Sitting in the Tunisian capital at the end of a politically and socially turbulent year, it feels entirely right and proper to peruse the Muqaddimah, the 14th century tome by the Arab historian Ibn Khaldun. He was a son of Tunis and an itinerant government official of great perspicacity.
Ibn Khaldun served as a judge in Cairo, a confidante of sorts to Tamerlane, the fearsome self-appointed heir to the Mongol emperor Genghis Khan, and employed his precise legal mind to understand aspects of the human condition.
Two years ago Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg publicly chose the Muqaddimah as his book club pick, describing it as an interesting lookback after “700 years of progress”. It is not certain Ibn Khaldun would have taken so sanguine a view of where we stand today, at least in terms of the US, the world’s wealthiest, most militarily powerful country.
With his Islamic history of the pre-modern world, Ibn Khaldun, as the book’s publisher put it, established the foundations of several fields of knowledge. These are said to include the philosophy of history, sociology and ethnography. At a base level though, he seems to be doing something that behavioural economists try so hard to accomplish, namely understanding the impulses that trigger human actions.
Ibn Khaldun thought human actions could make or destroy civilisation, which he saw as a bit of a conundrum. What is it? Is it the fundamental difference between urban and primitive, the tension between nomad and merchant, rural and urban, orality and literacy?
In the age of Donald Trump, it seems especially important to ask, what is civilisation? Is it learned behaviour? Is it civility, courtesy, manners and kindness to strangers? Is it rule of law and good governance? Is it refinement, not as an affectation, but in the encouragement of the best of human behaviour?
These are pertinent questions three days after the Trump administration quit taking part in talks on a proposed United Nations agreement to improve the handling of global flows of migrants and refugees. The US said the Global Compact on Migration would be a subversion of American sovereignty, even though advocates for migrants' rights pointed out that it was not meant to be a mandatory deal, just an assessment of the problem.
Six months after the US became the only country in the world to reject another major UN agreement – the Paris deal on climate change – the growing impression is of a rich, self-obsessed society seeking to disassociate from the general principles of law, ethics and morality that bind civilised nations.
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Two developing news stories underscore the internal challenges America faces to its claim of being eminently civilised. First, the impending legislative overhaul of taxation, with the richest set to profit the most, churches able to engage in dangerously partisan political fundraising, public health and education provision under threat and at least US$1 trillion added to the federal deficit over the next 10 years. These massive changes to US tax law are not really only about the economy but about key aspects of society – how it worships, does politics, teaches its children, cares for the sick and strives to live within its means.
Second, there is the upcoming election for the US Senate in the southern state of Alabama. The candidate run by the state’s dominant Republican Party is bedevilled by allegations that he abused teenagers but has still been able to gain Mr Trump’s public endorsement. He might win on December 12, casting a long shadow on the mostly shiny narrative so far of a political system that prizes morality and character over more base considerations.
Taxation and elections go to the heart of what it is to be a civilised society. Or not. “Human social organisation is something necessary. Without it, the existence of human beings would be incomplete. This is what civilisation means,” Ibn Khaldun was writing in 1377. But once achieved, he cautioned, there is no guarantee it will endure. “Excessive sedentary culture and luxury…corrupt the city generally in respect of business and civilisation…immorality, wrongdoing, insincerity and trickery increase…the affairs of individuals one by one deteriorate, the town becomes disorganised and falls into ruin.”
Ibn Khaldun was using the city, or polis, to refer to a sovereign political unit but in almost every other sense, his diagnosis of civilisation may have been preternaturally pertinent.
For Mr Trump, the greatest threat to civilisation is the “other”. In Poland, en route to the G20’s July summit in Hamburg, he focused on the external challenges faced by America and the West. "The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive," he declared.
But how it survives matters and it is in this context that a long-dead Tunisian historian’s world view seems apt for the US as 2017 draws to a close.