Belmont Club

The Sealed Frontier

“The Americans  own the watches, but we have all the time.” A Taliban saying.

Philip Zimbardo argues in the video below that for many in the West, the future has ceased to exist. It is no longer worth saving for, planning against or dreaming of. All that we have is an addiction to instant gratification. Yet despite the fact that experiences are intensified into the present with all the compression of a car crash, the resulting moments become far from being satisfying; paradoxically unbearable, cloying and sickeningly rich. We rush and once we get to where we were hurrying, can hardly wait to leave it. Life becomes and endless series of novelties, each palliated by the next. We entertain ourselves to forget our last entertainments.

Yet even the smallest pauses between them are irksome for no reason we can think of. The mere minute it takes for a computer to boot up makes us rage. Yet when the welcome screen comes, it fills us with annoyance. What we were rushing to reach is revealed as vapid and commonplace. We don’t even stop to see the bright colors; we can’t even see the magic that’s taken hundreds of man hours to program; we can’t wait to get past it, and past what comes right after.

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Cowboy commenting at the Belmont Club, astutely observed that more and more of our magnificent technology was aimed at achieving nothing but going faster for the sake of going faster.  But as to where we’re headed, who cares? Everyone knows there’s no place to go.

The hard fact is this: we’re doing less, and with better tools. Charles Murray has tried to quantify this problem in his book, “Human Achievement”. Contrary to your predictions, Walt, Murray claims that the 1800s were the high-point for the rate of human progress. Understand something here folks, this is not to say that progress stopped in the 1800’s, we’re talking about derivatives here, the calculus of human progress. The rate of human progress seems to have peaked before the last century in measurable ways. Yeah, we got cell phones that run circles around UNIVAC. But we use them to vote on American Idol. So, in many, many ways, the situation is not improved.

The situation has not improved because progress needs a future; it requires a sense of the transcendant. Our marvelous modern culture has singularly destroyed the allure of the future even as technology gave us the means to get there. But when the future is perceived as futile, empty and meaningless there is no point getting there. If you asked a teenager why he stayed glued to videogames the more honest might answer, “so that I don’t have to think about how horrible and senseless my life is.” The one word that seems closest to describing the hopeless frenzy of a present in which the future no longer beckons is the quality of being jaded.

The Taliban’s belief that they “have all the time” is paradoxically an assertion that they, unlike us, believe in a future. They are convinced that someday the flag of Islam will fly over the White House. Modern PC culture by contrast, constantly hints by its actions that it has very little desire to even survive. For all its self-congratulation it can hardly muster the enthusiasm to continue. Children and grandchildren, which are the links into posterity are seen as an irksome encumbrance. Our bridges to tomorrow are not just untrodden, they are unwanted.  The Optimum Population Trust, for example, argues that a world without many people would be very desirable. We like ourselves so much we can hardly wait to be rid of us. Children are not treasures; they are fungus on the planet. And if we’ve burdened them with debts, well they deserve it. In the West the future is a place to where we can safely kick cans because in some fundamental way we believe it no longer really exists. Why not dump everything, our deficits included, into a  tomorrow that will ever come?  And if it does, well we do not care about it.

Instead of a future filled with our dreams we have a great restlessness that reflects itself not just in personal behavior but even in public policy. The current administration’s frantic desire to exit from Afghanistan is driven  less by a desire to achieve victory — by definition a future event that requires posterity to appreciate — but in part from a psychological desire to avoid present unpleasantness. We exit with the same impatience with which we wait for computers to boot; not because we want to do anything after it does but because nothing should take so long. The difference between the confidence of China and India exhibit and pessimism of the West can be expressed in one phrase: the Chinese and Indian time continuum is still complete.  They still have parents and they still want to have children. At some point in the fairly recent past the West gave up on legacy and posterity and longed for a time when it could forget both God and Country; to have done with both self and meaning.

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…

Yet perhaps Lennon’s words more closely describe a prison than paradise.  When ideology abolishes transcendence the first thing it does is close off borders to anywhere it doesn’t control. Ideologies which provide “complete solutions” to the human experience find they must shut off the frontier to any sehnsucht, or place of longing, lest people find the desire to look over the next hill and thereby begin to ask questions. They lock everything into the present. But the future is an important country, one which human beings cannot easily live without.

Until the advent of the all-powerful state one of the most important threads in Western culture had been the direct relationship between man and transcendence. If man could know the truth without inter-mediation, receive liberty outside of human agencies it was on the basis of his citizenship in a “far off country”.  He was not bound to the circles of the present. It was this greater citizenship that gave his future substance, a dimension beyond the merely animal and made the idea of “the pursuit of happiness” a serious goal. CS Lewis described this far country in his essay Weight of Glory.

it is a desire for something that has never actually appeared in our experience … our commonest expedient is to call it beauty and behave as if that had settled the matter. Wordsworth’s expedient was to identify it with certain moments in his own past. But all this is a cheat. If Wordsworth had gone back to those moments in the past, he would not have found the thing itself, but only the reminder of it; what he remembered would turn out to be itself a remembering. The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.

That is of course, seditious talk, because progressive politics is above all about controlling our ideas of time; it was about abolishing the future and confining us to the present. It is about telescoping the future into its present incarnation. “I have seen the future and it works … He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future”. But all they are  are different ways of saying ‘this and nothing more.’  And we will always be something more. It is humanity’s birthright and curse.

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