On What It Means to Be Civilized


“A large part of the history of free institutions is the history of the people struggling to emancipate themselves from unrestricted legislation” — Calvin Coolidge

Each generation bears an inescapable debt inherited from those who came before it but also owed to those who come afterward. As Coolidge said, “Civilization is always on trial. Sometimes it seems to succeed. Sometimes it seems to fail.” But, we may ask in our time, what is civilization? Its opposite, of whatever time and place, is barbarism. What, though, does it mean to be civilized? For Coolidge, it meant something far more important than knowing which fork goes with each course at dinner. It referred to something deeply embedded within human history, something spiritual not material, yet it is apparent for all to see when neglected or absent altogether. America may yet be the greatest country on earth, but is it meeting the burdens of civilization? Is it bequeathing to the future what it means to be civilized?

Is it civilized, for instance, when a serial rapist finds you and a friend in Central Park at dusk and, knowing you’re unarmed, takes advantage of the situation while your companion does nothing to stop it? Is it civilized when the neighborhood turns out to watch your house catch fire and burn, holding back while you, an outsider to them, succumb to the smoke and heat? Is it civilized when hundreds of doctor millions of times every year reach into the womb of a pregnant woman to suck out what moments before has been a living person, discarding mere tissue into the biohazard bin? Is it civilized when nation after nation, cowed by fear of offending someone, sit silently by while true animals, not fit to be classified as human, broadcast their decapitations, burnings, kidnappings, stonings, and countless other crimes with impunity? Do we merely chalk all this up to unfair distributions of wealth, the unfortunate discontent of the impoverished and unemployed? “Boys will be boys,” after all. They’re not evil, it is claimed, they’re simply unrehabilitated and misunderstood. In fact, our own President, if not actively complicit in their actions, endorses (with all the power of Executive rhetoric) their agenda all through the Levant, calling them “ISIL,” while denying their self-professed identity as having anything to do with the world’s most violent religion, Islam.

Coolidge, who lived through the devastation of World War I, that most infamous of destructive years here in America — 1919 — as well as the violent revolutions in Russia, Italy, Mexico, Nicaragua, Turkey, and elsewhere around the globe along with the rise of Hitler in Germany, helps define the meaning of “civilized” when he says,

“Civilization is to be condemned, anyway, unless it possesses the ability to perpetuate itself.” Or again, when he says, “The process of civilization consists of the discovery by men of the laws of the universe, and of living in harmony with those laws.” Or how about when he observes, “Civilization is the bearer of great gifts, the source of ever-enlarging opportunity. It is not the result of a self-existing plenty, but rather the product of a high endeavor”? Coolidge elaborates, “The law of progress and civilization is not the law of the jungle. It is not an earthly law, it is a divine law. It does not mean the survival of the fittest, it means the sacrifice of the fittest. Any mother will give her life for her child. Men put the women and children in the lifeboats before they themselves will leave the sinking ship.” For a man and his generation who lived at the time the Titanic and Lusitania went down, this was no idle or theoretical allusion. For Coolidge, it also envisioned the danger posed to any ship of state, America especially.

Knowing that “free” people everywhere are hamstrung by their own slavery to political correctness, the same attitude which appeared at Fort Hood struts unchallenged across Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Nursed in our inner cities and welcomed across our borders, it dares us to speak up and do anything about its audacious hatred for civilization, whether it be Ferguson or Washington, D. C. Will we? Who is courageous enough to stand for law, liberty and basic civilization, knowing that so fundamental an exercise of our First Amendment may literally cost us everything, our freedom, our income, our social status, our lives? The question comes to each of us: Is it worth it? What price are we ready to pay to retain freedom, even civilization itself, not just for our own sacred honor but for posterity’s sake? To keep civilization going forward rather than falling backwards?

“Civilization is always on trial,” Coolidge declared, “testing out, not the power of material resources, but whether there be, in the heart of the people, that virtue and character which come from charity sufficient to maintain progress.” Will we pass or fail the test we now undergo? Put another way, can we afford to fail?

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