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Lessons in Civilization

4.10.01
Balint Vazsonyi

Regardless of the causes, regardless of the outcome, an important aspect of our current negotiations with the Chinese is being overlooked by all commentators. For the first time in known history, there exists a country with the ability to have it all its own way. It is called the United States of America. If it so desired, it could render the Chinese Air Force a matter of the past within 24 hours; if it so desired, it could transform the People's Republic of China into grazing fields in a matter of days.

What makes Americans special is the absence of such desires.

During my first years in this country, I was still a prisoner of continental European points of view. Accordingly, I looked upon people as civilized if they had read the books, studied the art, listened to the music, appreciated and practiced refined manners, possessed good taste, and were unfailingly polite. A country was considered civilized if it was inhabited by a significant proportion of such people.

A long-standing measure of civilized behavior was the ability of a man to kiss a lady's hand without bumping his nose in the process.

Forty-two years among Americans have taught me the real measures of civilization. Against all expectations, quoting Shakespeare liberally, discussing the finer points of Vermeer's handling of light, or being able to whistle any of the themes in the nine Beethoven Symphonies does not do the trick. The twentieth century has furnished too many contrary examples.

Civilized behavior seems to result when people strive to be decent. Simple, isn't it? I hear your astonished protestations. "Is that all there is to it?"

Try to think it through.

How many places in the world do you know where people set this as a goal to themselves?

This country was founded by people who wanted to do the decent thing. They created a framework that permitted others to do the decent thing. They persuaded newcomers, by example, that they will be better off doing the decent thing.

These days, we hear even more often than usual how young this country is. By contrast, commentators point to the many thousand years during which Chinese culture has developed. Even someone of Dr. Henry Kissinger's experience makes the, clearly sarcastic, point that China has managed to survive all the millennia without the benefit of advice from the U.S.

I respectfully propose a different take on the matter.

One might argue that so many thousands of years should have sufficed to develop civilized practices. Now, the Chinese are known to be immensely proud of their civilization. And residents in our nation's capital are frequently reminded on WNVC Channel 56 of everything the Chinese had invented way ahead, as they never fail to point out, of anything in Western Civilization.

What these newscasts from the People's Republic do not discuss is to what extent the Chinese people benefitted from the great Chinese inventions.

If you want to know, consider the abject poverty in which the overwhelming majority of China's 1.2 billion people have to survive each day of their miserable existence.

Civilization does not come in the form of a Ming vase. Civilization does not come in the form of fireworks, or paper, or gunpowder. Civilization is writing laws which bind the writers before anyone else. Civilization is recognizing rights which are the same for everyone. Civilization is trying to do better.

The most visible aspect of the young American civilization is freedom of movement. Rooted deeply in the ancient English law of habeas corpus, close to three hundred million people, representing all the countries of the world, are current beneficiaries of this most natural of states that seems to be alien to Chinese leaders, as it had been for seven centuries to their Russian counterparts.

The daredevil pilot who appears to have killed himself in the process of endangering the lives of twenty-four others is one person and, as such, not necessarily representative of a country. But those who have been denying freedom of movement to the members of our military do represent an enormous country that has long laid claim to a higher state of civilization than all the rest of the world.

Freedom of movement - freedom altogether - has always been so alien a concept to Chinese leaders that we cannot fault them for failing to appreciate how uncivilized they are.

But we can and ought to fault our fellow-Americans - be they newscasters, commentators, or callers to C-SPAN - if they don't realize, don't value, and do not stand up for the unique gift that is theirs merely by living among fellow-Americans.

For a long time, America and Americans have exercised a degree of patience not previously observed in the affairs of man. It comes in the form of not taking umbrage when countries turn anti-American soon after their very existence had been saved by the U.S. military. It comes in the form of granting, then forgiving vast loans, and not even collecting interest. It comes in the form of absorbing repeated, extended, wholesale provocation by adversaries infinitely weaker.

It is the decent, civilized thing for the strong to exercise patience toward the weak.

But it is positively indecent for Americans to suggest moral equivalence between the enemies and the defenders of freedom. And dignity, if that be the issue, does not come from receiving unwarranted apologies.

Dignity is the fruit of civilized behavior.