Humanity, Not Quite Ready for Civilization: MLK’s Audacious Belief

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Click to read Parts 12, 4 and 5 in the “Humanity, Not Quite Ready for Civilization” series.


Have you ever stopped to ask yourself what Civilization means?


Nobel Peace laureate and philosopher Albert Schweitzer did. In his book, The Philosophy of Civilization, the great thinker writes: “We have drifted out of the stream of civilization because there was amongst us no real reflection upon what civilization is.”


Thus, let us reflect. I mean it. Unless you’re performing CPR on a hapless victim of Blue Shirt brutality, stop whatever you’re doing. Trust me, that viral spoof news story about Donald Trump choosing between Ted Nugent and a Donkey Dung Sea Cucumber as his VP running mate will be there five minutes from now.


Find a writing instrument and scratchpad or a cellphone Notes app or a stylus and clay tablet and take one minute of your life to write down your personal definition of “Civilization.”


{Here’s some supporting theme music while you write.}


Read your definition aloud. Post it in the comments section below, if you feel up to it.


Most dictionaries and encyclopedias define “Civilization” as the point at which human beings separate themselves from the maws of Mother Nature with innovations like writing, agriculture, animal husbandry, and eventually the widespread distribution of 140-character digital communication systems. You know: Veni, Vidi, Vici, Tweet.


However, Albert Schweitzer, who lived through the horrors of both World Wars, insisted that Civilization is far more than material indicators: “Only an ethical movement can rescue us from barbarism.”


Schweitzer’s point was that if Civilization is merely defined as Tupperware, cement sidewalks and all other material objects that buffer us from rainforests and deserts, we would be forced to include Sarah Palin and Vladimir Putin and Ted Cruz and Idi Amin as Civilization bedfellows. And that would be unacceptable—mainly because, beyond all highfalutin philosophical arguments, even a hodgepodge of armadillos would reject the society of such asshats.


In other words, Civilization is not just the bricks and mortar that push Trump & Babel Towers heavenward. Civilization is the maintaining of institutions that support universal human brotherhood. Hey, it’s the 21st century; don’t forget sisterhood! Agreed.


And the ethical foundation of such a Civilization is, in my opinion, Martin Luther King Jr.’s little known “Audacity.” People seem determined to remember MLK only as an advocate for African-American civil rights. But King was a Globalist: a human being devoted to promoting peace and human rights everywhere. During his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, MLK laid out his Audacious Ethical Foundation for Civilization:


I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up.


Okay, so Dr. King opts for the less offensive term “self-centered men” over my “asshats.” In the end, it amounts to the same thing. Whilst the Donald Rumsfeld, Walter Palmer and Bill Cosby beach bullies of this world knock down sandcastles and kick sand in innocent faces, the Malalas, Bernie Sanders and Jane Goodalls get out their trusty plastic trowels and faithfully rebuild. But let’s be honest: plastic beach buckets hardly stand a chance against a Global Military Industrial Complex with a $600 billion U.S. Department of Defense budget bandolier strapped across its chest. To say nothing of a world population that quite contentedly slips into idiocratic boob tube mode and confuses KFC and reality dance programming for culture.


Maintaining the Schweitzer/MLK kind of Civilization for the 7 billion-plus human beings upon our planetary Pale Blue Dot is anything but a cakewalk:


According to the United Nations, more than 10 percent of all human beings (nearly 800 million) “do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life.”


According to the CIA World Factbook, almost the same number of human beings—775 million—are functionally illiterate. The ability to read is not the only significant education indicator. One might also consider a fragmentary knowledge of the Copernican Revolution a significant marker of one’s understanding of All Things Universe A to Z. Yet a jaw-dropping 1 in 4 Americans remains ignorant of the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun.


Good Lord, if that’s the current state of Civilization when it comes to basic nutrition and education, how shall we judge MLK’s “culture for their minds” and “dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits”? Perhaps by examining the state of global peace?


Say, what is the price of peace these days? According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the Global Military Industrial Complex annual price tag now tallies well over $1.6 trillion. That’s about $200 expended annually for every man, woman and child on our Little Blue Planet. As to peace actually rendered, those expenditures resulted in the murder, disablement, or forced homelessness of over 19 million children from war in the past decade alone. No peace soup for you, Oliver!


How about “freedom for their spirits,” then? Well, nearly 10 million human beings are currently behind bars worldwide. (By the way, more than one-third of the world’s prisoners are located in the United States and China.) But that’s nothing compared to the nearly 36 million human beings currently enslaved. Yes, enslaved. In case you’re wondering, that’s like the entire nation of Spain either in cells or shackles.


Okay, well, enough with the depressing information already. Didn’t the Confederate Flag just get furled in South Carolina? And hasn’t global social media just successfully shamed a Minnesotan dentist for shooting an iconic lion? Not to mention the Star Wars franchise has finally been wrested from its creator and placed into the capable hands of J.J. Abrams.


That’s progress, right?   Um…


Well, there’s no doubt that today’s world is in a better place than Bubonic Europe or Scarlet Letter New England. But it has quite a long ways to go to reach Jean-Luc Picard’s 24th-century. And it’s in dire need of a Global Mission Statement to point the way.


This might be a good moment to take another peak at your personal definition of Civilization. How does 21st-century Earth fare compared to your own thoughts on what human development means?


How does it compare to MLK’s Audacious Ethical Foundation for Civilization, which bears repeating (and here’s the video of his Nobel acceptance speech, as well):


I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up.


The only question is: how do we get from here to there?


Back to Albert Schweitzer: “Only such thinking as establishes the sway of the mental attitude of reverence for life can bring to mankind perpetual peace.”


An amazing statement to tide us over to Part IV, wherein we shall examine some other things that stand between human beings and perpetual peace.


In the meantime, take out those plastic beach buckets and keep building one another up.



{Part 3 of a five-part series, “Humanity: Not Quite Ready for Civilization,” published on the website Forward Progressives from May 2015 to October 2015. The website recently closed down without maintaining an archive. The series received more than 1 million views.}


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