Civilization and Barbarism

Many decades ago now, Walter Benjamin famously said that "there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism." I was thinking about that last week as the controversy around Woodrow Wilson's racism occupied much opinion space online. It does appear that Wilson was a racist. In fact, I'm surprised I didn't know that much about it, considering that I've read my Zinn, etc. But I have to disagree that removing his name from the Princeton building would be wise. If we accept that Benjamin's claim is mostly true, every darn building, city, and airport in the country would have to be renamed.

So what do we do, if Benjamin is correct? 1) We can embrace it and say that might makes right and the winners write history and get on with the business of domination and oppression. 2) We can hope we're doing better, and we are, and ignore the fact that these days in civilization, "mostly other people do the killing." 3) Or we can take stock of the way the sometimes-malign influence of the powerful continues in more subtle ways, and continue the work of creating a civilization much less dependent on barbarism. In other words, not be content that we're far less barbaric than ISIS.


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