henever we learn of
events of world-shaking significance, of catastrophes or massacres,
we are inclined not only to feel ashamed (all too briefly) of our
querulous preoccupation with our own minor tribulations but also to
question the wider value of all our activities. I do not know
whether people who are faced by death in a few seconds' time see
their lives flash before them, as they are said to do, and pass
final judgment upon them; but whenever I read something about the
Khmer Rouge, for example, or the genocide in Rwanda, I reflect for a
time upon my own life and dwell a little on the insignificance of my
efforts, the selfishness of my concerns, the narrowness of my
So it was when I first learned of the destruction of
the two towers of the World Trade Center. I was settling down to
write a book review: not of a great work, but of a competent,
conscientious, slightly dull biography of a minor historical figure.
Could any activity have been less important when set beside the
horrible fate of thousands of people trapped in the then
collapsing—buildings? A book
review, compared to the deaths of over 300 firemen killed in the
course of their duty, to say nothing of the thousands of others?
What was the point of finishing so laboriously insignificant a task
In my work as a doctor in a prison, I save a few lives a year.
When I retire, I shall not in my whole career have saved as many
lives as were lost in New York in those few terrible moments, even
counting the time I spent in Africa, where it was only too easy to
save human life by the simplest of medical means. As for my writing,
it is hardly dust in the balance: my work amuses a few, enrages
some, and is unknown to the vast majority of people in my immediate
vicinity, let alone to wider circles. Impotence and futility are the
two words that spring to mind.
Yet even as I think such self-regarding thoughts, an image
recurs in my mind: that of the pianist Myra Hess playing Mozart in
London's National Gallery even as the bombs were falling during the
Second World War. I was born after the war ended, but the quiet
heroism of those concerts and recitals, broadcast to the nation, was
still a potent symbol during my childhood. It was all the more
potent, of course, because Myra Hess was Jewish, and the enemy's
anti-Semitism was central to its depraved view of the world; and
because the music she played, one of the highest peaks of human
achievement, emanated from the very same land as the enemy's leader,
who represented the depths of barbarism.
No one asked, "What are these concerts for?" or "What is the
point of playing Mozart when the world is ablaze?" No one thought,
"How many divisions has Myra Hess?" or "What is the firepower of a
Mozart rondo?" Everyone understood that these concerts, of no
account in the material or military sense, were a defiant gesture of
humanity and culture in the face of unprecedented brutality. They
were what the war was about. They were a statement of the belief
that nothing could or ever can vitiate the value of civilization;
and no historical revisionism, however cynical, will ever subvert
this noble message.
I recall as well a story told by the philosopher Sir Karl Popper,
an Austrian refugee who made his home in Britain. Four cultivated
men in Berlin, as they awaited their expected arrest by the Gestapo,
spent their last night together—possibly their last night on earth—playing a Beethoven quartet. In the event, they were not
arrested; but they too had expressed by their action their faith
that civilization transcends barbarism, that notwithstanding the
apparent inability of civilization at the time to resist the
onslaught of the barbarians, civilization was still worth defending.
Indeed, it is the only thing worth defending, because it is what
gives, or should give, meaning to our lives.
Of course, civilization is not only an attachment to the highest
peaks of human achievement. It relies for its maintenance upon an
infinitely complex and delicate tissue of relations and activities,
some humble and others grand. The man who sweeps the streets plays
his part as surely as the great artist or thinker. Civilization is
the sum total of all those activities that allow men to transcend
mere biological existence and reach for a richer mental, aesthetic,
material, and spiritual life.
An attachment to high cultural achievement is thus a necessary
but not sufficient condition of civilization—for it is said that concentration-camp commandants wept in
the evening over Schubert lieder after a hard day's mass
murder—and no one would
call such men civilized. On the contrary, they were more like
ancient barbarians who, having overrun and sacked a civilized city,
lived in the ruins, because they were still far better than anything
they could build themselves. The first requirement of civilization
is that men should be willing to repress their basest instincts and
appetites: failure to do which makes them, on account of their
intelligence, far worse than mere beasts.
I grew up in secure and comfortable circumstances, give or
take an emotional problem or two; but an awareness of the fragility
of civilization was instilled early, though subliminally, by the
presence in London during my childhood of large numbers of
unreconstructed bomb sites that were like the gaps between the
rotting teeth in an old man's mouth. Often I played in small urban
wildernesses of weeds and rubble, and rather regretted their gradual
disappearance; but even so, I could hardly fail to see, in the
broken fragments of human artifacts and in the plasterwork with
wallpaper still attached, the meaning of the destruction that had
been wrought before I was born.
Then there were the bomb shelters, in which I passed a surprising
number of childhood hours. They were ubiquitous in my little world:
in the school playgrounds and the parks, for example. That entry to
them was forbidden made them irresistibly attractive, of course.
Their darkness and fungal dampness added to their attraction: they
were pleasantly frightening; one never quite knew who or what one
might find in them. Had I been inclined to smoke, instead of being
instantly sickened by nicotine, that is where—like so many of my friends—I would have learned to do so. And many a first sexual
exploration took place in those inauspicious surroundings.
Despite the uses to which we put them, however, we were always
aware of the purpose for which they had been built. Somehow, the
shades of those who had sheltered in them, not so very long before,
were still present. The Blitz was within every adult's living
memory: my mother's apartment building had been bombed, and she woke
one morning with half of it gone, one of her rooms now open directly
to the air. In my house, as in many other households, there was a
multivolume pictorial history of the war, over which I pored for
entire mornings or afternoons, until I knew every picture by heart.
One of them was ever present in my mind when I entered a bomb
shelter with my friends: that of two young children, both blind, in
just such a shelter, their sightless eyes turned upward to the sound
of the explosions above them, a heartrending look of incomprehension
on their faces.
More than anything else, however, the fact that my mother was
herself a refugee from Nazi Germany contributed to my awareness that
security—the feeling that
nothing could change seriously for the worse, and that the life that
you had was invulnerable—was illusory and even dangerous. She showed us, my brother
and me, photographs (some of them sepia) of her life in pre-Nazi
Germany: a prosperously bourgeois existence of that time, from the
look of it, with chauffeurs and large cars, patriarchs in winged
collars conspicuously smoking cigars, women in feather boas, picnics
by lakes, winter in the mountains, and so forth. There were photos
of my grandfather, a doctor decorated for his military service
during the Great War, in his military uniform, a loyal subject of
the Kaiser. And then—suddenly—nothing: a prolonged pictorial silence, until my mother
emerged into a new, less luxurious but more ordinary (because
She had left Germany when she was 17 and never saw her parents
again. If it could happen to her, why not to me or indeed to anyone?
I didn't believe it would, but then neither had she or anyone else.
The world, or that little part of it that I inhabited, that appeared
so stable, calm, solid, and dependable—dull even—had shakier foundations than most people most of the time
were willing to suppose.
As soon as I was able, I began to travel. Boredom, curiosity,
dissatisfaction, a taste for the exotic and for philosophical
inquiry drove me. It seemed to me that comparison was the only way
to know the value of things, including political arrangements. But
travel is like good fortune in the famous remark of Louis Pasteur:
it favors only the mind prepared. To an extent, one brings back from
it only what one takes to it: and I chose my countries with
unconscious care and thereby received many object lessons in the
fragility of the human order, especially when it is undermined in
the abstract name of justice. It is often much easier to bring about
total disaster than modest improvement.
Many of the countries I visited—Iran, Afghanistan, Mozambique—soon descended into the most terrible chaos. Their peace had
always been flawed, of course: as which is not? I learned that the
passion to destroy, far from being "also" a constructive one, as the
famous but foolish remark of the Russian anarchist Bakunin would
have it, soon becomes autonomous, unattached to any other purpose
but indulged in purely for the pleasure that destruction itself
brings. I remember watching rioters in Panama, for example, smashing
shop windows, allegedly in the name of freedom and democracy, but
laughing as they did so, searching for new fields of glass to
conquer. Many of the rioters were obviously bourgeois, the scions of
privileged families, as have been the leaders of so many destructive
movements in modern history. That same evening, I dined in an
expensive restaurant and saw there a fellow diner whom I had
observed a few hours before joyfully heaving a brick through a
window. How much destruction did he think his country could bear
before his own life might be affected, his own existence
As I watched the rioters at play, I remembered an episode from my
childhood. My brother and I took a radio out onto the lawn and there
smashed it into a thousand pieces with croquet mallets. With a
pleasantly vengeful fury, as if performing a valuable task, we
pursued every last component with our mallets until we had
pulverized it into unrecognizability. The joy we felt was
indescribable; but where it came from or what it meant, we knew not.
Within our small souls, civilization struggled with barbarism: and
had we suffered no retribution, I suspect that barbarism's temporary
victory would have been more lasting.
But why did we feel the need to revolt in this fashion? At such a
remove in time, I cannot reconstruct my own thoughts or feelings
with any certainty: but I suspect that we rebelled against our own
powerlessness and lack of freedom, which we felt as a wound, by
comparison with what we saw as the omnipotence and complete freedom
of action of the grown-ups in our lives. How we longed to grow up,
so that we might be like them, free to do as we liked and give
orders to others, as they gave orders to us! We never suspected that
adulthood would bring its own frustrations, responsibilities, and
restrictions: we looked forward to the time when our own whim would
be law, when our egos would be free to soar wherever they chose.
Until then, the best we could do was to rebel against a symbol of
our subjection to others. If we could not be as adults were, we
could at least destroy a little of the adults' world.
I saw the revolt against civilization and the restraints and
frustrations it entails in many countries, but nowhere more starkly
than in Liberia in the midst of the civil war there. I arrived in
Monrovia when there was no longer any electricity or running water;
no shops, no banks, no telephones, no post office; no schools, no
transport, no clinics, no hospitals. Almost every building had been
destroyed in whole or in part: and what had not been destroyed had
I inspected the remains of the public institutions. They had been
destroyed with a thoroughness that could not have been the result of
mere military conflict. Every last piece of equipment in the
hospitals (which had long since been emptied of staff and patients)
had been laboriously disassembled beyond hope of repair or use.
Every wheel had been severed by metal cutters from every trolley,
cut at the cost of what must have been a very considerable effort.
It was as if a horde of people with terrible experiences of
hospitals, doctors, and medicine had passed through to exact their
But this was not the explanation, because every other institution
had undergone similar destruction. The books in the university
library had been one and all—without exception—pulled from the shelves and piled into contemptuous heaps,
many with pages torn from them or their spines deliberately broken.
It was the revenge of barbarians upon civilization, and of the
powerless upon the powerful, or at least upon what they perceived as
the source of their power. Ignorance revolted against knowledge, for
the same reasons that my brother and I smashed the radio all those
years before. Could there have been a clearer indication of hatred
of the lower for the higher?
In fact there was—and not very far away, in a building called the Centennial
Hall, where the inauguration ceremonies of the presidents of Liberia
took place. The hall was empty now, except for the busts of former
presidents, some of them overturned, around the walls—and a Steinway grand piano, probably the only instrument of
its kind in the entire country, two-thirds of the way into the hall.
The piano, however, was not intact: its legs had been sawed off
(though they were by design removable) and the body of the piano
laid on the ground, like a stranded whale. Around it were disposed
not only the sawed-off legs, but little piles of human feces.
I had never seen a more graphic rejection of human refinement. I
tried to imagine other possible meanings of the scene but could not.
Of course, the piano represented a culture that was not fully
Liberia's own and had not been assimilated fully by everyone in the
country: but that the piano represented not just a particular
culture but the very idea of civilization itself was obvious in the
very coarseness of the gesture of contempt.
Appalled as I was by the scene in the Centennial Hall, I was yet
more appalled by the reaction of two young British journalists, also
visiting Monrovia, to whom I described it, assuming that they would
want to see for themselves. But they could see nothing significant
in the vandalizing of the piano—only an inanimate object, when all is said and
done—in the context of a
civil war in which scores of thousands of people had been killed and
many more had been displaced from their homes. They saw no
connection whatever between the impulse to destroy the piano and the
impulse to kill, no connection between respect for human life and
for the finer productions of human labor, no connection between
civilization and the inhibition against the random killing of fellow
beings, no connection between the book burnings in Nazi Germany and
all the subsequent barbarities of that regime. Likewise, the fact
that the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution in China had
destroyed thousands of pianos while also killing 1 million people
conveyed no meaning or message to them.
If anything, they "understood" the destruction of the piano in
the Centennial Hall and even sympathized with it. The "root cause"
of Liberia's civil war, they said, had been the long dominance of an
elite—in the same way,
presumably, that poverty is often said to be the "root cause" of
crime. The piano was an instrument, both musical and political, of
that elite, and therefore its destruction was itself a step in the
direction of democracy, an expression of the general will.
This way of thinking about culture and
civilization—possible only for
people who believe that the comforts and benefits they enjoy are
immortal and indestructible—has become almost standard among the intelligentsia of
Western societies. The word civilization itself now rarely
appears in academic texts or in journalism without the use of
ironical quotation marks, as if civilization were a mythical
creature, like the Loch Ness monster or the Abominable Snowman, and
to believe in it were a sign of philosophical naïveté. Brutal episodes,
such as are all too frequent in history, are treated as
demonstrations that civilization and culture are a sham, a mere mask
for crassly material interests—as if there were any protection from man's permanent
temptation to brutality except his striving after civilization and
culture. At the same time, achievements are taken for granted, as
always having been there, as if man's natural state were knowledge
rather than ignorance, wealth rather than poverty, tranquillity
rather than anarchy. It follows that nothing is worthy of, or
requires, protection and preservation, because all that is good
comes about as a free gift of Nature.
To paraphrase Burke, all that is necessary for barbarism to
triumph is for civilized men to do nothing: but in fact for the past
few decades, civilized men have done worse than nothing—they have actively thrown in their lot with the barbarians.
They have denied the distinction between higher and lower, to the
invariable advantage of the latter. They have denied the superiority
of man's greatest cultural achievements over the most ephemeral and
vulgar of entertainments; they have denied that the scientific
labors of brilliant men have resulted in an objective understanding
of Nature, and, like Pilate, they have treated the question of truth
as a jest; above all, they have denied that it matters how people
conduct themselves in their personal lives, provided only that they
consent to their own depravity. The ultimate object of the
deconstructionism that has swept the academy like an epidemic has
been civilization itself, as the narcissists within the academy try
to find a theoretical justification for their own revolt against
civilized restraint. And thus the obvious truth—that it is necessary to repress, either by law or by custom,
the permanent possibility in human nature of brutality and
barbarism—never finds its way
into the press or other media of mass communication.
For the last decade, I have been observing close-up, from the
vantage point of medical practice, the effects upon a large and
susceptible population of the erosion of civilized standards of
conduct brought about by the assault upon them by intellectuals. If
Joseph Conrad were to search nowadays for the heart of
darkness—the evil of human
conduct untrammeled by the fear of legal sanction from without or of
moral censure from within—he would have to look no further than an English city such
And how can I not be preoccupied with the search for the origins
and ramifications of this evil when every working day I come upon
stories like the one I heard today—the very day I write these words?
It concerns a young man aged 20, who still lived with his mother,
and who had tried to kill himself. Not long before, his mother's
current boyfriend, a habitual drunkard ten years her junior, had, in
a fit of jealousy, attacked the mother in the young man's presence,
grabbing her round the throat and strangling her. The young man
tried to intervene, but the older man was not only six inches taller
but much stronger. He knocked the young man to the ground and kicked
him several times in the head. Then he dragged him outside and
smashed his head on the ground until he was unconscious and blood
ran from a deep wound.
The young man regained consciousness in the ambulance, but his
mother insisted that he give no evidence to the police because, had
he done so, her lover would have gone to jail: and she was most
reluctant to give up a man who was, in his own words to the young
man's 11-year-old sister, "a better f--k than your father." A little
animal pleasure meant more to the mother than her son's life; and so
he was confronted by the terrifying realization that, in the words
of Joseph Conrad, he was born alone, he lived alone, and would die
Who, in listening to such cases day after day and year after
year, as I have, could fail to wonder what ideas and what social
arrangements have favored the spread of conduct so vile that its
contemplation produces almost physical nausea? How can one avoid
driving oneself to distraction by considering who is more to blame,
the man who behaves as I have described, or the woman who accepts
such behavior for the sake of a moment's pleasure?
This brutality is now a mass phenomenon rather than a sign of
individual psychopathology. Recently, I went to a soccer game in my
city on behalf of a newspaper; the fans of the opposing teams had to
be separated by hundreds of policemen, disposed in military fashion.
The police allowed no contact whatever between the opposing
factions, shepherding or corraling the visiting fans into their own
area of the stadium with more security precautions than the most
dangerous of criminals ever faces.
In the stadium, I sat next to a man, who appeared perfectly
normal and decent, and his 11-year-old son, who seemed a
well-behaved little boy. Suddenly, in the middle of the match, the
father leaped up and, in unison with thousands of others, began to
chant: "Who the f--k do you think you are? Who the f--k do you think
you are?" while making, also in common with thousands of others, a
threatening gesture in the direction of the opposing supporters that
looked uncommonly like a fascist salute. Was this the example he
wanted to set for his son? Apparently so. The frustrations of
poverty could hardly explain his conduct: the cost of the tickets to
the game could have fed a family more than adequately for a week.
After the game was over, I saw more clearly than ever that the
thin blue line is no metaphor. Had it not been for the presence of
the police (whose failures I have never hesitated to criticize),
there would have been real violence and bloodshed, perhaps even
death. The difference between an event that passed off peacefully
and one that would end in mayhem, destruction, injury, and death was
the presence of a relative handful of resolute men prepared to do
Despite the evidence of rising barbarism all around us, no
betrayal is too trivial for the Quislings of civilization to
consider worthwhile. Recently, at the airport, I noticed an
advertisement for a firm of elegant and costly shirt- and
tie-makers, headquartered in London's most expensive area. The model
they chose to advertise their products was a shaven-headed, tattooed
monster, with scars on his scalp from bar brawls—the human type that beats women, carries a knife, and throws
punches at soccer games. The advertisement is not ironical, as
academic cultural critics would pretend, but an abject capitulation
to and flattery of the utmost coarseness and brutality. Savagery is
all the rage.
If any good comes of the terrible events in New York, let it be
this: that our intellectuals should realize that civilization is
worth defending, and that the adversarial stance to tradition is not
the beginning and end of wisdom and virtue. We have more to lose
than they know.