Ed Driscoll

Civilization in Reverse, on Dry Land and on Sea

Whether you’re on Terra Firma, or cruising the Mediterranean, there’s no doubt about it — backwards ran Western Civilization until reeled the mind, to paraphrase Wolcott Gibbs. First up, here’s Victor Davis Hanson on “Civilization in Reverse:”

Now, as in Greece, the veneer of civilization is proving pretty thin in California. Hospitals no longer have the money to offer sophisticated long-term medical care to the indigent. Cities no longer have the funds to self-insure themselves from the accustomed barrage of monthly lawsuits. When thieves rip copper wire out of street lights, the streets stay dark. Most state residents would rather go to the dentist these days than queue up and take a number at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Hospital emergency rooms neither have room nor act as if there’s much of an emergency.

Traffic flows no better on most of the state’s freeways than it did 40 years ago — and often much worse, given the crumbling infrastructure and increased traffic. Once-excellent K–12 public schools now score near the bottom in nationwide tests. The California state-university system keeps adding administrators to the point where they have almost matched the number of faculty, though half of the students who enter CSU need remedial reading and math. Despite millions of dollars in tutoring, half the students still don’t graduate. The taxpayer is blamed in constant harangues for not ponying up more money, rather than administrators being faulted for a lack of reform.

In 1960, there were far fewer government officials, far fewer prisons, far fewer laws, and far fewer lawyers — and yet the state was a far safer place than it is a half-century later. Technological progress — whether iPhones or Xboxes — can often accompany moral regress. There are not yet weeds in our cities, but those too may be coming.

The average Californian, like the average Greek, forgot that civilization is fragile. Its continuance requires respect for the law, tough-minded education, collective thrift, private investment, individual self-reliance, and common codes of behavior and civility — and exempts no one from those rules. Such knowledge and patterns of civilized behavior, slowly accrued over centuries, can be lost in a single generation.

And on sea, the Costa Concordia disaster is the perfect metaphor for civilization moving in reverse. So much so that Mark Steyn kicks off his weekly column with this: “Abe Greenwald of Commentary magazine tweets: ‘Is there any chance that Mark Steyn won’t use the Italian captain fleeing the sinking ship as the lead metaphor in a column on EU collapse?'”

Abe Greenwald isn’t thinking big enough. The Costa Concordia isn’t merely a metaphor for EU collapse but – here it comes down the slipway – the fragility of civilization. Like every ship, the Concordia had its emergency procedures – the lifeboat drills that all crew and passengers are obliged to go through before sailing. As with the security theater at airports, the rituals give the illusion of security – and then, as the ship tips and the lights fail and the icy black water rushes in, we discover we’re on our own: from dancing and dining, showgirls and saunas, to the inky depths in a matter of moments.

Today the wealthiest nations in human history build cruise ships rather than battleships, vast floating palaces dedicated to the good life – to the proposition that, in the plump and complacent West, life itself is a cruise, sailing (as the Concordia’s name suggests) on a placid lake of peace and harmony. Since the economic downturn of 2008, the Titanic metaphor – of a Western world steaming for the iceberg but unable to correct course – has become a little overworked, the easiest cliché for any politician attempting to project urgency. But let’s assume they’re correct, and we’re heading full steam for the big ‘berg. When we hit, what’s the likelihood? That our response will be as ordered and civilized as those on the Titanic? Or that we will descend into the hell of the Concordia?

The contempt for “women and children first” is not a small loss. For soft cultures in good times, dispensing with social norms is easy. In hard times, you may have need of them.

Which in an odd way dovetails into William Tucker’s article at the American Spectator on “Environmentalism and the Leisure Class.” But then, aren’t all of the facets of contemporary liberalism simply ways for the Leisure Class to alternately assuage their guilt, and pass the time until the inevitable terminal moment?