17 Mar '17     home | people

Arnold Toynbee, Civilization, and Steve Bannon's Intellect

The Daily Beast, "Steve Bannon in College: Grateful Dead Fan, ‘Jerry Brown Liberal,’ ‘Ladies Man," 15 March 2017:

But the only historian any of them could remember who Bannon gushed about regularly by name was Arnold Toynbee.

I don't share Bannon's enthusiasm for Toynbee. Here are some of my scribbles concerning Toynbee from a few years ago.

For Toynbee a civilization fails when it ceases to exist. He is described as saying that civilizations are not murdered, they commit suicide by not meeting their challenges... Toynbee wrote that the Polynesians failed because they responded to the challenge of the sea with no instrument better than a canoe... The question of Toynbee's definition of failure emerges.

About people meeting their civilization's challenges, Toynbee wrote of Gandhi with his spinning wheel trying to reconstruct an imaginary past. He wrote of Lenin attempting to leap into an imagined future. And he wrote a lot about the place of Jesus Christ in history. In his article "Christianity and Civilization," Toynbee does a summing up, describing Christianity as a means of meeting the challenge that Western civilization faces:

Thus the historical progress of religion in this world, as represented by the rise of the higher religions and by their culmination in Christianity, may, and almost certainly will, bring with it, incidentally, an immeasurable improvement in the conditions of human social life on Eart

The Dutch historian, Peter Geyl, described Toynbee's work as "metaphysical speculations dressed up as history."

Toynbee described humanity's ordeal with a lot of specifics, but he left much that needed explanation. For many historians his civilization categories are not useful. His civilizations are cultural, and since ancient times cultural diffusion has been frequent and significant. People have changed culturally, and their response to new challenges can be described in a worthwhile manner without considering Toynbee's civilization labels. This is especially so as the world has become more globalized. The different civilizations that Toynbee has categorized have blended. His so-called civilizations will grow or decay together in what has become a smaller and more interconnected world.


More from the Daily Beast:

Also like Bannon, Toynbee was not without his share of political controversy and charges of anti-Semitism. For instance, in 1934, the noted historian labeled Jews as an “extinct society” and a “fossilized” civilization, and he would later describe Zionism as “demonic.”

Apparently, Bannon's talk of wanting to save Judeo-Christian Western Civilization has roots in Toynbee's work. Bannon puts us in a Dark Age threatened by atheists. In my opinion it's nutty.

I'm with the columnist Kathleen Parker, who asks,

...what's all this about restoring civilization? Did we lose it? Is civilization crumbling beneath our noses?

Bannon as a disillusioned leftist is interesting, (described by the Daily Beast). Anne Applebaum writes today in the Washington Post of disillusioned leftists in Europe swinging to the right. The US, of course, has had its disillusioned leftists swinging sometimes too far, like a pendulum. In Bannon's case, perhaps religious faith and civilization in decay is somewhat of a constant. Also, his service in the Navy as an officer might have been a conforming influence, a move from campus conformism to buddy officers conformism — something that happened to the Quaker's son Richard Nixon in the 1940s when he became a naval officer and began talking tough. Just a guess. (I'm sure there are US Navy officers, and Marine Corps officers — a part of the Navy — whose views have been well reasoned. Bannon's colleague in the Trump administration, former Marine general H.R. McMaster seems to be an example of this. )

March 19

Today in the NYT Maureen Doud writes about Bannon's swing to the right, referring to his article in the Wall Street Journal about the 2008 financial crisis and his working class father listening to bad advice by Jim Cramer to sell his AT&T stocks.


...selling during panics is not wise and that having one stock in an undiversified portfolio is not smart.

“Everything since then has come from there, all of it,” Steve Bannon, the multimillionaire architect of Trumpworld, said of the stock sale. So, essentially, because Bannon’s father made a bad, hurried financial decision based on watching TV, we now have to slash Meals on Wheels, Big Bird, the arts, after-school programs, health insurance, immigration from Muslim countries, climate change research, diplomats and taxes for the rich.

A better chronology of Bannon's transition from campus liberal-leftist would be interesting reading.

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