chapter  2
21 Pages

Methodological and empirical issues in perceiving modern barbarism

In moving from Veblen's formulation of the problem of barbarism as coexisting with the spirit of civilization regardless oftime, space, and causality to the empirical formulation of the problem as an issue of statistical correlation, it is no longer certain that one is talking about the same problem. For example, a modernist reaction to Veblen's provocative thesis might be that modern instances of barbarism, such as the Holocaust or the Gulags, pale in comparison with the campaigns of the Roman Empire or Genghis Khan. Or they might point to the brutalities exhibited in the war fought in BosniaHerzegovina in 1992 as instances of primitive tribalism that no longer afflict the civilized West. Veblen's reply might be that even if most of the civilized West did not participate directly in the Holocaust, the Gulags, or more recently, the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, it participated vicariously in these barbaric events. Despite its collectively expressed outrage at the inhumanity in these and other instances of twentieth-century barbarism, the civilized West took its time to respond. For example, in the case of the genocide in Bosnia in 1992, Western audiences were exposed to televised depictions of grisly horror - in color, no less - but rebuffed for many months the pleas of the Bosnian government to help stop the carnage. Veblen would condemn such cool contemplation of someone else's suffering as an instance of quasi-barbarism, in line with his other analyses of vicarious consumption and vicarious leisure. Yet such considerations of vicarious barbarism do not enter into modernist discussions.