Saturday, June 26, 2010

The fall of the Western Empire … redux

I was standing in the smoking area with an acquaintance who commonly brings his Kindle™ to work. As we commented on that, and on the construction of the new Pizza Hut corporate offices across the street, a thought akin to despair enveloped me like the steamy heat of the Dallas morning. I couldn't help but say it: "When we were growing up, we were afraid that we'd destroy the world with nuclear weapons. That's not going to happen. The Western world is going to collapse from within."

David smiled ruefully. "It's already started."

I've been reading more of the writings of G. K. Chesterton; the more I read, the more I notice just how much more things have degenerated than I once suspected. Whereas once I traced most of the evils of the present to the malign influence of quasi- and proto-Marxists on the counterculture of the ̉'60s, which group has taken over much of our legal and educational systems, I now see that the seeds were active and sprouting even a century ago when the "Apostle of Common Sense" was very much in his prime, and that much of his indictments of the patent silliness he witnessed can be easily transposed to condemn the conventional wisdom of this age.

But the root of the vision goes back a bit further than that, to the savage debates over the health-care reform bill. I began to suspect, even before it got into committee, that it would turn out to be nothing more than a very large and expensive Band-Aid over a lesion of a cancer that had metastasized throughout the body of the health-care … well, to call it a "system" would be to imply an organization and a standardization that is notable only by its absence. Simply put, government-subsidized insurance does not solve the problem of why health-care costs continue to spiral; in fact, it damn near insures that costs will continue to increase at an alarming rate, practically guaranteeing a concurrent increase in the national debt and an ever-larger hunk of our tax dollars.

Part of the reason health-care costs are rising faster than the average household income is tied directly into an economy that depends more and more on enabling—nay, using "social engineering" to encourage—selfishness, self-indulgence, laziness, vanity and covetousness. From the deliberate targeting of children to encourage a preference for nutritionally dangerous fast food, to the plethora of entertainment systems designed to keep people on their butts indoors instead of playing outdoors, to the deceptive selling of sex as recreation while denying the reality of procreation, to the adaptation of reconstructive surgery to pander to the rich and/or the silly … you could create a list a hundred miles long on the various ways businesses—legal, illegal and on the border between the two—manipulate people into buying behaviors that are damaging to our health, not only directly but indirectly through financing the behavior. And when our health becomes borderline bad, the same economy is there with quick quack remedies so we can get our once-beautiful bodies back without the dreary necessity of exercise and eating right.

Madison Avenue has been particularly successful at creating this obscene carnival because our schools have abandoned any pretense of teaching children how to think in favor of teaching them what to think. Doubtless this has been the case for a century and more, if there ever were a golden age of American schoolrooms where children weren't force-fed a social doctrine along with reading and writing skills … except that the reading and writing skills have been going by the wayside in my lifetime. Nevertheless, it's disheartening to realize that the "triumph of Reason over Faith" is becoming assumed in the higher circles of learning even as people—often the same people—embrace subjectivism and relativism, two concepts which practically define irrationality. But the problem isn't simply propaganda dressed up as education. Math simply can't be taught through the medium of the calculator: one only learns a sequence of buttons to push rather than the reasoning behind the operations. You can't skimp on primary language skills: clarity of writing demands and forces clarity of thinking.

As for history: as much as it was always a favorite subject, one in which I usually scored better than I had any right to, I now have grave reservations about public schools teaching children more than bare facts and dates. History, in its essence, is story: parables, even myths (in the classic sense) that purport to make crucial events, influential figures and whole nations understandable. But the meaning of the story is very much in the hands of the storyteller, and for that reason shaped to the values s/he wishes to encode in the text. Bias can be created not only by what's put in but by what's left out, by the choice of a less accurate but more emotive adjective over a cooler, more precise descriptor. Agreement to a standard textbook is agreement to teach the authors' values and biases; since the school system rather than the parents choose the texts, the student is open to a form of proselytizing the parents can only avoid by paying for private schools or making sacrifices to home-school.

But what is never effectively taught in school is how one must live after one has graduated and is thrown on his/her own resources. Most people of my generation and the one before—"Generation X" and the "baby boomers"[1]—gripe about the younger set's lack of a work ethic. This isn't one I think about much, for I learned the hard way that you either work or you starve, and I've always been partial to my vittles; there are very few people so dense that they don't learn that lesson. But very few people know, just coming out of high school or college, how much our present "buy now pay later" economy depends on us putting liens on future incomes that may or may not be there, which may or may not increase proportionally to the inflation rate. Having worked in both credit cards and home loans, I can testify that lenders are genetically predatory, that only extensive regulation makes possible any distinction between the interstate bank and the corner loan shark. Although there are any number of responsible financial consultants in the media who can't stress enough the importance of starting to save money early, there are more glitzy commercials out there telling the young not just to passively sock money away but to risk their savings early by being their own stockbroker. But how can anyone hear the encouragement to save, or even invest, when the financial consultants are being drowned out by the demands that we buy, buy, BUY!? The combination of the need for financial responsibility and the spending demand has made possible the consumerist beast called insurance, separated from protection rackets not only by government regulation but also by occasional government mandate. And so, having had little practical or theoretical education in thrift and budgeting, the young person is cast out into the marketplace, where she must make decisions based only on the information given by a salesman angling for her commission.

Of course, if the young person is a college graduate, then the chances are good that a portion of her speculative future income is already dedicated to paying for her sheepskin. As the costs of tuition, books, supplies and whatnot at a traditional college for a four- or five-year bachelor program can easily reach the six-digit mark, one finds himself paying on a fifteen-year mortgage without having anything so concrete as a house to show for it, while working beside people like me who don't have anything so theoretically enabling as a college diploma, for about the same wages. And yet the job market has changed, and is changing, to such a degree that a high-school diploma or GED is inevitably becoming little more than a certificate of adulthood, a bare-minimum step to earning more than bare-minimum wage. Such is the requirement of our highly-specialized, complex society that even the person who "takes the queen's shilling" can't look forward to a full twenty-year career as an infantryman without some kind of post-secondary education. I say this not out of any disrespect for the "grunt", who has always been the backbone of the Army, but out of the realistic knowledge that the more intelligent a man is, the less likely he is to choose the life of a foot soldier, or to remain enlisted for long if that career is chosen for him; it wasn't that long ago that a man could rise to the highest enlisted ranks of any of the services without the need for a high-school diploma, far less an MS.

But if the student himself is not on the hook for the cost of his four years, then it's the parents … or mother, or father, since more often not to speak of parents is to speak of something that is no longer a single unit. Western society still has an ephemeral grasp of marriage as a somewhat good thing—which is to say that it has lost sight of not only the sacramentality but also the necessity of marriage, most likely because they've lost sight of its biological and social purpose. The one thing which causes me most of my despair is the half-deliberate, half-casual destruction of the family not only in its most basic unit—mother, father and children—but also in its extension: grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins. I would be tempted to blame it on a reaction to the grim, Calvinistic view of sex as a "necessary evil", had it not propelled us into a fat-headed, equally grotesque belief that sex is merely a form of recreation which ought to not have any serious consequences. Marriage is now little more than a strange ritual ceremonializing the decision to shack up with a sex partner, an arrangement that has some legal benefits but one that can be foregone. It's only in this context that the idea of a same-sex marriage could be considered as anything other than an oxymoron: once the ideas of marriage and child-rearing are divorced, the interior rationale for marriage—the construction of a support network for child-rearing—dissolves. Not only have the demands of the economy driven us from natural, organic relationships and driven us to seek comfort in more temporary, artificial constructions, but it's also allowed a class of people to arise who view children and procreation as positive evils. The ultimate selfishness has led to the ultimate evil: even women who nominally worship Yahweh find it necessary and even beneficial to offer sacrifice to Moloch, whose temples no longer hide in the shadows of back alleys but enjoy financial support from government and business.

This attack on the foundation of civilization, especially through the hideous abomination of abortion, has found considerable intellectual support not from science but from its perversion: a secularist gnosticism that imitates the oracles of Greece and Rome by supplying the same voice that asks the questions to give the answers. I refer to that species of social scientist who has radically abandoned the quest for Truth in favor of ritualistic support for political agendas: they're no longer in pursuit of Truth because they deem it socially constructed and therefore definable by the will of the people they so cynically attempt to manipulate. In the supreme irony, the same people who scream hysterically about the domination of the intellect by religious leaders, especially the Catholic Church, alternate their jeremiads with uncritical assent and obeisance to the dogmas and doctrines of a hieratic class not restrained by religious scruples. I've gone on record elsewhere as having predicted that, in the next twenty to twenty-five years, public credence in social research will collapse, putting these charlatans in the same pit of scorn and contempt as astrologers and palm-readers. But it still remains highly possible that the charlatans among the honest practitioners will continue to lead the bulk of society along the landscaped path paved with good intentions, telling people what they want to hear with an adequate padding of mystically-derived numbers and esoteric technical cant, until they awake and find themselves not in the green pastures of Utopia but at the horned gates of Tartarus.

And when they turn to seek their salvation, they will reach out their hands in supplication not in the Lord of all Creation but in that numinous, phantasmal presence of Vulcan, the crippled, ugly blacksmith who was—and in some sense still is—the god of technology. (Does no one else find it perversely fitting that the late Gene Roddenberry gave Hephaestus' Latin name to his race of superhuman futuristic technocrats?) And yet, I see this burgeoning, bloating industry of research and development being one of the first victims of the collapse. As cash becomes less available, sucked into other whirlpools, funding will be redirected towards maintenance of the status quo rather than the advance of knowledge or the construction of the infrastructure the green economy will require. Then will the hammer of Hephaestus be stilled, no longer able to provide protection for Aphrodite or weapons for Ares, the trickster Hermes having played his final joke on the gods and men.

I wish I could articulate this inner vision further, in greater depth. Should God have better plans for the West than to replay the fall of the Western Empire, I wouldn't mind being a Jonah rather than a Cassandra. For it was Cassandra's fate not simply to foretell disaster but to be disbelieved even at the very onset of ruin; whereas Jonah was merely mortified to find that the repentant Ninevites had touched God's mercy because they believed him. But even now, I feel like I'm standing next to St. Augustine on the dock at Hippo Regia, aware of the sweep of barbarian tides that push back the borders of empire, even suspecting that I may be surrounded by Vandal hordes as I lay dying. The vision of 2112 is not of great computers filling hallowed halls, but of scattered bands of tattered vagabonds poking through the iron and concrete skeletons of skyscrapers, looking wistfully up at a moon their ancestors had once claimed as virgin territory … and once again beyond their reach.

I do see a ray of hope beyond the gloom. Just as it saved the best of the Greco-Roman world in the centuries after Odoacer took the Eternal City, the Church will preserve, in monasteries still arising, the memory of Technological Man. I have no doubt the Church will survive the collapse of Western Civilization, at least on the margins, from where it can begin to rebuild again.

This time, preserving among its ancient memories, a greater Greek tragedy than Oedipus Rex.

[1] Depending on how one reads the definitions, I could fit in at the end of one or the beginning of the other.