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Works and Days

The Last Generation of the West and the Thin Strand of Civilization

January 19th, 2014 - 2:26 pm


Had the Greeks lost at Salamis, Western civilization might easily have been strangled in its adolescence. Had Hitler not invaded the Soviet Union, the European democracies would have probably remained overwhelmed. And had the Japanese just sidestepped the Philippines and Pearl Harbor, as they gobbled up the orphaned Pacific colonies of a defunct Western Europe, the Pacific World as we know it now might be a far different, far darker place.

I am not engaging in pop counterfactual history, as much as reminding us of how thin the thread of civilization sometimes hangs, both in its beginning and full maturity. Something analogous is happening currently in the 21st-century West. But the old alarmist scenarios — a nuclear exchange, global warming and the melting of the polar ice caps, a new lethal AIDS-like virus — should not be our worry.

Rather our way of life is changing not with a bang, but with a whimper, insidiously and self-inflicted, rather than abruptly and from foreign stimuli. Most of the problem is cultural. Unfortunately it was predicted by a host of pessimistic anti-democratic philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Hegel and Spengler. I’ve always hoped that these gloom-and-doomers were wrong about the Western paradigm, but some days it becomes harder.

Over 90 million Americans who could work are not working (the “non-institutionalized” over 16). What we take for granted — our electrical power, fuel, building materials, food, health care, and communications — all hinge on just 144 million getting up in the morning to produce what about 160-170 million others (the sick, the young, and the retired who need assistance along with the 90 million idle) consume.

Every three working Americans provide sustenance for two who are not ill, enfeebled, or too young. The former help the disabled, the latter take resources from them. The gang-banger has only disdain for the geek at the mall — until one Saturday night his liver is shredded by gang gunfire and suddenly he whimpers (who is now the real wimp?) that he needs such a Stanford-trained nerd to do sophisticated surgery to get him back in one piece to the carjackings, muggings, assaults, and knockout games — or lawsuits follow!

Given that the number of non-working is growing (an additional 10 million were idled in the Obama “recovery” alone), it is likely to keep growing. At some point, we will hit a 50/50 ratio of idle versus active. Then things will get interesting. The percentage of workers’ pay deducted to pay for the non-working will soar even higher. So will the present redistributive schemes and the borrowing from the unborn.

We forget that the obligations of the working to care for the 70-80 million who genuinely cannot work become more difficult, when the 90 million who can work for all sorts of reasons won’t. Note the theme of this essay: the more in humane fashion we provide unemployment insurance, food stamps, subsidized housing, legal advice, health care and disability insurance, the more the recipients find it all inadequate, inherent proof of unfairness and inequality, and always not enough.

Much of the Modern University Output Coarsens American Life

We will hear even more shrillness about “fairness” and “equality.” The more government support, all the more will grow the sense of being shorted. When someone idle receives a free iPhone, he doesn’t thank government for its magnanimity. More likely, he damns it for allowing someone else the ability to purchase an updated, superior model. I have talked to several students about their iPhones; so far not one has said, “Wow, I have more computer and communications power in my palm than a multi-millionaire had just 15 years ago.” Mostly they wished they had an updated version like someone better off.

An indebted and crippled U.S. has so far survived the second decade of the 21st century largely due to some ingenious engineers and audacious workers who revolutionized the gas and oil industry, at a time when wind and solar merely amused us, when our enemies considered us ripe for perpetual petro-blackmail, and when our wherewithal to pay for more imported energy was increasingly questionable.

A very few people are saving very many. But how thin the strand of civilization hangs — given that the forces of our modern Lotus Eaters (every bit as dangerous in their postmodern imaginations as the Cyclopes are in their premodern savagery) have stopped the Keystone Pipeline, stopped most federal leasing of new gas and oil finds, and are trying to regulate fracking and horizontal drilling out of existence where it might be most vital to the U.S. — as in the Monterey Shale formation in California.

How ironic is the Sierra Club Bay Area grandee who finds light when he flips on his office switch, and would find no light were his utopian ideas about wind, solar, and biomass to come to full fruition. Only what he despises — radioactive uranium, messy drilling rigs, and unnatural dams — for now continue to bring him what he must have. Again, the theme: the more the green activists empty reservoirs to save a bait fish, or stop fracking, or prevent salvage logging, the angrier they sigh that it is not enough and the more they must count on someone ignoring them to provide them with what they must have.

The universities were the great backbone of the West, from the Academy and Lyceum to medieval Pisa and Oxbridge to the great 18th- and 19th-century founding of American campuses. Not necessarily any longer. Too many are bankrupt morally, economically, politically, and culturally.

The symptoms are terrifying: one trillion dollars in student debt (many of these loans accruing at higher than average interest rates and even before students have graduated); a small Eloi class of rarefied elites who teach little and write in runes that no one can decipher;  a large Morlock class of part-timers and oppressed lecturers who subsidize the fat and waste of the tenured and administrative classes; graduates who are arrogant but ignorant, nursed on –studies ideology without the liberal arts foundations to back up their zeal; and a BA/BS brand that no longer ensures better-paying jobs, if any jobs at all.

In sum, apart from the sciences and medicine, most of the university coarsens rather than enlightens American life.

The current campus is unsustainable and we are beginning to see its decline, as online courses and for-profit tech schools usurp its students. The liberal arts are not nurtured and protected for another generation in the university. Instead, their umbilical cords have become cut with the cleaver of race/class/gender no-nothingism. Again the theme: the more bloated, exploitive, and costly the university, the more it lashes out it that it is short-changed, the victim of philistine budget cuts, and the last bastion of civilized life.

Civilization Seems to Be Losing

Popular culture is likewise anti-civilizational. Does anyone believe that Kanye West, Miley Cyrus, and Lady Gaga are updates to Glenn Miller, jazz, Bob Dylan and the Beatles? Even in the bimbo mode, Marilyn Monroe had an aura that Ms. Kardashian and Ms. Hilton lack. Teens wearing bobby socks and jeans have transmogrified to strange creatures in our midst with head-to -oe tattoos and piercings as if we copied Papua New Guinea rather than it us. Why the superficial skin-deep desire to revert to the premodern? When I walk in some American malls and soak in the fashion, I am reminded of National Geographic tribal photos of the 1950s.

Again the theme: the more we borrow to provide iPads to our supposedly deprived youth, the more in theory they can access in a nano-second the treasures of their culture and heritage, and in fact the more likely it is that they have no clue what Gettysburg was, who Thomas Jefferson was, or who fought whom over what in World War II. Our managers in education, terrified of confronting the causes of ignorance, believed that the faster youths could transmit nothingness, the more likely they might stumble onto somethingness.

The fourth-century Greeks at the end pasted silver over their worthless bronze coins — “reds” being the protruding noses and hair of the portraiture that first appeared bronze-like, as the silver patina rubbed off. The bastardization of the currency fostered many books on Roman decline. More worthless money for more people was a sign of “crisis” — analogous to our own quantitative easing and $17 trillion in debt.

Once more the theme here is not just that we are insolvent, but that we are so insolvent that it is now a thought-crime to talk of dissolution, bankruptness, and irresponsible spending — all damned as symptoms of “callousness” to the poor, proof of “social injustice”, and “obsessions” with deficits. The medicine of austerity always becomes worse than the disease of profligacy.

What do I mean about the “thinning strand of civilization”?

A shrinking percentage of our population feeds us, finds our energy, protects us, and builds things we count on. They get up each morning to do these things, in part in quest for the good life, in part out of a sense of social obligation and basic humanity, in part because they know they will die if idle and thrive only when busy, and in part simply because “they like it.”

We can stack the deck against them with ever higher taxes, ever more regulations, ever more obligations to others, and they may well continue. But not if we also damn them as the “1%” and call them the agents of inequality and the fat cats who did not build what they built or who profited when they should not have.

You cannot expect the military to protect us, and then continually order it to reflect every aspect of postmodern American sensitivity in a risky premodern world. Filing a lawsuit to divert a river’s water to the sea during a drought is a lot easier and cleaner than welding together well-casings at sea. Last week, an off-duty armed correctional officer in Fresno intervened in a wild carjacking, shooting and killing the gang-member killer and thus limiting his carnage to one death and two woundings rather than five or six killings — at the very moment Harvey Weinstein — of guns-blazing Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction fame and profits — promised to destroy the NRA. These contrasts say everything about the premodern, the postmodern and the innocent who pay the tab in-between.

Each day when I drive to work I try to look at the surrounding communities, and count how many are working and how many of the able-bodied are not. I listen to the car radio and tally up how many stories, both in their subject matter and method of presentation, seem to preserve civilization, or how many seem to tear it down. I try to assess how many drivers stay between the lines, how many weave while texting or zoom in and out of traffic at 90mph or honk and flip off drivers.

Today, as the reader can note from the tone of this apocalyptic essay, civilization seemed to be losing.

(Artwork created using multiple images.)

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Top Rated Comments   
Western civilization hasn't ended.

No thanks to Soros and his trolls. Oh, they think their " butched up" names like "sensei this" and "engineer that" and "big strong Jarhead" will impress. But, it's always the same mindless drivel.

Communism good, all is wonderful, don't pay any attention to the train wreck.

Western civilization, in case the mind shriveled indoctrinated haven't noticed anything beyond their dribble bibs, is in a crushing depression. Europe's economy is cratering because of leftist imbecility.

The former pro-Western countries that have been abandoned in the Middle East are imploding...those that are still pro-Western...are scrambling for new and more reliable partners.

This nation is so divided that it cannot stand. It is half free where once it was a beacon of freedom.

The world is on the brink of something perilous...and enormous...and ugly.

China is acting like a menace. Russia is acting like a menace. Iran is acting like a menace. And America is acting like Dennis the Menace.

But, please...go on with your charade "genius engineer sensei Butchy Boy". Those footie pajamas always are a dead giveaway though. Say hi to George and don't spend all your Soros dollars in one Petrobras.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"Obviously not, but the opposite, punishing poor people isn't going to help, either."

Your use of the term "punishing" is telling. Is it "punishing" to simply not hand an able bodied, but unwilling person a bunch of "free" stuff?

There is reward and self worth in any job. If I accept employment at an agreed rate, and do my best at it, should my primary concern be if I am making somebody richer, or if I am doing well in my job?

I worked on farms in Minnesota in my youth for $1 an hour (very little farm work is light or easy), and never felt I was being punished. I was happy to have employment and felt like I was contributing. The mindset that one is punished for such efforts should be left with the Ocuupy idiots.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Dr. Hanson - I'm reminded of your last column as I read this one. The connections to what we were 50 and 100 years ago are fading like the hoarfrost in the warming of a morning sun. Its sad to see this happening to us - we've lost the connections that held families together - our connections to the idea of hard work as it's own reward. How can you have a thoughtful and appreciative connection to what you own if you've never lifted a finger for any of it? Or respect for ones-self? Or for country?

The polarization of our way of life - and of politics to - prove we've lost the connections that made us so similar - the wide gulf between what 'we' think is right and proper and what 'they' think is right and proper is so wide I can not often see 'their' point of view - it is foreign to my way of thinking and I suspect 'they' feel much the same way about mine. Its come to that. How do you cross that gulf to meet 'them' half way? I don't see a way.

Can civil war be far off? It is hard to ignore the distant rumblings of so much discontent.

1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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All Comments   (127)
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Arrogant and ignorant;

Most arrogance derives from ignorance.


There will always be those who would rather learn than be taught.

Civilization decline:

Civilizations tend to fragment rather than decline. Then the fragments (and the cultures contained) atrophy.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I could have been working months ago. Instead I am waiting to apply for a license, calling admins trying to find the details of my speeding ticket from 2005.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I'm just back from a week in Puerto Vallarta where I watched no TV and read no news; had the World ended, I'd only have known it if I saw the flash. I spent most of that week reading several histories of the Roman Empire, the real Roman Empire that included the Eastern Roman Empire that despite the best efforts of the Roman Church and various Europeans went on for almost a thousand years after the administrative if not civilizational collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

In a dynamic repeated relatively recently which allowed the opposition to the Bosheviks to be defeated because that opposition couldn't unite, the Byzantines were riven by cultural, religious, and political disputes that caused various factions within the Empire to hate each other more than they hated the Persians, the Arabs, the Slavs, the Normans, the Turks, or any of the other enemies that hated, feared, and most of all envied the Byzantines.

Our fights over who is a "true conservative" render us as defenseless against a united left as did the fights between the Iconclasts and the Iconodules rendered the Byzantines divided and defenseless against the Muslim Arabs. Byzantine insistence on Orthodox purity and their persecution of Christians deemed heretic such as the monphysites and nestorians and of Jews caused them the loss of the Levant to first the Persians then the Muslims because life under either was better for them than life under the rigorously "true conservative" Orthodox Byzantines. Every culture around them had to evaluate whether life under the new enemy of the Byzantines was better or worse than life under the Byzantines. These days in America, it appears that a majority considers life under the Left better than life under the Right. We need to figure out what to do about that.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
And just a further thought: It is easy to see the leftists catalyzed by Ayers and the homosexuals and other "social" progressives catalyzed by Gil and others as analogous to whichever deposed Alexis (I think) decided to make a deal with the Franks to put him back on the Byzantine throne. The Left really believes that GWB's election was not an electoral victory but a deposing of the rightful rulers of the US. So, the Left makes a deal with the Frank, all the unions and other Democrat front groups, to go put them on the throne of the Imperial City. But, it turns out they don't have the wherewithal to overcome the Clinton machine. So, they seek investors just as the Franks sought investors in the Venetians to take them to the fabulously rich East. When the Franks couldn't deliver the throne to the Left, the Left couldn't pay the Venetians, Soros and his Middle Eastern investors, so the Venetians told the Franks to sack Constantinople so they could both pay the Venetians and make themselves some money. The Franks are camped outside the city walls and the Venetian fleet is waiting. I know that's a long way into thought not much in the Western canon of History, but I think the analogy is apt.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment


Sometimes in history there are social mega-tsunamis when demographic, cultural, and technological waves collide, sending up super-nodes that can be quite spectacular to observe from the distance and safety of a history textbook. They are much less enjoyable to experience personally. Pile up enough Kondratiev Waves and you might wind up at the end of a thousand-year super-cycle, this time with technology as the new rocket fuel poured on the fire.

Without food coming into the cities, latent societal fault lines exploded in a chain of sympathetic detonations. The young pushed aside the older generation that they blamed for sucking the system dry. The urban fought the rural when the cities were first emptied of food and then hope and then people. The devoutly religious battled the strident secularists. Big-government socialists, including most law enforcement, battled the libertarians and conservatives. Cross-racial tribalization fractured the fragile multicultural checkerboard.

When the power went out and the panic stampede for the last food commenced, all the fault lines ruptured at once. The government, from local to federal, never had a prayer of containing the explosion of violence and destruction that accompanied the Great Starvation.

The horror was totally unimaginable even a week before the screens went dark and everything in our world went haywire. Unimaginable because the ubiquitous entertainment screens were perfect for one thing (and they kept this distinction right to the end): distracting the masses. Better than any mule’s blinkers, the pleasure screens both attracted the eyes and fed the mind happy messages. Whatever you wanted, they were serving it 24/7 on a thousand television channels and a million interactive websites. Pick your poison. Entertain yourself to death.

What was the name of that pop star vixen at the last Super Bowl? She was wearing a dominatrix outfit with shiny sharpened rivets in the usual places. And where did she come by her Aldous Huxley, singing “hug me till you drug me, kiss me till I’m in a coma,” nearly word for word from Huxley’s Brave New World? No doubt she’d never read a book in her life, much less that one.

Before the collapse, the high-def screens had allowed each watcher to choose from a virtual infinity of customizable fantasies, but there was usually nothing behind those magical glass windows but a plasterboard wall and another stark habitation cubicle built the other way around for the next inhabitant over. Within the dying hive there was no incoming food, fuel, or running water. Not even electricity to move the stale air.

Soon after the screens went black, the pharmacy-dispensed medications ran out as well, the cold-turkey withdrawal pouring more fuel on our raging social fires. Our Brave New World featured Huxley’s “Christianity without the tears,” until the Soma was gone. A gram is better than a damn, until there are no more grams left but plenty of damnation to go around—and people are damned mad when they’re starving.

If you ask me, looking back, our society went mad long before the Rupture. Who could honestly believe that modern first-world economies could continue to borrow half their annual operating costs from their own future generations, and from foreign banks and foreign governments that were likewise borrowing from their future generations? When in history has that sweetly delusional practice ever lasted more than a few generations before cracking up? Never, that I am aware of.

Frankly, for the rapidly diminishing minority of us left who were neither mathematically nor historically illiterate, the years before the Rupture were like living on the slopes of Vesuvius around AD seventy-something, while sniffing the stink of sulfur on the wind. What’s all that smoking and rumbling? a few of us asked. Smiling mainstream media news anchors answered: We’re not sure, but rest easy. Top government experts are studying it, and they will have a full report ready soon.

In the meantime, pop another Soma and switch back to Celebrity Nation. A gram is better than a damn, so why not make it two? Who needs old-fashioned morality when we have fashioned a brave new reality better suited to our own modern tastes?

From my short story "Alas, Brave New Babylon."
60 second trailer
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Victor Davis Hanson singing that old song "What's the matter with kids today", other than the structural problems with the domestic economy, partly due to decades of deterioration due to trade agreements that has hollowed out the middle and working people in favor of the 0.001% (oooh, flame me now, I must be one of the enemies). Check it out. You have a point, Dr. Hanson. I grieve for my son, for whom I didn't foresee the future when he was younger.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Here we go again with the evil 'trade agreements', the most childish argument ever. Go read Ricardo.

If my numbers are correct, Canada sends you a billion dollars a day worth of oil and gas. You think you'll pay us with US dollars at some preferential rate that impoverishes us? No way buddy, all the traffic will bear, after all, it's what you'd do us.

Your production is increasing and you may yet be energy exporters. If the USA won't buy stuff from dirty, job stealing foreigners, what will we use for money to buy your exports?

When a Canadian, Vietnamese or Chinese works for less than your workers and sends you his work product for cheap, he is doing you a favour. It is not our fault that you Americans continually elect immoral socialist Democrats or incompetent bumbling Republicans, neither capable of dealing with the wealth trade showers on you from abroad. What the hell else did you expect from Clinton, male or female, Bush 1 or 2, Obama, Biden, Boehner et al.?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Or the part of populace that elected them...
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I disagree, first off where is the evidence to back your assertion? But the skyrocketing of out of wedlock childbirth, divorce and the problems described above are far far more devastating. There is hope, but it's in fewer and fewer hands.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Good luck sir, but it's not all personal. If I told you my story it'd be a conservative's nightmare, I'm not at all proud of it. I needed conservatism in 1994, but as my son says: "F__ it, Dad, say it with me, F__ it"
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
We were there at the time....
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
This link is NOT off topic
It is a brutal real-life reality check on the Perot phenomena that inflicted us with the ongoing clintons, the protest "stay at homes" that re-inflicted the obamat_rds further upon us in 2012, & the no better than any faculty lounge or college coffee house ravings and "gotchas" and "I have spokens" seen crescendoing seen in *Comment pages now.
In not one of any reader's lifetime will the loss of values and and principles of human civilization that lead to this mess and danger be corrected.
Yes, the zero can be further depended upon to only make the worst decisions for our real interests. He can never be trusted.
Yes, a plurality, if not a majority, of current Americans, LIVs, etc., cannot be trusted with their birthright responsibilities as formerly known. It is entirely logical and correct to now both fear and loath them.
A start on getting out of this would be a caring, courageous U.S. Senate pending in 10 months. Are you a reputable rightblog reader or a regular commenter? Support a win capable, conservative U.S. Senate candidate cumulatively for any reading or commenting you do? [See earlier ...]
(Click a"like" as guest or user name should you be considering doing this, or eventually just do it.) Again prior - George Washington.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"... how thin the thread of civilization sometimes hangs ...",
"... thin the strand of civilization hangs ... "
'What do I mean about the “thinning strand of civilization”?'

I don't think this quite works - the strand (or thread) upon which civilization hangs is thin, not civilization itself.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
This was indeed an interesting article, but I think it is a bit myopic. I agree that there are many people who sit at home in their dirty socks waiting for the next recharge of the EBT card, but there are many many millions who simply can't find a job. In this economy - one that is 'post consumerist', 'post manufacturing', WHERE is there a job to be had? Ask Cass Sunstein (science advisor) to President Obama. If we read his writings prior to his government job, it's clear there are just too many people, who frankly consume too much stuff - and all that needs to be STOPPED. Suddenly the US creaking toward depression makes wonderful sense. Go over to zero hedge and you are treated to articles of 'Sears and JC Penney heading to bankruptcy'. The low skilled, low information person could at least count on a service sector / retail job - no more. I will stop here, but the point is there is lots of fault to be found for our current predicament - much of it completely intentional on the part of our overlords.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Obama's playbook is not Sunstein, it's Roosevelt. He's nearly a mirror image. And like Roosevelt, Obama is engineering a 10 year non-recovery, whether both are (were) ignorant boobs or maniacal mini-Fascists, who cares, it's the same result.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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