Sometimes I wonder whether the word “civilized” shouldn’t just revert to its original meaning of “capable of building cities.”

Most Victorian thinkers had an exalted notion that their civilization, imperial Britain, was the culmination of social evolution and should be spread (by fraud or force, if necessary) to the rest of the world as more advanced and more just than any other. They had the merit of enough conscience to aim at a degree of fairness to their “inferiors” and avoid the worst brutalities perpetrated by other imperial powers, but the arrogance to assume they could reorder the world to suit themselves. We are still seeing the consequences of that attitude in Africa, south Asia and especially the Middle East.

In the U.S. in the 19th century, there was a turning away from the decision to keep out of the world’s quarrels and concentrate on domestic affairs. Soon American politicians were promoting the idea of a lex Americana to be spread to the rest of the (less advanced) world. That 20th-century policy, coinciding so neatly with the advancement of prosperity at others’ expense (the military-industrial complex Eisenhower warned about, the “agri-food” industries like United Fruit, etc.) was said to be about bringing prosperity and democracy to the rest of the world. Even without the hysteria and jingoism of the post-9/11 era, the dreadful results are plain to see, around the world and within the U.S. itself.

It may be that my own distress and helplessness to alleviate present human suffering are behind my obsessive desire to write about ancient history. Or it may be that I subconsciously hoped my readings of horrors two millenia old would make today’s look less evil. Anyway, I’ve been researching and writing about China in BCE times and it hasn’t helped me much. The worst people of those days and their worst actions are no comfort when the same kinds of people are doing the same kinds of things in the 21st century…only with better equipment and more sophisticated rationalizations.

A woman’s place?

Yesterday in the course of my research, I stumbled on an item both outside the scope of the book I’m working on and the view of history as the gradual improvement of human justice.

Being a woman, I am naturally interested in how man-made laws treat women, and some extracts from the Assyrian code of law of the third millennium BCE caught my eye, perhaps especially since the news of our day includes so many instances of sexual assault (26,000 in the U.S. military alone, rape as a weapon of war, Canadian girls committing suicide over their victimization) and sexual harrassment at work (for which there is no redress unless the victim can afford to lose the job and pay for a lawsuit).

“I.9. If a man bring his hand against the wife of a man, treating her like a little child, and they prove it against him, and convict him, one of his fingers they shall cut off. If he kiss her, his lower lip with the blade of an axe they shall draw down and they shall cut off.”

Though the penalties are too harsh for my tastes, it was a pleasant surprise to see that the ancient Assyrians recognized these things as inappropriate behaviour and tried to deter them. All too often in our day, it seems “prominent” men consider them as perks of their jobs. (Berlusconi, Strauss-Kahn, Weiner, and far too many others.)

Then there’s:

I.12. If the wife of a man be walking on the highway, and a man seize her, say to her “I will surely have intercourse with you,” if she be not willing and defend herself, and he seize her by force and rape her, whether they catch him upon the wife of a man, or whether at the word of the woman whom he has raped, the elders shall prosecute him, they shall put him to death. There is no punishment for the woman.

Sadly, in our own time there are far too many “she was asking for it” apologists (even among politicians and police) and a widespread unwillingness to believe women who report a rape unless they can provide irrefutable evidence. Note, too, that last sentence: we have seen several recent cases where the victim of a rape has been condemned by the local courts for it. Not in Canada, thank heaven, but victims of the original assaults are still likely to suffer from further humiliations if they seek redress: at a minimum, public attacks on their credibility and callous attitudes.

I.21. If a man strike the daughter of a man and cause her to drop what is in her, they shall prosecute him, they shall convict him, two talents and thirty manas of lead shall he pay, fifty blows they shall inflict on him, one month shall he toil.

Violence against women does not always take the form of rape, and physical assaults violent enough to cause a miscarriage occur even in our day. The Conservative “base” of the Harper government has been trying to reclassify the foetus as a person–partly to place its rights above those of the mother and partly to justify harsher sentencing where the victim of crime was pregnant–while de-funding those organizations which tried to defend women from violence and abuse.

In this environment, it is interesting to see that the ancient Assyrians took a different approach: the man who committed the assault was fined (quite a bit in those times) and sentenced to be beaten himself (severely) but also had to do community service in atonement. Still, they made some finer distinctions:

I.50. If a man strike the wife of a man, in her first stage of pregnancy, and cause her to drop that which is in her, it is a crime; two talents of lead he shall pay.

In the first trimester, a fine was sufficient for causing the miscarriage–in addition to the penalty for what was done to the woman.

I.51. If a man strike a harlot and cause her to drop that which is in her, blows for blows they shall lay upon him; he shall make restitution for a life.

Assault on a prostitute was deemed *more* serious, not less. The perpetrator was condemned to equal physical pain *plus* the normal penalty for taking a life. Contrast this with the common police attitude that crimes against sex workers or promiscuous women aren’t worth investigating, let alone prosecuting.

Of course, nobody in Canada would want to live under the Assyrian code, which included wide application of the death penalty, mutilations, floggings quite likely to cause death, and a general view of women as the chattels of their fathers, husbands or sons. Still, the sense of justice was already causing the ancient Assyrians to draw distinctions some in our time don’t seem to grasp.

How civilized are we of the 21st century, really, when propping up cruel dictatorships, denigrating more than half the population on grounds of gender or race or culture, destroying institutions we created to promote social justice, and exploiting other human beings for selfish purposes are still the norm? The China we see now is the product of many, many empires of imperialists (the Assyrian people perhaps among them), each of which gained some temporary power, inflicted its “justice” for a time and was conquered in its term.

Rhetoric about an “evil empire” seems misplaced to me. All empires are mostly evil and the “civilization” they claim to bring to others usually means comfort and prosperity for a few (for a time) at the expense of injustice to the rest. Much as I love literature and art, I can’t help thinking humankind would be better off with less “high culture” bought at the price of so much misery.