terms and usages. This all sounds painfully familiar. One sees the term ‘civilization’ being deliberately expanded in order to embrace some very uncivilized behavior indeed.

This steady inflation of meaning has occurred spectacularly in the case of the word “community.” From meaning a smallish social group, like a village or small town, it has expanded until now no international communiqué is complete without “the global community” making a vaporous appearance. Not long ago, in sociological usage, the members of a community lived in a one-horse town. Now (if speech-writers are to be believed) horses have nothing to do with it: a community may include the entire human race.

But more worrying than these largely innocuous shifts are words which have been consciously expanded for ideological purposes, and it may help us see more clearly what is going on and where it all is leading—as a prologue to examining the words “culture” and “civilization”—if we define some typical forms of wilful semantic change.

(1) Bald Inversion. Euphemism is one thing—but Bald Inversion is something else. Orwell dramatized this with a number of invented phrases and names, some of them remarkably close to communist realities. It involves taking an established and highly charged word (“truth,” for example) and brazenly using it to denote its opposite. So if a government department is concerned with lies and lying you call it the Ministry of Truth. The most blatant inversion in the days of the Soviet Empire was probably the name each satellite country bore on its national banner: the People’s Democratic Republic of this or that. As critics observed, they were neither popular, nor democratic, nor republics—quite the reverse. Yet forbearing Western diplomats seldom bothered to point this out. It was treated and forgiven as an amiable eccentricity of Soviet culture, and not something to fuss about. Bald Inversion carries euphemism to its totalitarian extreme. Something as blatant as this is an effect of power, and is uncommon in democracies. It will never succeed as a semantic manoeuvre, or be widely accepted by the general populace, unless those who use it for the purposes of redefinition are prepared to shoot sceptics and scoffers. Scoffing is of course inevitable in the face of gross and palpable falsehood; but in the bad old days the gulag awaited anyone who was caught; and eventually, human nature being what it is, compulsory usage passed into passive acceptance. But this sort of thing takes time.

(2) Adjectival Expansion. Here the original term is retained but adjectives are added which gradually extend its range of meaning. For example, one inserts “cultural” before “genocide.” By this simple device it can be implied that allowing an already dying language to quietly become extinct, even when it has only a few score speakers and no literature, is morally analogous to murdering millions in a Nazi camp. This illustrates the unhappy fact that there are always hundreds of verbal free-riders eager to capitalize on the miseries of others. Again and again they audaciously extend the range of phenomena to which an original high-powered noun like genocide is applied, caring nothing for its ethical significance. “Genocide” entered our language to describe an evil unique in scale and horror. Hitler’s project was unprecedented— the word genocide was specifically designed to fit the special case of racial extermination. Yet nowadays adjectival genocide can be made up to suit any occasion. This fall in the value of strong words is part of a routine semantic process of adulteration. In a political marketplace where assorted groups compete for attention, and wish their misfortunes to be acknowledged and their opportunistic claims for reparations acted on, strong, distinctive, and uniquely horrific terms are seized on for whatever advertizing advantage they offer. In the absence of a sense of intellectual responsibility, or a capacity for moral discrimination among the dismal tribe of soi-disant “ethicists”—and unless Jews vociferously object to this obscene contempt for their millions of murdered dead—it is unlikely to stop anytime soon.

(3) Barefaced Oxymoron. In 1935 the English anthropologist Tom Harrisson visited the Big Nambas of Malekula in the New Hebrides. There was little about the Big Nambas to distinguish them from a thousand other stone age people in the ethnographic record, but upon his return to England Harrison wrote a book about them with the title A Savage Civilization. There was in fact no civilization whatever in the old-time New Hebrides. The Malekulans had no metals or metallurgy, no alphabet, no writing, no books, no literature, no architecture (no building larger than a hut), no separation of powers, no judicial independence, no evolved scientific understanding, no mature religion with a universal message for mankind; and as for the attributes of modern civilization, they possessed not even the dimmest prefiguring of the open and humane political order of civil society. What they had was a very primitive stone age culture indeed. So what was Harrisson’s purpose? The goals which Adjectival Expansion achieves imperceptibly by semantic creep, Barefaced Oxymoron seeks to achieve by ambush—by a violent wrench of meaning—and that is what the strange coupling of “savage” and “civilization” is meant to do. It aims to surprise and capture the semantic redoubt before anyone knows what’s happening. When this operation is successfully performed readers should come away with no sense of oxymoron at all, and the adjective (the key tactical weapon) should seem entirely fitting. In which case the battle is won.

What exactly is going on here? Three important terms have been subverted, weakened, corrupted, and destroyed. In the humanities, one hundred years ago, the meaning of “culture” was very like “civilization.” It denoted both a universal process of human improvement and the condition to which that process leads: an increase in amenity, an amelioration of the harsher aspects of life, a diminution of ignorance and fear, a flowering of the arts and sciences, and finally, crowning all, a “civility” which only peoples blessed with the mature religious, legal, political, and economic arrangements of “civil society” are fortunate enough to know. This evaluative meaning was entirely compatible with Matthew Arnold’s humanistic ideal—culture as acquaintance with the best that humanity had thought or said or done. It was not pluralistic. It did not involve “cultures” (plural) scattered all over the globe. It did not pretend that all cultures were broadly equal. Instead it visualized a single universal scale of achievement in which some things were decidedly better than others.

Anything as high and prestigious was bound to excite envy. To resentful minds its very nobility was a fault. But how could it be attacked? Direct frontal assault was still out of the question in 1920, a time when literature and music, art and architecture, remained in high esteem, and their supporting institutions in tolerably good health. What nobody in those days ever suspected was that a Trojan Horse might be wheeled into the citadel of high culture by social science, might stealthily release a swarm of agents “paltering in a double tongue,” and might sow confusion everywhere. Yet within fifty years this came to pass, and as a measure by which our higher achievements might be assessed, the word “culture” was utterly destroyed. This prodigious discombobulation throughout the English-speaking world largely came about because of a deep ambiguity underlying the concept of culture itself—a flaw or crack which could be exploited. It was noticed that the word had not just one meaning but two—and these two meanings were very far apart. Matthew Arnold’s usage was universal, hierarchic, and singular, fearlessly arranging things on a vertical scale of value from the worst up to the best.

The other meaning lurking in the shadows was the meaning of “culture” in social science. This was local and pluralistic, and it had nothing whatever to do with better or worse. It simply denoted a social system—any kind of social system at all, at any level, anywhere. To a certain kind of naïve egalitarian, convinced that a natural Equality of Cultures followed logically from the Equality of Man, this seemed to provide solid intellectual warrant. With the ceteris paribus clause judiciously inserted, it looked as if this indeed was how social science saw the matter. For the scientific purposes of neutral description and analysis, “other things being equal,” all cultures (like all human beings whether big or small, or black or white, when considered generically by medical science) were treated anthropologically as “the same.” Taking a mere procedural convenience for an empirical fact they drew the political conclusion that all cultures were indeed equal, and should be morally treated as such. This bizarre skewing of an entirely appropriate and necessary feature of the scientific outlook, by ideologues in the humanities, had devastating effects.

Two very influential figures now entered upon the scene. The first was a man of singular nobility and significance, T. S. Eliot. The second was a man of singular ignobility—the resentful and highly destructive British literary critic, Marxist, admirer of Stalin and devotee of Pol Pot, Raymond Williams. Both of them were social critics in the widest sense. Both of them took as their subject the condition of the British polity as a whole. And both were drawn to the anthropological conception of culture. But beyond that they were poles apart.

As Robert Crawford shows in The Savage and the City in the Work of T. S. Eliot, the poet had been interested in anthropology for a very long time, and even in his student days before the First World War had read more widely in this field than any but the most curious nonspecialists. Crawford tells us that while Eliot was still at Harvard in 1913 he “was asked to present a paper on scientific methodology. His choice of theme, the interpretation of primitive ritual, is a significant one. The paper concentrated on the difference between an objective fact and a subjective interpretation. Both the philosophical and the anthropological materials of the paper were to be of importance to him in the rest of his career… Eliot went on to hint at how anthropology was part of the non-literary material which mattered most to him:

If literary critics, instead of perpetually perusing the writings of other critics, would study the content and criticize the methods of such books as The Origin of Species itself, and Ancient Law, and Primitive Culture, they might learn the difference between a history and a chronicle, and the difference between an interpretation and a fact.
The anthropological references in his seminar paper included Emile Durkheim’s Rules of Sociological Method, Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Jane Harrison’s Themis: A Study of the Social Origins of Greek Religion, along with Andrew Lang, Lucien Levy-Bruhl, R. R. Marett, Max Muller, and perhaps most notably—especially for its title—E. B. Tylor’s pioneering anthropological exposition Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Language, Art, and Custom. After leaving Harvard, in the years between 1914 and 1918, Eliot reviewed several anthropological and sociological books. These include Durkheim’s account of Australian totemism among the Aborigines, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Wundt’s Elements of Folk Psychology, L. M. Bristol’s Social Adaptation: A Study in the Development of the Doctrine of Adaptation as a Theory of Social Progress, and a work by Clement C. J. Webb which both summarizes and attacks the work of Durkheim, Levy-Bruhl, F. M. Cornford, and Jane Harrison. Crawford points to many instances where Eliot’s anthropological readings, especially in Frazer, find later echoes in his verse. But it is not this which concerns us here: it is the deep influence on the concept of culture which found expression in Eliot’s mature and developed social thought.

In primitive societies he discovered an organic coherence and solidarity that provided a welcome contrast to the dissociating tendencies of modern life. It was also a world in which religion, economy, power, status, and esteem, were indissolubly combined. In his early years as a student social cohesion may only have been of academic interest: but after the Second World War, when he wrote Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, it had become a matter of paramount concern. By then England appeared to be in a condition of imminent collapse. The whole of society was in danger, the “whole of way of life” was therefore in need of repair, and he made it clear that the “organicism” he had in mind would ultimately require a much closer relation between religion and life in general than hitherto. He argued that it was a grave error to imagine that “culture can be preserved, extended and developed in the absence of religion”; yet the precise relation of the two realms in this duality was something he remained undecided about even as he wrote:

The way of looking at culture and religion which I have been trying to adumbrate is so difficult that I am not sure I grasp it myself except in flashes, or that I comprehend all its implications. It is also one which involves the risk of error at every moment, by some unperceived alteration of the meaning which either term has when the two are coupled in this way, inso some meaning which either may have when taken alone. It holds good only in the sense in which people are unconscious of both their culture and their religion. Anyone with even the slightest religious consciousness must be afflicted from time to time by the contrast between his religious faith and his behavior; anyone with the taste that individual or group culture convers must be aware of values which he cannot call religious. And both “religion” and “culture,” besides meaning different things from each other, should mean for the individual and for the group something towards which they strive, not merely something which they possess. Yet there is an aspect in which we can see a religion as the whole way of life of a people, from birth to the grave, from morning to night and even in sleep, and that way of life is also its culture.

Eliot felt that the Arnoldian view of culture as largely a matter of refinement and cultivation left too much out; it was too thin, too anaemic, too lacking in social texture and political depth. If the reforms he had in mind were to be realized then a lot more ordinary matter from the ordinary world would need to be added. A “whole way of life” was an inclusive conception which required that Arnold’s view be greatly amplified and extended, and in his Notes he proceeded to do this in an exposition of enduring interest. But while the modern reader is bound to sympathise with Eliot’s ideals—and now perhaps more than ever—it is also true that there were unmistakable risks in such a course. As one moved away from a definition of culture as a vertical scale of values, from high to low or from better to worse, one was also moving in the direction of a mere horizontal inventory or list. Eliot himself believed that the evaluative and the descriptive concepts could be combined without difficulty or contradiction, but it is by no means clear that this is so. Considering the world as a unity in which religion and culture were ideally indistinguishable (a view he remained reluctant to fully endorse) he wrote that

the reader must remind himself as the author has constantly to do, of how much is here embraced by the term culture. It includes all the characteristic activities and interests of a people: Derby Day, Henley Regatta, Cowes, the twelfth of August, a cup final, the dog races, the pin table, the dark board, Wensleydale cheese, boiled cabbage cut into sections, beetroot in vinegar, nineteenth-century Gothic churches and the music of Elgar.
As he wrote this Eliot must have thought he was among friends. Only someone with this relaxed conviction would have then gone on to add in his next sentence that “The reader can make up his own list,” inviting others to join him in a shared endeavour. This was almost certainly a mistake. In England in 1948 he was not among friends—indeed, one of his most inveterate enemies on the Left was keenly monitoring his every word. Raymond Williams had been brooding for years on the problem of “bourgeois culture” and how to overthrow it, and now he saw his chance. What his biographer calls a “settled resentment” possessed him whenever he thought of England’s social classes and cultural elite, and Eliot’s remarks left him vengefully ruminating on the vocabulary in which their privileges were enshrined. There were words of power, words which had to be captured, controlled, and exploited for revolutionary purposes—“keywords” he called them in a little book by that name—and the keyword of all keywords was “culture” itself. Perhaps, he thought, if you could take control of this word away from its effete custodians, and change it by an Orwellian expansion of its meaning, a previously unimaginable victory might be won. As he explained in Keywords, the Arnoldian meaning of the word “culture” embarrassed people, offended their amour propre, and was inseparably associated with privilege. What needed to replace it was the anthropological conception—that was the key.

Soon general confusion prevailed. You could see it happening in arts departments everywhere. Students and teachers in the humanities knew something was happening—something bewildering—but most of them didn’t know what. There were even occasions when the older understanding of “culture” as the best that art and music and literature had to offer, acquired by students in their first year at university, had entirely changed by the time of graduation. Although people on campus were still using the same word, and still seemed to be talking about the same thing, the semantic ground beneath them had radically shifted and “culture” no longer meant what it had. The old meaning had a lot to do with standards of evaluation in the arts. The new meaning had absolutely nothing to do with artistic ideals, or literary standards, or the moral world of better or worse: for some strange reason it apparently referred to primitive societies—though why this was, was altogether unclear.

“Primitive society” as a sociological category was well known and clear enough: it meant social systems which were earlier, simpler, more rudimentary. “Society” is what British anthropologists saw themselves as studying, and there were lots of primitive societies—many of them very interesting—scattered about the world. But in Arnoldian terms “primitive culture” was an oxymoron. How could it possibly make sense? Of course it couldn’t and didn’t. It was like speaking of “primitive refinement” or “primitive sophistication,” a downright contradiction in terms. An inventory is not a scale, and you cannot derive values from inventories: yet the behavioral inventory of manners and customs to be found in any social system is what “culture” now increasingly conveyed.

The new pluralistic meaning being pushed by Williams and his school came from American anthropology, ex Germany, and while the humanities stood helpless and bewildered, it eventually became clear to everyone in the arts that the anthropological meaning of “culture” in no way implied a judgment of human achievement. What the anthropologists meant was simply a “way of life”—any way of life you might name—and if you try to describe a way of life you end up not with a scale, but with an indiscriminate collection of customs, manners, and things.

The anthropological idea legitimated them all. Soon it appeared that whereas the singular and universal Arnoldian vision had consistently stood for the best, the plurality of anthropological “cultures” could just as easily represent the worst—the least amenity, the deepest ignorance, the grossest delusions, the most vicious habits, and the absence of any art or science worth the name. However one chooses to define the semantic process involved (inversion, extension, expansion, or whatever) usages which would at first have seemed oxymoronic now won acceptance everywhere: street culture, jail culture, porno culture—while a generously accommodating modern sensibility found a place for drug culture too.

Does Huntington’s usage suggest a fate like this for “civilization”? Notice that in the historical case of “culture” three strategic moves were made. First, something singular was pluralised. Second, a hierarchic scale of values was flattened out and expanded to avoid any suggestion of better or worse. Third, examples of the new non-evaluative something which resulted (let us call it X) were discovered everywhere you looked; and regardless of scale, or history, or achievement, or degree of complexity, regardless of whether they were advanced or backward, vital or moribund, or even alive or dead, all Xs got lumped together as if they were equal—as though “the culture of Easter Island” and “the culture of Europe” were entities which might reasonably be compared. But before coming to the way Huntington uses the word, the first question which needs answering is this: does “civilization” still possess meanings which are high and exemplary, or is it now so degraded that as a cipher for humanity’s highest achievements it has lost all credit and become unusable?

The evidence is mixed. On the one hand it is clear that “civilization,” singular, meaning universal standards of civil and humane conduct, lingers on in public consciousness as an ideal which in extreme circumstances our leaders are obliged to invoke. Examples of this are admittedly not common, but when they occur they are very important. This is the meaning Mr Bush appealed to on the anniversary of 9/11 when he warned us that terrorists were plotting further destruction in “their war against civilization.” From the other side of the world comes a second instance. In Australia a judge sentenced the Lebanese leader of a gang of rapists to a jail sentence of fifty-five years, describing him as “a menace to civilized society.” It was clear from the response to this sentence that the public broadly agreed, and the premier of the Australian state in which the trial was held appeared to concur with the judge’s remarks. In the wake of the Bali outrage, correspondence columns in Australian newspapers have contained at least a small number of letters which describe the present conflict in terms of barbarism versus civilization, tout court. From which one may infer that a degree of consensus exists in the English-speaking world about the standards “civilization” is expected to uphold: civilized nations abstain from mass murder in international affairs; civilized societies discourage sexual violence in domestic life. We might add that overall, the standards of civil conduct which “civilization” (singular) implies assume a political order at once open, trusting, law-abiding, and humane.

Today however such usage is only employed in great extremity. For one hundred years the word “civilization” has been under just as much semantic pressure as “culture”—perhaps more. World war and an extended depression within the West produced widespread scepticism and numerous adjectival assaults, especially during the late 1930s, and 1937 proved to be a bumper year. It was then that the aforementioned British anthropologist Tom Harrisson published his book about the last surviving Pacific cannibals, called A Savage Civilization. On the other side of the Atlantic the respected Harvard sociologist W. Lloyd Warner produced a study of Australia’s Arnhem Land Aborigines under the title A Black Civilization. The title of Lloyd Warner’s book was as grossly misleading as Harrisson’s: there was no civilization in stone-age Arnhem Land. In addition to these efforts Sidney and Beatrice Webb suggested none too cautiously that hapless gulag-ridden Russia might yet be described as “Soviet Civilization,” regardless of the show-trials taking place, the medieval atmosphere, the absence of anything remotely resembling civil society, and all the attendant horrors of the time. Each of these peoples and places were being rhetorically invoked to demote and belittle “western civilization” and to promote some fancied alternative—and in the Webb’s case not facetiously either.

It should be said at once that Huntington never goes as far down the path to oxymoronism as this: but his thinking has been heavily influenced both by anthropological discussion and debate (especially Philip Bagby’s Culture and History), and some of his more freewheeling speculations are decidedly odd. In his original 1993 paper in Foreign Affairs he opined that “Civilizations may involve a large number of people, as with China (‘a civilization pretending to be a state,’ as Lucian Pye put it) or a very small number of people, such as the Anglophone Caribbean.” Almost exactly the same sentence about the Caribbean is repeated in Huntington’s 1997 book. While I have the greatest respect for its swashbuckling cricketers, and for some of the writers the islands have produced, it is hard to know what to make of this other than to suggest that a variation on Churchill’s famous comment on the traditions of the Royal Navy might be appropriate: “With all due respect, the civilization of the Caribbean consists of rum, slavery, and the lash.”

True, there could scarcely be anything more marginal to Huntington’s overall strategic argument than this passing aside about the Caribbean. It is revealing nonetheless. What it shows is his determination to violate commonsense understandings in order to establish a terminology which is manifestly misleading. Everyone knows that for reasons of scale, simplicity, and historical scope, the Caribbean is more appropriately described as what anthropologists once called a “culture area,” and that to claim civilizational status for it is absurd. But the deliberate muddling of “cultures” and “civilizations,” of the great and the small, of the significant and the insignificant, of the ancient and ossified alongside the modern and progressive, is how Huntington routinely proceeds. In a number of places he tells us that “civilizations are cultures writ large,” making it sound as if size and scope and complexity matter little. Over and over we find “culture” and “civilization” used either interchangeably or in mutually reinforcing combinations, and alert readers will find that the author generally employs the lesser term “culture” when that is all the traffic will bear, and goes for the grander term “civilization” when he thinks no-one will notice.

But it is on page 41 that the relativizing point of it all is frankly spelled out. Following Fernand Braudel, Huntington explains to his readers that the pluralising of “civilization” is necessary in order to diminish the hegemonic claims of the West, to remove it as a source of high and universal standards—and to quietly consign to oblivion whatever standards it upholds. We are told that the French had mistakenly suggested that to be civilized was good, while to be uncivilized was bad. But precisely as Raymond Williams had argued in the case of “culture,” Huntington argues that this merely reflects the conceit and arrogance of the privileged, and that “civilizations in the plural are the concern of this book.”

The concept of civilization provided a standard by which to judge societies, and during the nineteenth century, Europeans devoted much intellectual, diplomatic, and political energy to elaborating the criteria by which non-European societies might be judged sufficiently “civilized” to be accepted as members of the European-dominated international system. At the same time, however, people increasingly spoke of civilizations in the plural. This meant “renunciation of civilization defined as an ideal, or rather as the ideal” and a shift away from the assumption there was a single standard for what was civilized, “confined,” in Braudel’s phrase, “to a few privileged peoples or groups, humanity’s elite.” Instead there were many civilizations, each of which was civilized in its own way. Civilization in the singular, in short, “lost some of its cachet,” and a civilization in the plural sense could in fact be quite uncivilized in the singular sense.” (Italics added.)

That each should be regarded as “civilized in its own way” is disarming, but then comes the killer punch. We next learn that what he is really talking about are not so much “civilizations” as “uncivilizations,” though he can’t bring himself to be as plain as that. Nor does Huntington tell us exactly what sort of uncivilized behavior he has in mind, or how uncivilized it has to be before harsher language would be more fitting. One can only suppose that if things get really uncivilized—down to the level of crashing passenger jets into skyscrapers or incinerating two hundred tourists at a resort—then it might be more appropriate to use the classic antithesis of civilization, barbarism. At all events Huntington’s ‘uncivilized civilizations’ represents a crowning paradox.

But have we here something more than paradoxymoron, so to speak? It is not my purpose to delve too deeply into the empirical realities behind the verbal façade. But there is plenty of evidence that the huge and threatening “challenger civilizations,” looming so ominously in his argument, are really Potemkin villages after all. Huntington gleefully cites Richard Nixon’s 1994 statement that “China’s economic power makes US lectures about human rights imprudent. Within a decade it will make them irrelevant. Within two decades it will make them laughable,” going on in his own words to predict that “by that time, however, Chinese economic development could make Western lectures unnecessary.”

Yet within only two years of his book appearing, and in Foreign Affairs itself, a survey by the Director of Studies at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London soberly contradicted this view. Drawing on a range of compelling statistics, Gerald Segal’s “Does China Matter” argued that “Ever since the coming of Western power demonstrated that China’s ancient civilization was not up to the challenges of modernity, China has struggled to understand its place in the wider world. The past century in particular has been riddled with deep Chinese resistance to the essential logic of international interdependence. It has also been marked by failed attempts to produce a China strong enough to resist the Western-dominated international system … Fifty years after the Chinese communist revolution, the party that gave the Chinese people the Great Leap Forward (and 30 million dead of famine) and the Cultural Revolution (and perhaps another million dead as well as a generation destroyed) is devoid of ideological power and authority.” (Foreign Affairs, September/October 1999, p33)

And what about that other actor on the international stage Huntington invites us to consider, radical Islamism, a convulsion in that backward “empire of resentment” described by Francis Fukuyama which has produced such an aggressive threat to the West? Do the men who destroyed the World Trade Center represent a “challenger civilization,” as Huntington has it, or is it something very much less grandiose? The world the hijackers came from was certainly not that of the Abbasids and Omar Khayyam. It is the world of Saudi Arabia today. As Victor Davis Hanson points out in the June Commentary, the primeval political arrangements of the House of Saud involve some 7,000 royal cousins living in palaces and luxury estates scattered about from Paris and Geneva to Aspen in the USA. Within this realm, freedom of religion is unknown, while women are veiled, kept out of sight, and subject to sexual apartheid. The UN Committee Against Torture is reportedly asking the Saudis to curtail flogging and amputations, but “so far they have answered that such punishments have been an integral part of Islamic law for ‘1,400 years’ and so ‘cannot be changed.’” The population is soaring. Educational standards are low. In Hanson’s words, “thirty percent of Saudis remain unschooled, and nearly as many are barely literate, their resentment against a coddled elite mitigated only by carefully measured doses of anti-Western Wahhabism and the satisfaction that at least the millions of guest Asian and Arab helots, imported for much of the society’s wage labor, are more unfree than they.”

Not just human capital but almost every technological item needed is shipped in from outside. Since forty percent of the country’s income is spent on arms purchases, the weapons are impressive; but many planes must be flown by mercenaries or stay grounded. Advanced jets and bombers don’t have the pilots to fly them or the mechanics to keep them in the air because Saudi Arabia has too few advanced and modern minds. It is a frustrating situation—perhaps downright maddening to some. And as Hanson says, there may be “a sick genius in a system that can shift the hatreds of an illiterate Saudi youth away from the jet-setting sheiks who have diverted his nation’s treasure and onto the anonymous Americans who created that wealth, who ship the kingdom its consumer goods, and who defend it from the neighborhood’s carnivores.” Fifty years of pragmatism, opportunism, and cynicism have left the US in considerable perplexity, and what it can do about replacing Arab oil with something else is now occupying some of Washington’s best minds.

But one thing is clear. When those planes hit the World Trade Center it wasn’t a “clash of civilizations.” There can no longer be anything honorable in “giving an appearance of solidity to pure wind” as Orwell said, and now is surely the time to call things by their proper names. A number of sick homicidal malcontents is not a civilization. Nor is a conspiracy of religious fanatics. Nor is a savage Arab chieftain like Saddam Hussein. Such men are the tragic byproducts of a backward, chauvinistic, highly aggressive tribal culture—a culture deeply and mortally at odds with the modern world.

Perhaps we should be grateful to Huntington for being so explicit on page 41. Few of those who have sown terminological confusion in our time have been so candid. Yet at the same time we must say—thanks, but no thanks. Because whether we are dealing with oxymoron, paradoxymoron, or merely a belief that anything at all can be done with words, the pulling down of high and honorable terms for low purposes is perverse. The plain fact is that in contemporary India and China and Islam not only is there plenty that is “uncivilized in the singular sense” there is a great deal that is downright barbaric as well. Great these ancient historic collectivities once were, and it is appropriate to remember their greatness from time to time. But civilizations in any modern sense they are not. Uncivilizations are what they in many respects are now—to use Huntington’s own helpful formulation— and it is the clash of backward uncivilization with the modern world that has given rise to most of our present conflicts.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 21 Number 11
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