Declining Fortunes: Home Thoughts from Within
Signs of a civilization’s demise.
September 23, 2012 - 10:33 pm
A feeling of cultural homelessness, of accelerating decline and imminent ruin, appears to have overtaken many people today. Some do their utmost to cover over a deep intuition of anxiety. Others are prone to a spirit of gloomy resignation. Perhaps a majority are content to live in the short term, relying on the quarterly return, as it were, putting long-term viability out of mind. Some work to hasten the debacle. A committed minority are engaged in the Sisyphean labor of political and intellectual restitution. But “the sense of an ending” is unmistakable, when time, to quote Julian Barnes in his novel of that title, “really does go missing, never to return.”
As I wrote in The Big Lie, we seem to be facing the irrevocable and destructive assault of historical forces which thinkers and historians like Polybius, Ibn Khaldun, Giambattista Vico, Edward Gibbon, Oswald Spengler, Pitirim Sorokin, and Arnold Toynbee spelled out for us. Each in his own way elaborated the idea that all civilizations go through predictable and identifiable phases of development, flourishing, decline and collapse. In particular, Spengler’s notion in The Decline of the West of historical “contemporaneity” as involving “corresponding phases” and “chronological parallels” may be appropriate here. In this sense we would be contemporary with late fourth century-early fifth century Rome, a civilization, as Spengler wrote, “los[ing] its desire to be, and… wish[ing] itself out of the overlong daylight and back into the darkness.…”
Even modern cosmology seems to concur. In Alpha and Omega: The Search for the Beginning and End of the Universe, Charles Seife points out that since life and consciousness run on energy, and the supply of energy in any finite system is constantly decreasing, “civilization slows down more and more, thinking less and less, until it ceases entirely.…Some would say the process has already started.” Seife does not indicate whether cosmologists mean civilization in general or a given civilization in the course of its particular trajectory, or both — but if each civilization is considered as a finite system containing a discrete amount of “thought energy,” we might argue that what we call “Western civilization” is fast approaching a state of entropic dispersion. It certainly appears to be “thinking less and less.”
This is, no doubt, an unduly dramatic way of formulating a personal premonition, but even the merest survey of various desultory aspects of the culture, taken together, leads to the suspicion that we are presently, to quote Conor Cruise O’Brien, “on the eve of the millenium.” What we once regarded as “home” is now infested by colonies of termites eating away at the joists, beams, and supports. Indeed, even the idea of “home” has undergone a process of banalization, for which we have our elite class of misbegotten intellectuals to thank. These thoughts were brought “home” to me with renewed vividness when I recently came across a typical piece of turbid writing and muddled thinking in yet another university-spawned treatise whose abject irrelevance is matched only by its dismaying influence.
I refer to Karen Warren’s anthology Ecological Feminism, in which she defines the concept of home in an “ecofeminist sense” as “a house, intentional community, and bioregion were one’s individually and mutually satisfying basic needs and life-affirming and sustaining values are met. These are values that take into account both human and nonhuman environmental concerns and are satisfied in respectful and ecologically sustainable ways.” Warren’s basic notion is utterly ludicrous, something only an academic could think up: home is an open field accessible to the elements which it binds in a kind of airy eclogue of reciprocal harmonies, rather than, as traditionally construed, a dwelling for a mother, a father, kids, and perhaps a trained pet or two. The popular inscription one finds embroidered on ornamental cushions, “A house is not a home without a cat,” contains far more in the way of descriptive aptness than Warren’s sophistical gobbledygook. One recalls Christopher Lasch’s critique in The Minimal Self of feminist psychology as “a narcissistic symbiosis with nature.”
This is only one instance, among a staggering multiplicity of such instances, of the enormous failure of intelligence that has brought the contemporary university into disrepute; for a comprehensive account of its intellectual degradation, one need only consult Bruce Bawer’s recent The Victims’ Revolution. The Academy has plainly become a “home” for the useless and the dysfunctional — in effect, for those who would be unemployable in the real world. Academics in the literature, social science, and “culture studies” departments (aka the Humanities), facilitated by the current crop of administrators, have turned the liberal university into a shelter for flunkies, sycophants, political children, misnamed “progressivists,” and committed fantasists. But it is not just a question of a degenerate Academy.
Indeed, a culture that makes room, or a “home,” for such flaccid imbecilities as we have just noted is a culture unmistakably heading for the exit. Culture, of course, is the lived expression of a civilization, and a civilization has two related priorities: to survive and to prosper. But a civilization that is preoccupied with such luxurious inessentials as we find in the labyrinthine corridors of higher education — and just about everywhere else in its “social space” — while its internal foundations are wavering and it is surrounded by implacable enemies bent on its destruction is, to cite Spengler again, “wishing itself…into the darkness.”
It is time to face the truth. A civilization that has given up on genuine knowledge; whose intellectual class argues that there is no such thing as “truth,” only “interpretation”; whose populace is increasingly prey to the illusion of society as a fiscal womb and relies on a placental attachment to unsustainable entitlements; that has deconstructed the traditional definition of marriage; whose political echelon adamantly refuses to acknowledge the forces and gradients of the real world and settles instead for selective inaction, mollifying narratives, and elaborate evasions, especially in regard to the Iranian nuclear threat, Palestinian recidivism, and international terror networks; and that considers attitudes, temptations and desires as constituting a disease — for example, obesity and drug-addiction — for which the individual is not responsible and which must be treated by different forms of legislation or by politically correct repressions of obvious recognition: this is a civilization that does not inspire confidence in its future. Individual will and initiative are now at a discount. The source of our malaise, whatever form it might adopt, is regarded as emanating from without. We need no longer take personal responsibility for whatever may afflict us. We are all victims. And far too many of us are now takers.
Has Western Civ become Victor Davis Hanson’s California, with its pockets of insulated wealth and privilege amidst a vast terrain of deteriorating infrastructure, bankrupt administrations, gorging bureaucracies, ecofascists gone wild, official multiculturalism tearing away at the fabric of the heritage culture, rootless citizens, and welfare parasites? The signs and symptoms of civilizational decay proliferate in every sector of social, political, economic, and cultural life, from the most trivial to the undeniably catastrophic — from filing a successful suit against a restaurant chain for one’s having spilled hot coffee on one’s own lap to the welcomed infiltration of an anti-Western Islamic cohort into the highest offices of state.
There are a seemingly infinite number of such episodes, events, news items, improprieties, hot button issues — what journalists call “red meat” — which fill the media outlets and are endlessly debated by panels of “experts,” editors, columnists, pundits, and ordinary folk as well. But these are only manifestations and auspices of a far more significant concern. Life as we have known it is suffering its own version of a subprime mortgage crisis, the house about to be foreclosed as the value of its securities plummets.
The pivotal issue, then, is whether the disastrous momentum of cultural decadence and civilizational default can be resisted, parried, or deflected — or at least decelerated — before the inevitable collapse. Will it require an economic cataclysm to shake us from our complacence? Would the election of wise and courageous leaders to replace the ubiquitous coven of time-servers, sybarites, and appeasers make a beneficial difference? Will the insightful writings of a small but determined group of honest and brilliant thinkers exert a discernible effect on public sensibility before the moment of cultural impact? Will it be possible to apply a mental bozo filter to a corrupt and partisan media that has violated the principle of editorial and journalistic integrity in the name of an ideological agenda whose purpose is to inoculate us against the truth? Can we begin to restore the home our ancestors built for us and which we have, for too many decades, failed to maintain, let alone to extend?
That is indeed the question. Can a civilization that is “thinking less and less” be encouraged or provoked to begin thinking more and more, or simply to begin thinking? Is the malady of progressivism, which attacks the productive base of society in order to reify the fiction of unfounded wealth, circulate unearned and deflationary emoluments without reasonable limitation, and multiply the venues of sterile and unproductive labor — is this malady a terminal one? Or is it rather a question of sauve qui peut, of hoarding, defending, salting away, preserving what one can before, as W.B. Yeats feared, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world” — or at any rate, upon a self-indulgent and internally rotting West?
As Robert Kaplan writes in his new book, The Revenge of Geography, there exist stringent constraints — geographical, cultural, historical — that restrict the nature and scope of possible change. One might add the remorseless thrust of time, when certain developments become irreversible and there is little one is able to do to halt their trajectory. The hour is growing late and the prospect for the re-emergence of reason, clarity, and initiative appears slim to exiguous. Nevertheless, as John Bolton clarions, surrender is not an option. Bolton is fond of quoting the adage, “If you’re not worried, you’re missing something.” In fact, we are missing just about everything. The implication is that we need to do something about it. One recalls Warren’s shallow and murky conceit of home as a “bioregion” open to the world. What she has failed to realize is that a house or a home is not an “intentional community” but has boundaries intended to keep out alien occupiers that would otherwise create considerable unhappiness for its residents — including, we might remark, hostile immigrant societies that import their own hatreds and conflicts onto the premises.
Obviously, we need to do some serious home repair. What in practice does this mean? It means that we need to reanimate the saving tradition of disciplined scholarship and intellectual merit, gradually purging our universities of political indoctrinators, indolent professors, supine administrators, and “Identity Studies” mavens. We absolutely must shrink the size of runaway government, turn back the dependency mindset that has infected the public arena, and revive the ethos of self-reliance and social responsibility. It would be helpful if we finally recognized that protean Socialism is a failed political concept that has caused untold misery wherever it has been tried. We need to understand that we are at war with a supremacist Islam and that the attempt to placate an ancestral enemy will result in the contamination of the culture and eventually, perhaps, in the renunciation of our best selves and ultimately in submission. We need, in short, to awaken from a condition of cerebral narcolepsy and the dream of impervious entitlement.
Can this be done? Can we jettison the dangerous assumption of liberal inviolability and repudiate the hedonistic dissipations that continue to devitalize us? Can we put paid to the nihilistic relativism that has clouded our thinking? Can “we dead awaken”? Can we go home again, convinced to renew the fight for the culture we have mainly abandoned and the civilization we have largely betrayed? Despite the auguries — and they are everywhere around us — we can only, to adapt a heretofore insipid slogan, hope and try.