Civilization and Its Discontented One

Springtime has arrived at last to New England and I spend a leisurely Sunday morning in bed, reading the Sunday Globe and drinking coffee. The windows are open slightly, providing the setting of birds singing and a warm breeze blowing. It is all quite pleasant.

And it is all quite counter to the news I read; a lengthy expose on the problems with the state’s correctional system; a tragic account of young lives ending too soon in a deadly car accident; pontificating columnists of all stripes weighing in on the violence that befelled the Virginia Tech campus this week; more in the ongoing ‘series’ on the state of universal health care coverage in Massachusetts and in our society at large (i.e. ‘mandatory health insurance’, which is hardly the same as actual health care) ; a seemingly philosphical piece arguing the merits (the nerve, even) of assessing what students, in truth, learn at our institutions of higher education in exchange for the hefty price of tuition; a story on the phenomena of both Bono and an interesting new twist on the sacred called ‘U2charist’. As an aside: I also read the entire sports section, but I’m not up for any comment on this. Not today.

But then I stumble across what I believe to be possiby THE most enlightening piece in the entire paper; one paragraph at the bottom of a sidebar on page A17, under the heading ‘The Nation Today’ – Missouri – Man on run drowns in casino’s moat. In part, it reads… A man fleeing security drowned early yesterday after he leaped over a railing into a moat surrounding a casino, authorities said. It was the second death of its kind at the casino in recent years. Moats are common fixtures at Missouri casinos.

Of course, seeing the word ‘moat’ immediately brings to mind images of castles and dragons and men in armor, sitting around large, wooden tables, eating meat off the bone with their bare hands and drinking wine from oversized goblets. Pieces of food and dribblings of drink resting in their beards, seemingly quite disgusting, yet serving as no deterrent to the fair maidens awaiting their beckoning to provide the needed sexual favor or two (yes, I’ve been watching “The Tudors” on Showtime).

I read the story out loud to my spouse lying next to me and she laughs. We say, almost in unison, “Still works.”

And that was the moment of enlightenment.

As a society, we scratch our collective head, trying to figure out how we got to our current state and where we’re possibly headed from here. We put forth grand theories as we debate the issues of gun control, gun violence, lack of health care, people falling through the cracks of a cavernous social service system, media bias, marriage, divorce, economic disparities, our obsession with material consumption, the failure of the educational system, global warming, global starvation, and a global AIDS epidemic. Yet all of our theories, all of our arguments, and perhaps even all of our hope appears founded on one rather sure assumption, an assumption countered by both the presence and effectiveness of a moat – that we live in a civilized society.

Yes, we drive cars and fly in airplanes. We use computers and talk on cell phones. We have running water, indoor plumbing, heat and electricity. We use utensils (mostly). We wear clothes (somewhat). We read and write (to some degree). By all outward appearances, we would lead one to believe that we are civilized. But maybe we’ve just lead ourselves to believe such.

Civilization implies an advanced stage of social development, ‘advanced’ being the operative word. ‘Advanced’ as in making progress, moving forward. We still settle our disagreements with force, we still yield power to the one with the most weapons, we still grant the greatest favor to those who merely entertain us, who help us forget our current reality for awhile. We still live for today, with little thought of what we’ll leave behind. Even more insidious, we live for tomorrow, yet it is a tomorrow in some other world, a world excusing us from our behavior in the here and now. To paraphrase Mohandas K. Ghandhi, we practice the seven social sins; politics without principle, wealth without work, commerce without morality, pleasure without conscience, education without character, science without humanity, and worship without sacrifice. Surely such behavior is not quite representative of a civilized world.

How will we ever solve the health care crisis when we don’t begin at a place where we truly care about the health and well-being of one another? How will we ever find an end to world poverty and disease and violence and destruction when we’re so attached to the idea of “to each his or her own”? What is left to be said, when more people vote for the next “American Idol” than the next American president?

We build moats around our casinos. We build fences along our borders. We build walls around our hearts. They keep us safe and grant us, at least on the inside, the appearance of order, of civility. And all the while people and ideas and hope drown in them.

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