Our dominant cultural image of barbarians is of filthy, illiterate, bloodthirsty brutes: imagine a fur-clad, lice-infested savage ferociously raiding a village, axe in one hand and torch in the other, who then heartily celebrates with a flagon of ale and a giant roasted leg of some animal or another. Barbarians are noted for their contempt for and domination of the weak, yet barbarians are also admired for their brawn and tenacity: think of Conan the Barbarian and other pop-culture images of warrior-heros who spurn the refinements and discourse of civilized culture and deal with problems through the sword and conquest.
Historically, the term "barbarian" came from the ancient Greeks, who heard the unfamiliar languages of other peoples as the nonsense syllables “bar, bar,” akin to our word “blah” (if we were to invent the term today we would call him Conan the Blahblahian!). Of course, not all peoples who were foreign to the Greeks were uncivilized or primitive. Nor were the Vikings or Mongols or other groups upon whom Western cultural images of barbarians are based, who had developed sophisticated ways of dealing with their problems, and who were in many ways were more sophisticated than the medieval Europeans who judged them barbarous — especially in the case of Arabs. Indeed, Middle Age Europeans were themselves rude, filthy, illiterate, and belligerent brutes, and the Romans who had preceded them had been cruel and oppressive, and only differed from “barbarians” in that they had learned how to effectively organize large armies and large cities, and to engineer and build massive structures with marble and concrete.
Barbarism still exists today, despite all the advances of modernity and science; but the real barbarians are not to be found among the Earth's few remaining hunter-gatherer tribes, but among the most modern and technologically advanced societies. Modern barbarians are barbarians with toys, possessors of all the sophisticated technological devices and organizational structures created by science and other forms of modern knowledge. Advances in technology and technique have been harnessed not to create a paradise on Earth in which all human beings can flourish, but to serve primitive, impulsive drives, and to perpetuate them.
First is military technology. It has been observed by others before that there has been much progress in creating the machines of war but not in the morality that would eliminate war. Instead, modernity's capitalist side promotes selfishness and greed, its nationalist side promotes tribalism, racism, and division, and its rationalist/bureaucratic side promotes alienation and isolation; and since the tools of modern war are far more powerful than an ancient axe or bow or sword, the scale of brutality has expanded tremendously. Is it any wonder that people afflicted with such social ills but armed with advanced scientific weaponry have at times descended into barbarity and committed atrocities and genocide? Of course, Nazism is the prime example of modern barbarism, and they even actively and positively identified with the Vikings of myth, as they understood them. There are many other examples of modern barbarians doing terrible things to other human beings, from the Killing Fields of Cambodia to Srebrenica. We should make no mistake: while America has wielded modern state power more softly than most other hegemons in the past, our overly militaristic response to 9/11 shows that we are not immune from slipping into savagery. (I say this as a veteran and someone who wants to see America live up to its potential, rather than sink into decline.) American barbarity can be seen in culture that praises violence as a solution to many problems: we worship our action movie heroes, respond to gun violence by buying more guns, and are more than a decade into our longest war — a war not against another powerful nation-state challenger, but against ragtag bands of religious zealots in far away places, a relatively small danger for which some other, better solution than war could surely have been found.
American barbarism exists in other ways, too: many Americans lead barbarous lives of gluttony and ignorance, for example. (Neither of which are disconnected from our more violent national impulses.) The virtues of moderation and a desire to learn are both marks of civilized people. Yet, capitalism creates a consumer culture that actively promotes, socializes, and habituates people to overindulge beyond the limits of bodily health and available natural resources — and which requires us to "raid other villages" for their produce, although in our age we're not pillaging for chickens and goats, but for oil. Capitalism not only breeds gluttony and overconsumption but an anti-intellectual society of low culture. It creates a culture industry as a form of social control, and denigrates the development of the mind through learning history, the humanities, and the arts. American culture, for historical reasons, has always been particularly strong in its anti-intellectualism: most people distrust and have contempt for scholars and artists, rather than the deep respect that other cultures do. That may sound elitist, but I don't care: getting an education and learning to value the arts, literature, and history are among the most elevated things that human beings can do. Without such theoretical vision, action and energy lack progress and become directionless and impulsive — just like a barbarian’s.
Last but not least, America's barbarous side is reflected in a common attitude of contempt for the weak, the downtrodden, and the poor. This is evident in the widespread aversion to social welfare, in our punitive criminal justice system, in our excessive competitiveness, and in other institutions and practices. America's historically repeated love affairs with Social Darwinism reflect deep-seated attitudes of disdain towards those who are weaker or unprivileged; were we to see such contempt expressed by a bearded, furry brute, we would be easily recognize it as barbaric, but when it comes from us, we don’t see it.
In the 21st century we should now expand our definition of barbarism to include another category of thoughtless destruction: the rape and pillage of the natural environment should be seen as its own form of barbarity. Violence against nature should count. Why? Because civilization depends on nature and its resources to survive, so an attack on nature is an attack on civilization, and thus barbarous. The careless assault that humanity is currently conducting against our ecosystem is callous, impulsive, and destructive. Ultimately, it is rooted in the idea that nature is something to be "conquered"; treating either human beings or the natural world as objects of conquest is a crude, violent, and therefore barbaric way of conceiving of one’s interaction with the rest of the world.
We moderns may not look like barbarians: we wash and shave and wear business suits, rather than wallow in filth and wear ratty hides. We work in offices rather than raid villages. We carry cellphones, not axes, and we watch HDTV, we don't sit around the fire recounting epic myths. But we are all too often barbarians in how we think and act, in how we choose to relate to other humans and to the ecosystem. We should think of those deeper barbarities as now more unacceptable than the superficial images of barbarism that already cause us revulsion.