Civilization and war

A: You look at pictures of old movies and old newsreels. All the men have suits, even the poor ones. All the women are dressed classy.

B: What do you think of that?

A: I wish we could be like that. Our dress is too often slovenly, unmannered, me-based.

B: We want to be individuals in our dress as opposed to being collective and civilized.

A: I was just hoping we could dress well – show a basic respect for our life with others. I want to raise the standard of our public image.

B: I’m not sure I want that at all.

A: What do you mean? Wouldn’t you want a well-mannered and civilized world if you could have one?

B: I just said I’m not sure. I’m really just unsure. It seems to me dress presents us with the choice between a uniform world and an individualist one. I see some value in a uniform world – it really is more unified and collective. But you can see in those old newsreels you’re fond of all those well-dressed ladies waving handkerchiefs at soldiers marching off to World Wars.

A: So what? You can’t think that a common dress causes World Wars!

B: It gives people the sense of acting collectively, and one of those collective actions will always be war – and modern war is too massive and horrible. Weapons are ridiculously destructive – they have been so for over a hundred years now.

A: What war has ever not been horrible?

B: Well, sure, they’ve all involved killing, but at some point the technology became so overwhelming that wars between industrialized powers ended up killing everyone like insects.

A: Stop. You’re reading way too much into this. We can have more uniform dress that doesn’t lead to war.

B: Maybe we can. But we should take seriously the possibility that we gravitated to individualism in dress and manners because we were too horrified by the results of uniformity. We couldn’t have collective mores without having Nationalism, and Nationalism proved horrible.

A: I suppose this would explain our cynicism and suspicion of authority too.

B: Maybe it would. I don’t know that any of us has come to terms with World War 1 yet. Sure, we might be shallow for our cynicism, perpetual amusement, and our decadent fascination with transgressive behavior. But what if we really were a national collective? It’s great while you’re getting literature, high art, classy architecture, etc. but what about what about when it comes time to march to war? Haven’t we just seen the downside and judged that it isn’t worth it? Remember that the me-generation was essentially an anti-war one. Those who defined what the generation was going to be were both individualist and anti-war, and this was all apiece.

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1 Comment

  1. February 17, 2015 at 8:51 am

    I saw the movie ‘Birdman’ over the weekend, and coincidentally between that and the other marquee offerings, I found myself thinking ‘If only Emperor Karl had won the War…’ (again).

    Tie this into your discussion on phariseeism from the earlier post. Much historical, social or cultural analysis resembles the line of A & B (‘Habsburgism’ vs. neue sachlichkeit) – religious phariseeism : ritual/morality without holiness :: historical phariseeism : nostalgia/analysis without understanding.

    This seems extendable wherever we hazard presumption.


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