The Samovar

When did your nation become civilised?
January 7, 2007, 1:16 am
Filed under: Politics

I’m not sure mine has entirely, but it wasn’t even close until recently.

Of course, standards of civilisation change over time and we can hope for a time when people will look back at how we behave today and see us as barbaric (and not just technologically). For the purposes of this entry though, I use my own standards of civilisation and hope that it overlaps considerably with others’.

In 1918 women were first given the vote in the UK (but only if they were over 30 and with a certain minimum amount of property), and it wasn’t equalised with men until 1928. In the US women were given the vote in 1920. In Switzerland, they didn’t get it until 1971. I think disenfrachising half your population pretty much automatically disqualifies you from civilised status. Black people didn’t get the vote in the US until 1965 and even today face more difficulties in voting than white people (cf. Florida 2000).

In 1965 the death penalty was abolished in the UK except for treason and piracy and was completely abolished in 1998. In the USA the death penalty is still practised. Again, I would argue that this is inconsistent with a civilised society.

Bringing us up to the present, in Britain courts can hear evidence obtained by torture; people can be detained without trial; etc. In the USA torture has been effectively legalised. Torture and secret detentions without trial are not the behaviour of civilised societies.

It was recently reported that the proportion of women in parliament in the UK is lower than in Iraq, Afghanistan and Rwanda (a slightly misleading statistic for various reasons, but I’ll leave this point).

So, if the UK and USA are civilised countries at all, they certainly weren’t before 1965 and in many ways they still aren’t. I suggest that we bear this in mind when we consider the actions of our government in Iraq and Afghanistan, and maybe others in future. Not, I hasten to add, because we shouldn’t be in favour of civilised societies and that we should just accept and tolerate uncivilised behaviour, but because our own grasp of what is civilised is still rather shaky, and because our history shows how enormously laborious and difficult a state it is to achieve.

Suppose for example, the USA invades Iran and sets up a secular government which bans stem cell research there (currently something that Iran does rather a lot of, and which has the potential for huge medical breakthroughs with enormous consequences). A victory for civilisation? It’s not straightforward.



It’s highly debatable whether the US has set up a secular govt. in Iraq!

Interestingly, Nouri al-Maliki was the founder of Hizbollah’s Internal Security division, the Hizbollah faction associated with Iran (other factions don’t have Iranian connections; it’s an umbrella organisation). Its precursor was responsible for the Beirut embassy bombing.

Comment by Edward the Bonobo

Good points Ed, thanks!

Comment by Dan Goodman

Thank you very much! It has long disturbed me that the US considers itself “civilized” and “enlightened”, and yet is still so reluctant at the idea of a female president! And how anyone can look at an execution and not find it bizarre and deeply disturbing is beyond me!

You guys are smart!!!!

Comment by Sputnik

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