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Civilization and the snob factor

I enjoyed Herbert Gans's letter (October/00) expressing dismay at the age-old scholarly signposts of civilization. "Concentration and specialization" are the value-neutral terms archaeologists now use to define civilized states. People and surpluses were concentrated (classically within walled cities) into specialized castes of mass producers (farmers and levee-tenders especially) who serviced elite consumers (the "idle rich" whose amusements create civilization). In the literature of urban genesis, civilization and hierarchy are as inter-essential as cities and skyscrapers.

Over the last three millennia, this conceit of the better class of ancient Greeks has evolved not a whit. It fosters curious blind spots. In our own day it took a clever college dropout, I. F. Stone, to note that Platonism, famously a precursor to Christianity, flourished around a defining flaw that classicists and Christians alike had overlooked: Socrates and his career student Plato were unregenerate snobs. They could no more earn the sacred trust of their social inferiors than they could, say, take their wives or servants seriously. Hierarchy can't be analyzed as long as it's ordained by God and Ph.D. programs, so Professor Gans is doubly to be commended for his skeptical eye.

Religion has other informative tangents. Original Sin in the Christian tradition is, with or without God, first and foremost a feeling of incompleteness, brokenness. Christians across the ages are informed by this anguish when expiating on humankind's bleak, black hearts. We Christians consider this broken heart to be a universal human quality. Yet Professor Gans probably knows better than I do that brokenness is in fact not a universal human feeling, though I gather it's common enough in Asia's civilized lineages more ancient than ours.

But "uncivilized" lineages, however intelligent and educated, haven't the same gut sense that the Christian West has so long bewailed. Here's my own unlettered conceit: our feeling that's traditionally called Original Sin is the shadow of internalized hierarchy, the wound of elites torn from the family of man. Here's how I mean that. When the CIA gofer Augusto Pinochet was hooted out of Chile's Presidential Palace by a huge majority of voters, the first chance they got, one of our Chicago Boys looked up from his formulations to explain why his "free" market "reforms" were so unpopular despite being "good for everyone." The people, he explained, are stupid. Back to his books, case closed. That Chicago boy, and many more like him of all sexes, I submit, is an old-fashioned, top-down Original Sinner. And what an old-school Platonist! Need I add that globalization writ large, with its heaping helpings of neo-colonial globaloney that only elites will swallow, is another not at all original sin?

As the Protestant ethic degenerated into spirited capitalism, the so-called law of the jungle became ever more explicitly the ethic used by elites to distinguish themselves from their natal herd. It is no less barbarous for that. Professor Gans, thank you and bless you for your concern. We haven't begun to grasp civilization-if only education could help!

Charles F. Custer, X'75
Redway, California



  DECEMBER 2000

  > > Volume 93, Number 2


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