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Are we civilised?

By David Horton - posted Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The rulers of Burma and Zimbabwe have recently made sure, if there was a shred of doubt remaining, that they don't run civilised countries. And they are not alone of course.

It got me to thinking more generally - how do you recognise a civilised country?

Most Australians, perhaps all, believe they are part of a civilised society. But then people in many other countries believe the same thing (a bit like thinking that Australia is the greatest country in the world, when all the other countries think they are, too).


Can we think of an objective test? Migrants to the country now have to sit an exam testing their knowledge of Donald Bradman before they are allowed to become citizens of this greatest country in the world.

How about we scrap the old United Nations and create a new one from scratch? But this time, countries have to sit a test to decide whether they are civilised enough to join with others in looking after the good of the planet in a civilised kind of way.

So, imagine if you can, the General Assembly Hall at the United Nations. You are there representing Australia, and all around you are the anxious representatives of other countries, nervously lining up pencils, putting little clocks in place, playing with the exam paper turned face down on the desk, trying to surreptitiously lift a corner to get a look at the questions. And then the second hand reaches the top, and the time is 9am, and the Secretary-General says "You may start".

Your eyes flick over the page quickly, looking for an easy question to get you going, but there aren't any easy questions, and, after chewing your pencil, you start with question one.

The Civilisation Exam
Answer all questions
Four marks for each question to which you can answer "True"; partial marks may be awarded.
Pass mark is 50.

1. The military-industrial complex plays no role in the government of your country.

2. Religion plays a very small role in society in your country; neither forbidden nor compulsory.

3. Scientists, teachers, nurses and artists are all valued more than sports people and celebrities in your country.

4. Speech is free and the media varied with many different owners in your country.

5. There are few if any guns owned by people in your country.

6. The environment of your country is cared for as the highest priority.

7. The government of your country does not execute its people.

8. Women have full social and economic equality with men in your country.

9. Minorities, whether ethnic, linguistic, cultural or religious, are not persecuted in your country.

10. Your country does not consider sexuality a criterion for human rights.

11. Education of children is universal, free and secular in your country.

12. Other species of animals are respected, valued and protected by the people of your country.

13. Everyone secretly votes in your country and every vote is openly counted independent of government.

14. Regulation protects people from giant corporations operating in your country.

15. Your armies do not invade other countries and war isn't glorified in your country.

16. Your country does not consider wealth a criterion for political success, or social worth.

17. Art and heritage are valued in your country and literature, film and television increase in quality over time.

18. In your country natural disasters bring massive state support for the hurt, homeless and helpless.

19. The old, the sick and the disabled are cared for by your country, not profited from.

20. The government of your country tells the truth, the whole truth and nothing but.

21. Public enterprise is as valued as private enterprise in your country.

22. The courts and police are independent of your country's politicians.

23. Trade unions flourish in your country.

24. Your country aims to make the balance between life at work and life at home a healthy one.

25. Aspirations are achievable by all your country's people.


You finish and look around. The hall is full of people puzzling over some of the answers. Guns? Girls? Gays? God?

We lose points for those?

Who knew?

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First published in ABCs Unleashed on May 29, 2008.

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About the Author

David Horton is a writer and polymath. He has qualifications in both science and the arts with careers in biology, archaeology, publishing some 100 scientific papers and a number of books on biology and archaeology. Now retired to become a professional writer and farmer, he screams often at the TV news bulletins, writes a blog called Greenviews, writes a newspaper column and edits his local newspaper. His books include The Encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia (1994 - winner NSW Premier's Literary Award) and The Pure State of Nature (2000).

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