There's an ad you can see in New York subway stations, that says "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad." The NY subway authority initially refused to allow the ad, placed by Pamela Geller, saying it was demeaning, but a court ruled that the FIrst Amendment didn't allow them to apply that consideration. The (Muslim, liberal, feminist) columnist Mona Eltahawy didn't like the ad much, and got arrested while spray painting it. I haven't much to say about the speech issues here, or about whether Eltahawy should have been arrested. What I want to get at rather is the nature of her opposition to this ad. As far as I can tell, her objection is that it deems Arabs uncivilized, and uses a word like "savage."
But here's the selfsame Eltahawy, from just three months ago:
So: Yes, women all over the world have problems; yes, the United States has yet to elect a female president; and yes, women continue to be objectified in many "Western" countries (I live in one of them). That's where the conversation usually ends when you try to discuss why Arab societies hate women.
But let's put aside what the United States does or doesn't do to women. Name me an Arab country, and I'll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of ever-married women in Egypt -- including my mother and all but one of her six sisters -- have had their genitals cut in the name of modesty, then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating "virginity tests" merely for speaking out, it's no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband "with good intentions" no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are "good intentions"? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is "not severe" or "directed at the face." What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Middle East, it's not better than you think. It's much, much worse. Even after these "revolutions," all is more or less considered well with the world as long as women are covered up, anchored to the home, denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, forced to get permission from men to travel, and unable to marry without a male guardian's blessing -- or divorce either.[emphasis added]
Civilization metrics aren't unique; there are going to be radical incommensurabilities between my rankings and those produced by someone with a conception of the Good that's at root sharply divergent from mine. I cannot persuade the Salafi Imam that a life of sexual license and debauchery is better than one spent covered in drapes. Plus even people who broadly agree will disagree about the proper situational weighting of different goods. Still, any metric I could endorse for ranking the Israelis and the Arabs today by 'civilization' would almost certainly have to rank one of these rather higher than the other. In fact, Eltahawy endorses explicit rankings herself:
Any metric that'd appeal to an NY subway-goer viewing that ad would have to take some things very seriously indeed: things like religious freedom, the equality of men and women, impersonal but revisable standards for the treatment of people under law, the production and consumption of literature, science, music, art, cinema and mathematics; political freedom and the ability of man to exert some control over his political dispensation, robust and transparent institutions, and the treatment of minorities or outsiders. That last of course covers quite directly the treatment of the Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis. But it's going to be very hard for Eltahawy to pretend the Israelis aren't more civilized than the people they oppress. She has issued her rankings already; she doesn't get to walk them back out of a simple dislike of Geller's rhetorical purpose in deploying them. Them's the civilizational rankings, and - to quote her - "the hell with political correctness." [Please take such obvious qualifiers as today/currently/contingently/non-essentially for given.]
Not a single Arab country ranks in the top 100 in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet's rock bottom. Poor or rich, we all hate our women. Neighbors Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, might be eons apart when it comes to GDP, but only four places separate them on the index, with the kingdom at 131 and Yemen coming in at 135 out of 135 countries. Morocco, often touted for its "progressive" family law (a 2005 report by Western "experts" called it "an example for Muslim countries aiming to integrate into modern society"), ranks 129; according to Morocco's Ministry of Justice, 41,098 girls under age 18 were married there in 2010.
But this situation is extremely common! The history of cultural encounters between the civilized and the "savage" where the former are more powerful, IS very substantially the story of civilized people killing, enslaving, robbing and oppressing their less civilized fellows. Any American who's studied his history should know this viscerally. The important thing is to realize that there are two different valuable commodities here: ethics and culture. As important aspect of the first, we have how decently/fairly/kindly a people treat - and believe they ought to treat - those around them. This is not the only part of ethics - we must consider how they treat each other as Eltahawy v1.0 sees, and the values they espouse for all - but it's an important part. As proxy for the second, we may consider roughly their pedagogical/inspirational value: the books they write, their ideas and music and philosophy and whether they stared at the stars and proved theorems or traveled far and wide to discover wondrous new things and people. These are both important things, and they're not the same thing.
A word like 'civilization' conflates them both, and several things besides. Civilized people believe their intellectual and cultural accomplishments are worthier than those of others (less civilized people often agree with that assessment). They also believe (like all others) that their ethical values are superior. What civilization does is to introduce an extra element of hypocrisy to the mix: V.S. Naipaul gets at something important, about civilization and the lie, in A Bend in the River:
Those of us who had been in that part of Africa before the Europeans had never lied about ourselves. Not because we were more moral. We didn't lie because we never assessed ourselves and didn't think there was anything for us to lie about; we were people who simply did what we did. But the Europeans could do one thing and say something quite different; and they could act in this way because they had an idea of what they owed to their civilization. It was their great advantage over us. The Europeans wanted gold and slaves, like everyone else; but at the same time they wanted statues put up to themselves as people who had done good things for the slaves. Being an intelligent and energetic people, and at the peak of their powers, they could express both sides of their civilization; and they got both the slaves and the statues.
Civilized people realpolitik fully as coldly as anyone else. The Israeli strategy of placing many of their people in settler pockets is a transparently wicked land-grab. But civilized people don't like thinking such things about about themselves, and try to reorganize the intellectual landscape to suit them. So even though vastly more Palestinians are killed by Israelis each year than vice versa, the violent side is the Palestinians with their Hamas and terrorism. And this frame works because the Israelis are civilized and the Palestinians are not.
Surveying the history of European and American involvement in the Middle East, it would take a pretty brazen sort of person to insist that Middle Easterners aren't vastly more sinned against than sinning. Iran/Saudi Arabia/Yemen/Syria/Libya/Afghanistan haven't been overthrowing democratically elected US governments and bankrolling dictators, or carving out parcels of other peoples' land to compensate their own victims, or deeming the US too irresponsible to keep nukes while having and using their own, or maintaining hundred-to-one kill ratios. But those are the places that are dangerous festering grounds of instability. Because occasionally there is blow back, itself re-framed as hatred of "freedoms", which yes, Al Qaeda despises, but no, not enough to crash planes into buildings for. If Rage Boy were more civilized, he wouldn't be agitating over Muhammad cartoons. One of the more heartless ironies of being uncivilized is you don't even aim your rhetoric right.
Support the savage. Do so proudly; his treatment is shameful. But don't think he'd generate a society you'd like to live in. That's decades away, or more.