Dark Age Ahead
Writing, printing, and the Internet give a false sense of security about the permanence of culture.
...that strong and successful cultures can fail. The difference between these failures and those of conquered aboriginal cultures is that the death or the stagnated moribundity of formerly unassailable and vigorous cultures is caused not by assault from outside but by assault from within, that is, by internal rot in the form of fatal cultural turnings, not recognized as wrong turnings while they occur or soon enough afterward to be correctable. Time during which corrections can be made runs out because of mass forgetfulness.
As a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit, “always ... seeking to know more and to extend ... areas of competence and control of the environment,” to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backward to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.
Culture resides mainly in people's heads and in the examples people set, and is subject therefore to natural mortality.
People get used to losses (fortunately, or life would be unbearable) and take absences for granted.
One aspect of luck is that companion cultures can be rescued by another, in part by welcoming exiles and their ways.
To Depression-stricken cities, the ready money from selling transit systems was irresistible. An electric streetcar was more economical to maintain than a bus and lasted three times as long as a bus, so the reconstituted systems were extravagant. Where protesting citizens were well enough informed to be aware of financial disadvantage, other arguments and pressures were brought to bear.
At any time, the destruction of communities to enhance corporations' sales would be a shortsighted cultural trade-off, but the period after World War Ⅱ, extending into the new millennium, was an especially unfortunate time for this disaster. The erasures of existing communities, and the stillbirths of new ones, coincided with a great migration of peoples within national borders and across them, with massive shifts of families from the land and its incomes to cities and suburbs and their incomes; and from commodity-based production to ingenuity-based productions.
Rejoicing that university education has become a growth industry, administrators and legislators seek increasingly to control problems of scale by applying lessons from profit-making enterprises that turn expanded markets to advantage by cutting costs. Increased output of product can be measured more easily as numbers of credentialed graduates than as numbers of educated graduates. Quantity trumps quality.
Many quietly despaired that the world had a place for them. This hopelessness, at the time, seemed endless. Would life always be like this? Something unfathomable, without visible cause, had engulfed everyone's expectations and plans.
Cultures take purposes for themselves, cling tenaciously to them, and exalt them into the purposes and meanings of life itself.
A cultural purpose enables perpetrators and witnesses to regard horrific deeds as righteous.
Automobiles, for those who could afford them, were loaded with references and romances from earlier American purposes and meanings of life: independence, freedom, the success of getting a better car than one's parents could afford—moving up from a Pontiac to a Buick.
Any institution, including a government agency, that is bent upon ecological destruction or an outrage on the built environment argues its case or bullies its opponents by righteously citing the jobs that supposedly will materialize or, even more effectively, the jobs that may be forfeited or jeopardized if the ugly deed is not done.
The past lives on in the the present.
When the stream of GI students ran dry, their hunger for education was missed in university communities, along with their government-guaranteed tuitions. Credentialing emerged as a growth industry in the 1960s just when universities needed it to address problems of their own.
Students who are passionate about learning, or could become so, do exist. Faculty members who love their subjects passionately and are eager to teach what they know and to plumb its depths further also exist. But institutions devoted to respecting and fulfilling these needs as their first purposes have become rare, under pressure of different necessities.
A vigorous culture capable of making corrective, stabilizing changes depends heavily on its educated people, and especially upon their critical capacities and depth of understanding.
Science doesn't supply happiness; but neither does its lack. The same can be said of social utopias: they aren't created by science, but neither does lack of science provide them.
Scientific information about our mistakes—for instance, that deforestation invites mud slides and deserts, that overfishing depletes fish stocks—doesn't guarantee we will avoid such mistakes or correct them, but that is owing to failure to heed what science uncovers.
Given this enviable professional background, plus the extreme tendency of North Americans to admire scientific achievement and give it the benefit of the doubt, it is little wonder that traffic engineers have been trusted to do pretty much as they please, and that departments of public works have gratefully accepted and followed their recommendations for design and specifications of streets and roads.
“It looks spontaneous, but it was engineered.”
Everyone in a vehicle has become a prisoner of the grid and the limited and indirect access to it in this exasperating system. How different it is from the free and convenient downtown grid I experienced when I could walk and could get unlimited access into it at every corner, not merely at arbitrary choke points.
Yet both subsidiarity and fiscal accountability of public money have almost disappeared from the modern world, as if a cycle is returning to the Roman imperium, rather than to principles that renewed Western culture long after Rome's failure.
The social and economic needs of urban residents and businesses are extremely varied and complex compared with those of simpler settlements. They require wide ranges of awareness and knowledge that are humanly beyond the comprehension of functionaries in distant institutions, who try to overcome that handicap by devising programs that disregard particulars on the assumption that one size can fit all, which is untrue. Even when sovereignties and provinces o states give special grants to this or that locality, the special grants almost always reflect the priorities of the disbursing institutions, not those of the recipient settlements.
Dumbed-down use of taxes—and the dumbed-down use of powers the taxes make possible—imposes deterioration, and it is surprising how rapidly this can happen once it gets under way.
At the core of this intellectual phenomenon now shaping much (but not all) of Western culture is a moralistic belief that each public service or amenity should directly earn enough to support its cost. Thus each school is supposed to earn enough to support itself, through fees of some kind of profit-making arrangements such as sale to a corporation of monopolistic rights to vend soft drinks and snacks. Such arrangements are called pubic-private partnerships (PPP, or P3) and are much encouraged by neoconservatives and most boards of trade. Each artist is supposed to earn enough in his or her own lifetime to prove the art's fitness to exist. Hospitals, transit systems, and orchestras are scorned as freeloaders seeking handouts if they can't directly pay their way or, better yet, make a profit either for tax collectors or for a corporate partner. Greed becomes culturally admired as competence, and false or unrealistic promises as cleverness.
Neoconservative ideologues are selective in their social and economic choices for worthiness to survive and flourish. They subsidize professional sports stadiums, automotive assembly plants, roads, and other preferences, with tax breaks and other benefits.
Declining voter turnouts and increasing disdain among polled members of the public for politicians (and their promises) are evidence that people in a number of Western countries have concluded that voting is a waste of effort. That increasing numbers of voters act this way in advanced democracies, where the sense of civic responsibility should be strongest, indicates popular disconnection from Lincoln's government “of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Short public memory—every scandal is only a nine-day wonder—and sincere but sentimentalized public appreciation of the risks police run tend to undermine civilian review boards as long-term remedies.
Behind the success of plausible denial is an already longstanding North American disconnection from reality: the substitution of image for substance. The idea is that a presentable image makes substance immaterial. All that glitters is gold. This probably began with the glorification of literary and social celebrities during the latter nineteenth century, although it was remarked even earlier as an American tendency. False image making has become a very big business throughout North America and is a staple of the U.S. government. Legions of hired liars labor to disconnect reality from all manner of images—images of personalities, of legislation, of corporations, of places, and of activities. Spin doctors, virtuosos of deceptive image making and damage control, have become authoritative spokespersons in political campaigns and troubled institutions, able not only to disconnect reality but to construct new reality. If that sounds confusing about the reality of reality, it is; that is the purpose of spin-doctoring.
Slum designations were reinforced by bank “redlining,” meaning denial of property loans, not on account of poor creditworthiness of applicants or even the condition of the buildings themselves, but on account of location in a neighborhood designated for clearance. Loan famine added to shelter famine. Redlining was one reason building were abandoned by owners.
Sprawl can become less wasteful only by being used still more intensively. If that happens, suburban sprawl will turn out to have been an interim stage, a transition between land in agricultural use and land densely enough occupied to support mass transit, to form functional and inclusive communities, to reduce car dependency, and to alleviate shortages of affordable housing.
When human beings are nurtured, efficiency and economies of scale don't apply. Helping individuals become acceptable and fulfilled members of a culture takes generous individual attention to each one, usually from numerous people.
Redundancy was rationed as an extravagance when there wasn't enough of it to go around. A fortunate few got tutors and cultural mentors. The rest went without. And even the fortunate few, many of them, were round pegs jammed into square holes. Perhaps the greatest folly possible for a culture is tot ry to pass itself on by using principles of efficiency. When a culture is rich enough and inherently complex to afford redundancy of nurturers, but eliminates them as an extravagance or loses their cultural services through heedlessness of what is being lost, the consequence is self-inflicted cultural genocide.
No longer is territory a zero-sum possession of states and empires. Separations and other causes of territorial loss can be win-win events instead of reasons for war or precursors to poverty and failure.
Postagrarian states do not increase their wealth by aggrandizing territories and seizing lands and natural resources—as Japan and Germany learned after losing World War II and subsequently prospering by other means. The key to postagrarian wealth is the complicated task of nurturing economic diversity, opportunity, and peace without resort to oppression. Dark Ages and spirals of decline are in prospect for agrarian cultures that can't adapt themselves to generating wealth through human ingenuity, knowledge, and skills.
The complex new culture was not as exportable, nor as controllable when it was exported, as European imperialists supposed.
Victims of Dark Ages, especially when they are spatially or socially isolated, or their losses are geographically widespread, have often found recovery impossible, even when they have not gone extinct. Many abysses of mass amnesia must thus intervene between us and the cultures of our ancient progenitors.
In sum, Japan assimilated Western ways into its own culture, rather than allowing its own culture to become irrelevant while it was emulating the West.
Song is an extremely effective way of passing a culture down through the generations. As we all recognize, memorable songs and poems that we learn when we are young stay with us into old age. The emotional powers of the arts—authentic arts, not official propaganda—are obviously central to every culture.
The United States has often been equated with Rome by historians and social commentators seeking modern lessons from Rome's mistakes. But fortunately the two cultures differ greatly. American culture is saturated with heart and emotion; it revels in the richness of its indigenous arts. In song alone, America has gospel music and blues; song of labor unions, cowboys, and chain gangs; hits from musicals and films; country music, jazz, ballads, sea chanteys, rock and roll, and rap; patriotic, war, antiwar, and seasonal songs; advertising ditties; nursery rhymes; school, campfire, drinking, homesick, and love songs; lullabies; revival hymns; plus disrespectful parodies of the lot.
Vicious spirals have their opposites: beneficent spirals, processes in which each improvement and strengthening leads to other improvements and strengthenings in the culture, in turn further strengthening the initial improvement. Excellent education strengthens excellent teaching and research by some of those educated, activities that in their turn strengthen communities. Responsive and responsible government encourages the corrective practices exerted by democracy, which in their turn strengthen good government and responsible citizenship.
History has repeatedly demonstrated that empires seldom seem to retain sufficient cultural self-awareness to prevent them from overreaching and overgrasping. They have neglected to recognize that the true power of a successful culture resides in its example. ... To take it successfully, a society must be self-aware.