Is Our Civilization a Bubble? Part II

Third Bubble Pathology: The rapid expansion of the bubble leads to the cognitive giddiness of utopian optimism. In the middle of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe recounts how Eliza and her child, escaping from slavery in Kentucky, receive sanctuary in the home of an Ohio state senator. The senator’s wife takes from a drawer and gives Eliza’s baby a gown recently worn by her own dead son. Stowe then steps aside from her narrative to address her female readers -- “And oh! mother that reads this, has there never been in your house a drawer, or a closet, the opening of which has been to you like the opening again of a little grave? Ah! happy mother that you are, if it has not been so.” Stowe assumes, rightly for her time, that most American women would have experienced the loss of a child. What is now an unusual, almost insupportable, tragedy was in the 1850s a common one.

When Thomas Jefferson penned the phrase “pursuit of happiness,” it was probably with a certain wryness. He too knew the facts of life, having ten years before buried a beloved sister age twenty-five. Six years afterward he’d see his wife die in childbirth, and five of their six children would predecease him, one stillborn, three dead in early childhood. The family histories of a large number of other prominent figures of our early national period were similarly imbued with loss. Happiness might be pursued, but the course would likely take one through the vale of tears.

We expect a lot better today. Life expectancy pushes toward eighty -- now yesterday’s seventy, for most, very much with “teeth,” “eyes,” and “taste,” even artificial knees, hips, and hearts -- to say nothing of winter retreats to Florida. Women otherwise barren, conceive in labs, and carry their children in someone else’s womb. Don’t like the sex with which you came into the world? Then change it, at least after a fashion, and look forward to most everyone acknowledging the transformation. Old miracle has become new fact as futurologists promise us even more, including the indefinite prolongation of life and youth. Given the distance we’ve already traversed, these predictions seem credible. What was once reserved for heaven, or some land of Cockayne, has become a subject whose moral implications get seriously debated by ethicists. We now live within a sphere of conceivability so ballooned as to present our third danger: the risk of a society that consumes its substance chasing impossibilities, convinced that its cake can be eaten and re-eaten many times over; a society, for instance, that closes off-shore drilling, eschews nuclear power, yet imagines the machine will never stop.

Immense privilege can be rational where it self-consciously lives off a vast number of the unprivileged. It then knows its limits. But when it’s transformed into a generalized sense of entitlement, shared by many if not all, it risks outrunning the progress it feeds off. Looking for a something-for-nothing attitude heading for a fall? Try British students rioting when expected to pay for their university educations, French workers rioting when asked to work till sixty-two, and, perhaps in time, American pensioners rioting when their public paymasters start to default. In the Third World, disturbance may track the price of bread. But it can be more about cake in Everyman’s Versailles.

The aversion to recognizing differential success that crops up in our schools is another symptom of an every-expectations-can-be-fulfilled outlook, entrenched in this case at a critical cultural location. The preference for group work and non-competitive games, the discomfort with tracking and class honors, the accompanying educator euphemisms meant to hide gaps in ability, the use of the term “differently-abled” to hide the fact of disability itself (or "handi-capable," to borrow a South Park riff) are all telltale. The vale of tears once taught us that it was wise to underscore the relationship between talent and reward so as to promote maximum effort. In our virtual heaven-on-earth we yearn to deem everyone a winner so as to ice prosperity with a rich coat of self-esteem. This psychological redistribution is a nice luxury, but in less favored lands there are calloused, more driven folk who have escaped its temptation.

And finally there’s the matter of whether a life too well-loved, too buffered, too devoted to self-realization can recognize the recurrent need to cast ease aside and defend itself. “War is not the answer” signs dot the lawns of our university towns -- nice thought, but only true if the peaceful control the questions called. Can we still do raw deeds when these are necessary? Are we prepared, as were our fathers and grandfathers, for a mass effort to repay ruthless enemies in kind, even if that means a heavy butcher’s bill? When the chips are down will a life spent in shopping malls and ivy leagues so conduce? One day we may find out.

If there’s a lot of ruin in a nation, there’s likely to be all the more in a great civilization. The vices of our civilization are, after all, mainly the flip side of its resplendent virtues. If it coaxes us to believe that all men share the confidence we have in others; if it makes us to forget how different was the world of its begetting from the one we now occupy; if from time to time it threatens our very grip on sanity, well, that’s only a testament to how comfortable a nest it’s woven round us, how completely it’s delivered us from the immemorial evils of the human condition. And this delivery was no accident. The great miracle of our lives rests on the anomalous triumph of exchange over command, of making over taking that has showered upon us so much wealth and security.

Wealth, and its accompanying technical acumen, is no small thing. It can compensate for a large variety of failings. We might have been more trusting than the Soviet commissars, but in the end we buried them under an avalanche of high tech weaponry, computers, and consumables. If our judgments are sometimes shortsighted, our margins of error now stretch very far. Up till now our failings have proved affordable. As long as our pockets stay deep they may continue to.

One thing we can be sure of, however, is if there is ever a breakdown of the Western social order it won’t be the direct result, as Marx predicted, of an overproduction of goods. Rather, if it comes, it is likely to be the result of a surfeit of innocence, which during the course of the twentieth century has become one of the Western world’s most significant products. Not, of course, innocence as innocence has been traditionally conceived. With crudeness and carnality we’re obviously awash. The innocence that now dogs us is a deeper innocence of human nature, an innocence of the predatory qualities of our species, indeed, an innocence which allows us to tolerate -- in all innocence -- the impulse-freedom the sexual revolution has brought in tow. It’s the spirit of this particular type of innocence that has been inflating our bubble. An accompanying misunderstanding of humanity’s underlying condition is what threatens to puncture it.