Ed Driscoll

'It Begins with Self-Doubt; it Ends with Self-Destruction'

“When a Civilization Goes Mad — It begins with self-doubt; it ends with self-destruction,” David Solway writes on the PJM homepage:

The greatest civilization the world has ever known has lost confidence in itself, infected by a plague of self-doubt and self-recrimination. Having lost its bearings, it is no longer willing or able to think clearly, to make difficult choices, to defend its patrimony and resist demographic subversion, to accept the need for sacrifice, to value the radiant catalogue of its triumphs and achievements in art, science, technology, medicine, and statecraft, and, with its declining birthrate, even to reproduce itself. This is total madness. Further, the leftist “illiberal trajectory” it has embarked upon, as Caroline Glick writes, has led to the “bid to criminalize ideological opponents and justify acts of terrorism,” a radical political shift that “will destroy the liberal democratic foundations of Western civilization.”

Is a return to psychic health at all possible? Do civilizations convalesce? Can those who follow the maxim of the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations — “the object of life is…to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane” — influence events for the better or at least defer the inevitable? Is the writing on the wall erasable graffiti or is it, shall we say, Biblically indelible?

Any way we look at it, the prognosis is not encouraging. As Martin Heidegger deposed in a 1966 Der Spiegel interview, the only one of the philosopher’s utterances that keeps on echoing, “Only a god can save us now.”

I don’t know, I still think we can save ourselves. But there’s no doubt that, as David wrote, self-doubt and self-recrimination combine to make a vicious narcotic when consumed en masse by society’s elites, as it quickly filters everywhere into society, both high and low. That’s one of the key themes of Mark Steyn’s After America as Elizabeth Scalia, a.ka. the Blogosphere’s Anchoress notes:

It is rare for a book release, no matter how timely, to coincide with breaking news. In the case of Mark Steyn’s After America the alignment was downright spooky. As louts, brats and the non-thinkers who wish merely to be part of a “moment” terrorized the citizenry and burned down London neighborhoods, across the pond one could enter a bookstore, lift Steyn’s latest from a shelf and read:

The United Kingdom seems to be evolving from a nanny state into a kind of giant remedial institution for elderly juvenile delinquents. At bus stops in London, there are posters warning, “DON’T TAKE IT OUT ON US.” At the Underground station, you see the slogan, “IF YOU ABUSE OUR STAFF, LONDON SUFFERS” . . . I found this one of the bleakest comments on modern Britain: all the award-winning wit and style of the London advertising world deployed in service of a devastating acknowledgment of civic decay.

Pondering the fact that in Wales, Northern Ireland and parts of Northern England the state accounts for up to 78 percent of the economy, Steyn wonders, “why wouldn’t you take it out on the state?”

The chapter may be specific to the United Kingdom, but Steyn is very clear: what is a daily reality in Britain will soon be America’s reality, too, unless the country reverses its embrace of the social and economic policies that are bankrupting Europe and bringing its society to its collective knees.

It’s not like we cannot see this for ourselves. As we view security videos of “flash mobs”—unconcerned about either safety or prosecution—descending en masse upon a convenience stores and fast-food outlets and helping themselves to whatever they like, a future of anarchy is not too difficult to imagine. Already, Philadelphia, Chicago, and St. Louis are imposing or attempting to enforce curfews for young people who have figured out that if they co-ordinate their activities and don’t linger, their sheer numbers are enough to empower a petty criminality that will go unprosecuted. From there, a Molotov cocktail through a window is not such a great leap.

But Steyn is not writing solely about the social unrest and the hooliganism that so often comes with economic distress. After America warns that an over-regulated, bureaucracy-laden society, dissuaded from conceiving and achieving great things because too much has come between an idea and its execution, is a society dumbing down and numbing-up, growing not just stagnant, but inert, like Chesterton’s “dead thing” that “can go with the stream,” while “only a living thing can go against it.”

And in her own write-up of Steyn’s book, Kathy Shaidle adds:

One possible antidote is to think of After America as the latest (and certainly best written and most intellectually sound) example of a post-WW2 phenomenon one might call the “conservative jerimiad.”

In the early 1960s, pop history-polemics titles like Phyllis Schafly’s A Choice, Not an Echo, Barry Goldwater/Brent Bozell’s Conscience of a Conservative, and on a lower level of quality, None Dare Call It Treason and The Gravediggers, were also penned as warnings to Americans that their nation was in grave peril, both from without and from within.

All but Conscience… were (and still are) mocked as “conspiratorial,” and yeah, the belief that Eisenhower was more or less Soviet agent is pretty funny.

(Although today the laugh is, or should be, on generations of bien pensant critics: never mind VenonaTreason‘s contention that communists had taken over the NEA isn’t absurd at all once you’ve read David Horowitz’s autobiography…)

Obviously, in terms of sheer unadulterated quality, soundness of information and authorial talent, After America is to all these other books what a gold-plated La Pavoni is to a box of those blue enamel camping coffee pots with the white speckles.

After America has the added advantage of not falling into the tempting “conspiracy” trap, because is was written in 2011 and not 1964.

The conspiratorial mindset  was the easy, default worldview of those long ago authors. Without access to all the unclassified information we have today, and our unprecedented ability to harvest and process data, the belief in organized conspiracies simply made more sense from inside their Cold War, low tech Plato’s Cave than the real life explanation: that of — as Bernie Godlberg explains in Bias — thousands of self-selecting, inter-mating, like minded people who don’t have to “conspire” to do anything. They simply agree with each other, so even at a distance, their “independent” individual actions all work together to accomplish progressive goals.

The other big difference is the tone of today’s right versus the left. As Jonah Goldberg told me when I interviewed him about Liberal Fascism (which in many ways provides the introduction to Mark’s new book), he deliberately toned down his “Shecky Goldberg” style (his words) when when writing his book. But between Jonah, Mark, Lileks, Jay Nordlinger, Roger L. Simon, Hugh Hewitt, Jim Treacher, and numerous other conservatives and libertarians, there’s much goodwill and humor on the right these days. This can directly be attributed to the election of President Reagan and his sunny optimism, and the sea change from the conspiratorial tone of the sixties-era conservative books that Kathy referenced above, and modern conservatism. Along with, as she writes later in her post, Fox News, talk radio and (especially) the Web, which allows millions of otherwise isolated conservatives to link up and exchange ideas. Contrast that with the frequently grousing tone of today’s left, particularly when they’re forced to deal with the folks on the other side of aisle, and you get a sense of who’s winning the argument.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that freedom is winning the fight, as Jay Nordlinger writes at the Corner:

A few months ago, I was in Norway, and overheard some anti-Americanism. Nothing major, just the usual sniffiness, from a bunch of tourists aboard a ferry (Continental tourists). I wrote something like the following in Impromptus at the time: “I’ll miss it when it’s gone — the envy of America, the resentment of America, the sniffy little potshots. Because that’ll mean we’re not a big deal anymore. That will mean we’ve fallen off our perch. Who has time to resent, envy, or sniff about an ordinary or nothing country?”

I’ve had the same thought here in Austria. I’ll miss the sniffing about America — the little snarky remarks I hear — when it’s gone. I hope the day never arrives. When there is no anti-Americanism, there will be no America as we know it in the world.

I don’t hear much sniffing from ordinary people, mind you — the sniffing I hear is basically from aristos, the type I deal with at the festival. Others are apt to ask me what it’s like to live in New York, or tell me about their cousin in Milwaukee. (That’s the name of a Gershwin song: “My Cousin in Milwaukee.”)

A lady from Germany said to me, “What’s the matter with you people? Why are you forcing yourself down like this? Why do you want to be just another country like us here in Europe,” broke, stifled, and toothless? Another lady — Austrian — said to me, with disgust, “America is finished.” She almost spat out the words. She wasn’t happy about it — she was disgusted, heartsick.

“Decline is a choice,” some of us like to say. And I believe it’s true, to a large extent. (Maybe not all the way.) About a million times, I’ve quoted Bush the Elder, from his 1988 convention speech. It’s been over 20 years now. Where has the time gone? Anyway, he said this about Michael Dukakis, and his ilk: “My opponent’s view of the world sees a long, slow decline for our country, an inevitable fall mandated by impersonal historical forces. But America is not in decline. America is a rising nation.” On those last two words, Bush made a rising motion with his hand.

He continued, “He [Dukakis] sees America as another pleasant country on the U.N. roll call, somewhere between Albania and Zimbabwe. And I see America as the leader — a unique nation with a special role in the world.”

A lot of Americans reject this view — Americans on both left and right. There is a segment of the Right that wants America to be small, quiet, closed, and inconsequential; much of the Left wants America to be socialist, or social-democratic, indistinct, and inconsequential. Then there are the others. The cliché is true: that the 2012 election is hugely important. Americans will be answering, in a way, “What kind of country are we going to have?”

What kind of country do you want to have? That’s really the question next year, isn’t it?

Related: Fiscal doom, now in handy, easy to follow chart form.