We Are No Better Than the Sumerians

Legacy: A Search for the Origins of CivilizationI have a long running obsession with the Sumerians. They were, after all, the people who invented writing. Of course, we aren’t talking great works of art like The Iliad, Don Quixote, and SpongeBob SquarePants. The purpose they put that writing to was just what you would think. “Larsa owes Sippar one goat”! Still goat accounting is important. Actually, the writing of numbers goes back even further, but you can see the accounting problems with an entry like, “One.” Obviously, it means one goat, but beyond that, one can’t say. I’m just kidding about the goats, but there is no doubt that the Sumerians domesticated goats and other animals. These are the kinds of things you can do when you settle down and create that other great Sumerian invention: cities.

The first city we know about is Eridu, which is located in what is now southern Iraq. It first became a village around 7,000 years ago, but it was not at that time what we would call a city. That took another 1,500 years. It and the many city states in the region that followed it is why Iraq is called the cradle of civilization. For good and for bad, this is where it all started. And in my search for more information, I came upon Michael Wood’s 1992 documentary series Legacy: A Search for the Origins of Civilization. Here is the first episode, which is about the Sumerians:

I had no problem watching all six hours of the series over the past couple of days. But Legacy doesn’t seem to have been one of Wood’s more popular series. And I can see why. It’s kind of a downer. It seems to have been Wood’s response to the Persian Gulf War, which took place almost exactly on the ruins of Eridu. The whole point of the series seems to be, “Look how far we have not come!”

This last weekend, I had dinner with my father and I brought up a dangerous topic: human progress. My father, like most Americans, is absolutely certain that civilization will just get better and better. But I was in such a mood as to push back a little on that. I make no claims about the future. But looking at the past, I don’t see any real progress. The Sumerians were pretty much constantly at war. And we are pretty much constantly at war. I’m willing to admit that we may have a tad more empathy than the difficult lives of ancient people allowed them. But it is just a tad and humans seem quite willing to let their emotions carry them away. For example, I doubt if many Americans would have complained had we decided to burn Osama bin Laden to death. And we are far more cruel to our farm animals than the Sumerians were to theirs.

The biggest problem with Legacy is that Wood seems reluctant to come right out and say what he thinks. But it is pretty clear if you are paying attention. Every civilization has aspects that are great. But they are countered by aspects that are bad. Here in America, we are very good at innovating and producing. But we are sadly deficient in long-range thinking and we have no spiritual life to speak of. The problem is that we are so powerful that we have managed to foist our civilization—for good and bad—on the rest of the world.

Wood focuses on medieval Baghdad, when the Muslim rulers (distinct from their modern counterparts) embraced multiculturalism. He quotes an unnamed Muslim scholar who said, “If one could combine Arabic faith and Jewish intelligence, with an Iraqi education, Christian conduct, Greek knowledge, Indian mysticism, and a Sufi way of life, this would be the perfection of humanity.” Of course, here in the west, we give lip service to multiculturalism. But what we really mean is that we want the traditional dress for parades, and we want there to be billionaires of all races and creeds. In the end, the west wants what the west wants: the rape of the earth and each other for the sake of ever higher profits.

I am extremely skeptical that a truly diverse civilization that takes the best of all cultures can exist. And I know that there is no apatite for such in modern America. Look what’s happened to religion in this country: Christianity has been so distorted that I now see Christ described less as the Prince of Peace and more like Rambo on the Cross. I hear damned little of “blessed are the meek” and more “Jesus wants you to be rich!” Just as some Muslim’s use their religion to justify murder, mainstream American Christian uses their religion to justify the worship of Money and Power.

In the end, I suppose we will muddle on. We aren’t any better than the Sumerians, but we’re also no worse. There is no Star Trek in our future, but their may be Mad Max. Or nothing at all.

0 thoughts on “We Are No Better Than the Sumerians

  1. I am reminded of the last line of Deadeye Dick, where Vonnegut proclaims that the dark ages never ended. Or my own journey from being a moderate Republican who thought that "Gay rights is the leading civil rights cause of our time." to a liberal who thinks "Holy shit, these fuckers think they can take it all back, and damned if they are not winning more often than not!" The Long Arc of History is a wonderful sentiment, and a comforting story liberals like to tell themselves. I find another vision of the future to be equally plausible: a boot stamping on a human face. Forever. I believe we can win. But arrayed before us are the armies of weaponized wealth and poison theology. The primary appeal of Hillary Clinton is that she can win, and provide (plausibly) an eight year window where the Republicans cant touch the SCOTUS, or start more wars. During that time, the aged of their base will die off. By 2020 we might get the House back, and redistricting with the new census. We need to launch a long term project to destroy American conservatism. They have quite plainly shown that the are not interested in compromise. Neither should we be. We need a new reconstruction that treats the Lost Cause as the Neuremberg laws treated the Third Reich. No more homeschooling: their children will learn the truth about what they did. Pervasive decertification of local law enforcement and replacement with federal oversight. Economic development by way of the repair of forests and land destroyed by coal mining and new factories for solar and wind power components. Unions and good government. And the fucking drug war, and militarized police, and unaccountable police and prosecutors. I think the idea of stripping the 501(c)(3) status from every religious institution deserves a serious cost benefit analysis, for both financial and cultural impact. I am strongly attracted to it on principle. And finally, instead of war and imperialism as a national project, how about working to reverse the damage of the fossil fuel economy and put the carbon back in the ground before it kills us all? Then we can have the Star Trek society. But first we must destroy conservatism, and watch for it’s reappearance, much as the CDC monitors smallpox.

  2. @Lawrence – It is easy to fall into [i]1984[/i] pessimism. Regardless, I do think the arc of history bending toward justice is a pretty lie. And I’m afraid it makes us complacent.

    Have you read Adolph Reed’s article "Nothing Left" in [i]Harper’s[/i]? (I had to go out and get the hardcopy.) He does a deep dive into how the left in this country has effectively destroyed itself by settling. Too much, we accept candidates like Obama because they can win and they are better than the Republican alternatives. But the truth is that the right has been much smarter about this stuff. Winning elections is not what counts; moving the playing field counts. When Clinton changed "welfare as we know it," it was a huge win for the right. In fact, Clinton and Obama’s presidencies really are wins for the right.

    I do see the left doing better in the coming years. But I’m not sure we will have more to show for it than same sex marriage. On the economic issues I most care about, the Democrats are ideologically the same as the Republicans. The only thing is that they are smarter about such policy. Otherwise, nothing. Does anyone think that President Romney would have been any [i]worse[/i] on TPP when Obama has been?

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