Commentary: Now, a different clash of civilizations

“The Darkest Hour,”  a film which emphasizes the courage and iron will of Winston Churchill through the first weeks of the Second World War, is drawing audiences and praise on its release in North America. It shows new generations that this man – mocked and marginalized in the 1930s by his party – was an inspirational leader during those bleak days, and beyond. Yet the acclaimed war-time prime minister was also an imperialist and a racist.

Protesters hold an anti-refugee banner during a rally organizd by far-right nationalist groups to mark the 99th anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw, November 11, 2017. Agencja Gazeta/Agata Grzybowska via REUTERS

Churchill was not out of step with his time. It was widely accepted in the first half of the 20th century that the world was composed of strata of humanity which could be ranked according to their quality. That view, the crudest misreading of Charles Darwin, had seemed, at least in the West, to have died, or at least been consigned to the fringes of political and intellectual life. But it hasn’t.

In 1937, Churchill told a royal commission that he did not think that a great wrong had been done to either the “Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia.” Referring to whites, he added: “I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place."

One of his biographers, John Charmley, said that Churchill believed white Protestant Christians were top of the heap, followed by white Roman Catholics, while Indians were higher than Africans. His famed “This was their finest hour” speech, delivered at the time of what was indeed Britain’s darkest hour in June 1940 – when the British army was trapped at Dunkirk and a Nazi invasion of the UK seemed imminent – invoked both Christian civilization and the Empire as precious institutions which must be saved.

For the imperialist British, the renunciation of empire after World War Two was recognition, at least by the Labour government that replaced Churchill’s Conservatives, that imperial rule could no longer be afforded by a government that had earmarked huge expenditure for the construction of the welfare state. Social democracy trumped imperial glory; reluctantly, the latter was progressively given up, transmuted into a Commonwealth of independent states. The certainties of racial superiority and a right to rule justified by a higher civilization floundered and seemed to drown in the years following, as liberals and leftists and a new generation of young radicals repudiated and sneered at their imperialist elders.


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Yet civilization as a marker of differences never went away. In 1992, Harvard professor Samuel P. Huntington wrote an article in Foreign Affairs magazine whose core was a few short sentences: “The principal conflicts of global politics will occur between nations and groups of different civilizations. The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.” With these, he inserted a new perspective into the policies within and the debate among nations. That was that they, often without realizing it, were bound not just by national borders but by shared cultural and political bonds beyond these borders.

As the Cold War ended, Huntington argued, the West had ceased to dominate. Non-western civilizations, combining millions, even billions of people, “join(ed) the West as movers and shapers of history.” Some groups were relatively tiny, such as the Anglophone Caribbean. Others were much larger. The Slavic world, with Moscow as its capital, reckoned tens of millions. The Islamic civilization had Arab, Turkic and Malay subdivisions. Western civilization had two large parts, separated by thousands of miles, closely linked by culture - North America and Europe.

The idea was immediately challenged – especially by liberals, whose vision was of a more fluid world, with peoples striving for free, democratic politics. Huntington’s idea was conservative, but it was not defined by race, nor did he give the civilizations a hierarchy. They were different, neither above nor below each other. Liberals – and others – could disagree, but respect it.

But now the old meaning, or some of it, is back, in a form with which liberals cannot live. In another article in Foreign Affairs this month, Rogers Brubaker, a sociologist at the University of California in Los Angeles, detects a new ideology – civilizationalism – developed by far right, anti-immigrant parties, mainly in Europe. According to Brubaker, it’s a warrior ideology, “a pan-European civilizational identity”, threatened by and ready to threaten another civilizational identity – Islam. In doing so, it “poses grave dangers to liberal democracy.”

In an increasingly secular Europe, civilizationalism stresses Christian roots and symbols. It isn’t fascist, though there are traces of fascism in many of the parties. Instead, many parties take up liberal positions like gender equality and support for same-sex relationships. Most have dumped the anti-Semitism which marked them – especially the old French National Front – and have done a 180-degree turn to become philo-Semitic, enthusiasts about the state of Israel, protective of the Jews in their own countries.

Brubaker barely mentions Donald Trump, but the sociologist’s civilizational taxonomy describes many of the positions the president has taken up – sometimes to the disapproval of the Republican leadership. Trump’s ideology – if something so inconsistent can be so described – is also anti-Muslim and supportive of the so-called alt-right. He has persisted with various incarnations of a travel ban aimed at citizens of specific Muslim-majority countries – finally prevailing this month when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the latest version to go into effect. In August, his early response to a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, was that there were some “very fine people” among the torch-carrying marchers. Earlier this month, he retweeted to his millions of followers unverified videos originating from the extreme right-wing Britain First group showing purported Muslims assaulting a range of apparently white individuals – an action impolitic enough to earn a public reprimand from British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Trump would seem, by design or by repeated whim, to lean towards his own version of civilizationalism – with Islam as the central target. His ideology is hardly definable. Trump himself is so much a mixture of proper, presumably-scripted sentiments, coupled with lunges, in comments or tweets, towards the outer shores of the right. Unlike the leaders of the European right-wing nationalists whom he has at times commended, he has not laid out a coherent platform and has changed his party affiliation five times since 1987. But in his present guise he seems to see himself, and white America, as part of a Christian-centric “civilization.”

About the Author

John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is senior research fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror”. He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times and the founder of FT Magazine.

The views expressed in this article are not those of Reuters News.