The Last Generation of the West and the Thin Strand of Civilization
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 Shutterstock.com images.)