restricted access The New Cult of Civilizational Superiority
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The New Cult of Civilizational Superiority

Why has the term civilization come back into currency? What hopes and insecurities are expressed by its re-emergence as a key term of art? My guess is that the end of the Cold War and the accelerated pace of economic globalization, population migration, tourism, and cross-national cultural communication combine today to increase the sense of insecurity among numerous constituencies. People encounter ideas, faiths, identities, foods, skin tones, music, sexual practices, and languages that disrupt the presumptions to universality or superiority automatically invested in their own practices and habits. And “the nation,” so recently the site of conservative calls to overcome corruption, division, and fragmentation, now seems too small a unit to overwhelm these insecurities. So American publicists such as Jean Elshtain, Newt Gingrich, William Bennett and Samuel Huntington reach into the stockpile of cultural terms of belonging, superiority and exclusion and pull out the idea of civilization. The very ambiguity of the term does some of the work here. For “civilization” is often used both, generically, to denote any mannered way of being through which forbearance, modesty and civility are folded into social relations and, distributively, to rank different places according to a single standard of cultural achievement. You invoke the first sense of the term to get people committed to its importance and then wheel out the distributive idea to show why “we” must take charge of the world, or defend ourselves against internal and external threats to our civilizational integrity. To speak of civilization is often to slide between offering an articulation of the universal conditions of cultural life and defending a more particular set of practices from cultural assault. It is a perfect term for nervous people who seek to cover cultural defensiveness with a veneer of large-mindedness. Contemporary uses of the term recall theorists such as Alexis de Tocqueville in the early nineteenth century and Immanuel Kant at the end of the eighteenth. Tocqueville was worried about what to do with “Indians” who occupied the land of America but lacked the two prerequisites necessary to democratic civilization: Christianity and the capacity for agri-culture. (It really did not matter that he was wrong on the second point.) Kant was concerned about how to organize world relations between nations at different levels of civilizational attainment. Here I confine myself to a comparison between Kant and Huntington on the relation between civilization and Christianity.

Kant is a cosmopolitanism who thinks that Christianity is the historical faith that comes closest to identifying the true source and nature of universal morality. His cosmopolitanism is closely linked to Christian universalism. Buthe shifts the center of gravity of that universality from a divine command received by believers to a moral command necessarily given by the subject to itself that contains within it the postulate of a universal, moral God. In Kant the universal dictates of subjective morality precede the moral God vindicated by them. This Copernican revolution within Christianity allowed Kant to give (universal) philosophy authority over law and theology in the German university, “rational religion” authority over sectarian conflict within Christian states, and Christian civilization moral authority over other civilizations in the world at large. I limit myself to two quotations. The first comes from Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone , when Kantis defining the Christian idea of the will as the principle faculty of moral life for human beings as such.

But in the moral religion (and of the public religions which have ever existed, the Christian alone is moral) it is a basic principle that each must do as much as lies in his power to become a better man... 1

The second appears within The Conflict of the Faculties when Kant is giving philosophy authority over theology in the university and rational religion authority over diverse Christian sects in the public sphere:

Now a code of God’s statutory (and so revealed) will...would be the most effective organ for guiding men and citizens...if only it could be accredited to the will of God. {However, there are insuperable problems here}. But in some cases man can be sure that the voice he hears...