Back in 2008, James Lileks reflected on his love of midcentury modernism (and its happy-go-lucky offshoots such as Googie) by reflecting back on the fundamental American optimism of that period — even as the long twilight struggle of the Cold War was grinding on:
The love of chrome-and-glass modern restaurants is probably due to one place, which I’ve mentioned before – the Erie Jr. in Detroit Lakes, MN. It had a counter, a high ceiling, plastic booths in vivid hues, a roof that looked like it space ships could dock in the back, and it had that space-age vibe that shimmered off so many new things when I was very young. We had a keen sense of the future then; we knew the toys we had today would be the tools of the future. You know how you put your hand out the window when you were going fast, and undulated it up and down like a dolphin, riding the oncoming wind? The future felt like that. The future was a chrome-trimmed triangular window in the front of dad’s car, and it had its own knob to open it up. The future was a hamburger under a light fixture that looked like an atom. The future was going to be awesome.
I still get impatient with people who insist that it can’t be. Pessimists can be such bores, and it’s lazy to believe the worst. What’s the line about Scaramouche: he was born with the gift of laughter and the sense that the world was mad. I don’t think that’s the best modus vivendi, but it beats teaching yourself the curse of scowling and the sense that it’s all a grind to be endured until the tomb gapes wide, and the only respectable intellectual pose is a Menckenian disdain for those who refuse to see how shallow, small, vacuous and contemptible they are.
I blame the boomers, of course. If you’re going to make a fetish out of the Authentic Values of Adolescence, with its withering critiques of humanity, then you’re going to value the slouch and the sneer as signs of a Deep and Serious Person. The Boomers were handed a Utopian ideal – practical, technocratic, rational, with silver wheels in the sky tended over by engineers and scientists – and they abandoned it for a Dionysian version based on wrecking and remaking the world they’d inherited. Their patron saint: Holy St. Caulfield, who identified the greatest sin in the human soul: being a phoney. Better to be an authentic bastard than someone who cannot successfully convince a teenager that some ideas have an importance that transcend the ability of the individual to manifest them 24/7.
On the Fourth of July, we looked back at two of the notions that interrupted mankind during much of the 20th century, the concept of “Starting From Zero” and junking millenia worth of accumulated knowledge and wisdom, and the notion that “The New Man” could somehow be manufactured to replace the imperfect model that had been rolling off God’s assembly line for the past few million years. In a recent essay at the Zero Hedge econoblog (and found via Maggie’s Farm), Brandon Smith explores “The Collectivist War Against Cultural Heritage:”
A distaste or hatred of heritage is very common at the onset of any collectivist restructuring. These restructurings usually target principles of individual liberty and self governance while masquerading as a fight against oppression or corruption. The old principles are either presented as too outdated and insufficient to deal with the new problems of a culture, or, they are presented as the actual SOURCE of the problems of that culture. In either case, the elites wielding the collectivist machine inevitably call for a purge of all bygone ideals.
In Communist China, Mao instituted the Cultural Revolution, which encouraged the mindlessly mesmerized collectivists in the Chinese populace to destroy everything which represented the past. Artwork, buildings, historical artifacts, books; even teachers and proponents of any brand of pre-communist heritage were targeted.
In Fascist Germany, the Nazis destroyed countless books and manuscripts, rewrote German history, censored and removed thousands of artworks, instituting state designated artforms that depicted the collectivist vision of the new society.
In Russia, the Communists focused intently not only on liquidating manuscripts extolling the methods of different eras, but also the people who wrote them. Under Lenin and Stalin, the goal was to annihilate the memory of the world before, even if it meant annihilating the masses along with it.
A complete reformation of educational infrastructure came next. The children of the collectivist age had to be indoctrinated as if there had never been another way of doing things.
These purges, as numerous examples have shown, are only temporary. The great conundrum for the elites has not only been the obstacle of memory, but the obstacle of the soul; that inherent quality in human beings that compels us to pursue freedom, balance, and truth, regardless of the constraints of our environment. The documents and remnants of heritage that oligarchs seek to destroy are ultimately only expressions of our inborn consciences. Deep down in each person, no matter what they have been conditioned to believe, there is a well-spring of vital ideas that conflict with the mechanizations of collectivism. Individualism finds a way to surface, and so, the central rulers must start over once again, looking for an insurmountable method of control.
The American Heritage Under Siege
One simple fact remains: As long as Americans continue to esteem the vision expressed in the U.S. Constitution, Bill Of Right, and Declaration Of Independence, there can be no collectivism in this country. The Constitutional Republic formed through revolution against despotism by the Founding Fathers is a solid antithesis to outright tyranny. So, it only follows that the “Futurists” of today and the puppeteers who pull their strings would do absolutely everything in their power to distance the public as far as possible away from the heritage of those documents and that time.
Much like the Cultural Revolution in China, though moving at a slower and more subversive pace, our history is being purged and rewritten to accommodate a centralized dream of the new America. This dream hinges on the suggestion that the Constitutional structure is outdated, and that it must be remodeled to accommodate the burgeoning Globalist paradigm. Our own sitting president has voiced similar arguments in the past…
With the Soviet Union having fallen and with China having to open up, ever-so-tentatively, a little of its closed-system Marxism to embrace the 21st century, what could be used to engineer a similar Start From Zero mindset today? As Virginia Postrel told Brian Lamb of C-Span back in 1999 when she was promoting her book The Future and its Enemies, radical environmentalism is the perfect method. In a similar fashion to Lileks discussing his love of glass and chrome coffee shops of the mid-20th century and then launching into the demise of postwar American optimism, Postrel segued from discussing why so many Cambodian refugees seem to dominate the ownership of Los Angeles-area donuts shops, into explaining how they got to America in the first place, into the apocalyptic worldview of radical environmentalism:
LAMB: And why does you use that–what’s–what reason do you use the Cambodian doughnut owners in this book?
POSTREL: Well, one reason is to explain about how history matters, that we don’t start off from scratch. We don’t make progress from starting over from scratch, that that’s a false idea that we’ve had about history and about progress in the past.
Another point that I make–where it’s interesting that they’re Cambodians, is that they were escaping from a static utopia. The Khmer Rouge sought to start over at year zero, and to sort of create the kind of society that very civilized, humane greens write about as though it were an ideal. I mean, people who would never consider genocide. But I argue that if you want to know what that would take, look at Cambodia: to empty the cities and turn everyone into peasants again. Even in a less developed country, let alone in someplace like the United States, these sort
of static utopian fantasies are just that.
Which brings us to Pascal Bruckner’s new piece in City Journal titled, “Apocalyptic Daze — Secular elites prophesy a doomsday without redemption:”
Around the turn of the twenty-first century, a paradigm shift in our thinking took place: we decided that the era of revolutions was over and that the era of catastrophes had begun. The former had involved expectation, the hope that the human race would proceed toward some goal. But once the end of history was announced, the Communist enemy vanquished, and, more recently, the War on Terror all but won, the idea of progress lay moribund. What replaced the world’s human future was the future of the world as a material entity. The long list of emblematic victims—Jews, blacks, slaves, proletarians, colonized peoples—was likewise replaced, little by little, with the Planet, the new paragon of all misery. No longer were we summoned to participate in a particular community; rather, we were invited to identify ourselves with the spatial vessel that carried us, groaning.
How did this change happen? Over the last half-century, leftist intellectuals have identified two great scapegoats for the world’s woes. First, Marxism designated capitalism as responsible for human misery. Second, “Third World” ideology, disappointed by the bourgeois indulgences of the working class, targeted the West, supposedly the inventor of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism. The guilty party that environmentalism now accuses—mankind itself, in its will to dominate the planet—is essentially a composite of the previous two, a capitalism invented by a West that oppresses peoples and destroys the earth. Indeed, environmentalism sees itself as the fulfillment of all earlier critiques. “There are only two solutions,” Bolivian president Evo Morales declared in 2009. “Either capitalism dies, or Mother Earth dies.”
So the planet has become the new proletariat that must be saved from exploitation—if necessary, by reducing the number of human beings, as oceanographer Jacques Cousteau said in 1991. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, a group of people who have decided not to reproduce, has announced: “Each time another one of us decides to not add another one of us to the burgeoning billions already squatting on this ravaged planet, another ray of hope shines through the gloom. When every human chooses to stop breeding, Earth’s biosphere will be allowed to return to its former glory.” The British environmentalist James Lovelock, a chemist by training, regards Earth as a living organism and human beings as an infection within it, proliferating at the expense of the whole, which tries to reject and expel them. Journalist Alan Weisman’s 2007 book The World Without Us envisions in detail a planet from which humanity has disappeared. In France, a Green politician, Yves Cochet, has proposed a “womb strike,” which would be reinforced by penalties against couples who conceive a third child, since each child means, in terms of pollution, the equivalent of 620 round trips between Paris and New York.
“Our house is burning, but we are not paying attention,” said Jacques Chirac at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in 2002. “Nature, mutilated, overexploited, cannot recover, and we refuse to admit it.” Sir Martin Rees, a British astrophysicist and former president of the Royal Society, gives humanity a 50 percent chance of surviving beyond the twenty-first century. Oncologists and toxicologists predict that the end of mankind should arrive even earlier than foreseen, around 2060, thanks to a general sterilization of sperm. In view of the overall acceleration of natural disorders, droughts, and pandemics, “we all know now that we are going down,” says the scholar Serge Latouche. Peter Barrett, director of the Antarctica Research Centre at New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington, is more specific: “If we continue our present growth path we are facing the end of civilization as we know it—not in millions of years, or even millennia, but by the end of this century.”
One could go on citing such quotations forever, given the spread of the cliché-ridden apocalyptic literature. Environmentalism has become a global ideology that covers all of existence—not merely modes of production but ways of life as well. We rediscover in it the whole range of Marxist rhetoric, now applied to the environment: ubiquitous scientism, horrifying visions of reality, even admonitions to the guilty parties who misunderstand those who wish them well. Authors, journalists, politicians, and scientists compete in the portrayal of abomination and claim for themselves a hyper-lucidity: they alone see clearly while others vegetate in the darkness.
The fear that these intellectuals spread is like a gluttonous enzyme that swallows up an anxiety, feeds on it, and then leaves it behind for new ones. When the Fukushima nuclear plant melted down after the enormous earthquake in Japan in March 2011, it only confirmed a feeling of anxiety that was already there, looking for some content. In six months, some new concern will grip us: a pandemic, bird flu, the food supply, melting ice caps, cell-phone radiation.
The fear also becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the press reporting, as though it were a surprising finding, that young people are haunted by the very concerns about global warming that the press continually instills in them. As in an echo chamber, opinion polls reflect the views promulgated by the media. We are inoculated against anxiety by the repetition of the same themes, which become a narcotic we can’t do without.
It’s tempting to believe this worldview will obsess our elites permanently, or that it will end in some of Götterdämmerung. But isn’t that assumption as an apocalyptic worldview as the Malthusian environmentalists themselves? Though it’s understandable, as this passage from Roger Kimball’s new book makes clear:
In 2002, the historian John Lukacs published a gloomy book called At the End of an Age. He argued that “we in the West are living near the end of an entire age,” that the Modern Age, which began with the Renaissance, is jerking, crumbling irretrievably to its end. I believe Lukacs is precipitate. After all, prophecies of the end have been with us since the beginning. It seems especially odd that an historian of Lukacs’s delicacy and insight would indulge in what amounts to a reprise of Spengler’s thesis about the “decline of the West.” How many times must historical “inevitabilities” be confounded before they lose their hold on our imaginations?
Indeed. So how do we break this cycle?