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World Watch - August 22, 2004 - Who Was On Watch As the Dark Age Approached? - The Ornery American

World Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card August 22, 2004

Who Was On Watch As the Dark Age Approached?

Civilization is a fragile thing.

Humans thrive best in almost every way when they are able to band together in large numbers and live peaceably together.

Any community helps improve the odds of survival and reproduction of the individuals within it, but the larger and more stable the society, the more those odds improve.

A larger community will be better able to promote safety from outside invasion.

The larger the community, the larger the pool of potential mates for each new generation, so that the genetic mixture is more likely to stay robust and varied.

The larger and more prosperous the community, the more its members can specialize to the benefit of all.

And the larger and more specialized the community, the more good ideas are likely to be thought of, taught, learned, and passed on to the next generation.

Civilization occurs when the community becomes so large and stable that it can be called a city -- that is, when it is self-sustaining without having to rove, and able to protect itself from outside domination for an extended period of time.

The more effective a civilization is, the more it will attract the allegiance of people who did not grow up within its boundaries. They will migrate to it, either for trade or, if they are allowed, citizenship.

Some civilizations become so convinced of their superiority to all others that they deliberately reach out to include other cities or nations within their sphere of influence. Sometimes this is by conquest, sometimes by alliance and trade.

But what we can never forget is that civilizations all die.

Some of them can last for centuries; some flourish and disappear in a few generations. Some leave behind great monuments and influence other civilizations far in their future; others are completely swallowed up and forgotten except, perhaps, by archaeologists.

And some just ... fade away.

Every civilization seems to itself to be indestructible -- even in the midst of self-destruction. And those who call attention to this fact, and point out the great danger the civilization is in, are generally resented, hated, despised, or ridiculed.

When the civilization doesn't collapse, the doomsayer is discredited; and then is cited as a precedent for all future doomsayers. "Oh, yes, Jeremiah used to say that sort of thing, and yet we weren't destroyed. So your warnings are just another jeremiad!"

That's what happened to Winston Churchill, when he saw Hitler's civilization-wrecking potential. Not until Hitler proved his bad intentions did anyone believe Churchill -- and even then, even after the invasion of Poland, it took months for public opinion to embrace the obvious. It was almost, but not quite, too late.

But the story of Cassandra is the more usual one. The person giving warning is simply not believed until the Trojan horse has been dragged into the city and the enemy has snuck out, opened the gates, and brought down destruction on all.

Then everybody wishes they'd taken the warnings more seriously.

The trouble is, the people giving warning never know themselves whether they're going to be proven right in the short run. Civilizations are often resilient and self-healing -- because the survival of the civilization is viewed as being desirable, even crucial, for many of the subcommunities within it, they find ways to prop it up and keep it going for another year or decade or generation or century.

And when they do, the person who gave warning is treated as just another "boy who cried wolf" -- even though the dangers were real and the damage was severe and the civilization that survived was not really the one that originally achieved greatness.

The Byzantine Empire limped along, ever more feebly, long past the time when it represented anything productive or vigorous or fine. It was coasting on the achievements of its founders, but it wasn't Roman anymore, it was just another Middle Eastern empire, corrupt, destructive, and failed. As long as it could maintain the illusion that it was the same empire, though, it retained legitimacy in the eyes of enough people that it could endure.

Think of the warning we've been given, over and over, about depletion of oil. The original doomsayers made the gross mistake of naming a year when we would run out of easily extracted oil. When that year came and went and there was still plenty of gasoline at the pumps, a surprising number of highly educated fools talked as if this proved that free market forces could deal with the oil problem.

But the doomsayers were absolutely right: We did run out of oil that was cheaply extractable by then-known methods, from known reserves. What the doomsayer could not predict was (1) improvements in extraction technology and (2) discovery of new reserves that could now be extracted.

So I read statements that are put forward in all seriousness that "free markets will solve the oil problem" simply because free market forces served to make new extraction technologies cheap enough to stave off the oil collapse for another generation.

But the jeremiahs were right: There is a finite amount of oil in the world and the free market (which, by the way, creates nothing -- people do that) cannot create any more oil. Yes, other energy sources will certainly be invented to make up for the missing oil -- but there will be a horrible dislocation beforehand with an almost certain collapse of the global economy and the resulting deaths and misery. All of which could be avoided by energy-replacement efforts as intense as, say, the space program of the 1960s.

Hitler was eventually stopped -- but only after millions of people had died. Wouldn't it have been better, though, if Britain and France had heeded that annoying (and sometimes wrong) jeremiah, Churchill and nipped the Hitler problem in the bud?

And didn't the people who once cheered Chamberlain curse his name as they sent their sons off to war and as bombs fell in their neighborhoods?

I have a book you need to read: Dark Age Ahead.

Jane Jacobs is the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She is accustomed to looking at life cycles and patterns of the precise unit of community that brings civilizations into existence: the city.

And those who have the ludicrous idea that I am a conservative and therefore not to be listened to can take comfort from the fact that Jacobs is most definitely a card-carrying member of the right-wing-hating Left. Her book is laced with snide remarks blaming Thatcher and Reagan for anything bad that happened when they were in power, while she treats the equally idiotic mistakes of Leftist leaders as if they were unavoidable forces of nature, not to be blamed on anyone. Biased? Yes, she is.

But bias or not, she's smart, and when she is following data where it leads, wise people must listen.

Jacobs sees us as being well down the road to a self-inflicted Dark Age, in which we will have thrown away many of the very things that made our civilization so dominant, so prosperous, so successful. We are not immune to the natural laws that govern the formation and dissolution of human communities: When the civilization no longer provides the benefits that lead to success, then, unsurprisingly, the civilization is likely to fail.

As she says in her introduction, "People living in vigorous cultures typically treasure those cultures and resist any threat to them. How and why can a people so totally discard a formerly vital culture that it becomes literally lost?"

Dark Age Ahead gives us a series of concrete examples of exactly that process.

"Every culture," she says, "takes pains to educate its yong so that they, in their turn, can practice and transmit it completely." Our civilization, however, is failing to do that. On the contrary, we are systematically training our young not to embrace the culture that brought us greatness.

A civilization is truly dead, she says, when "even the memory of what has been lost is lost."

I would apply this principle in areas where, as a true Leftist, she would not dream of applying it: For instance, we have now raised a generation that does not even expect that marriage will precede sexual union and cohabitation because they have never seen it work that way. We have spent a generation trivializing the family, debasing it and undermining it until it doesn't have as much practical value as a stock certificate.

"A culture is unsalvageable if stabilizing forces themselves become ruined and irrelevant," she says, and she is absolutely right: And the single most important stabilizing force in any civilization is and always has been the family.

She looks at the evidence of family destruction (and, as a Canadian, she relies quite heavily on Canadian evidence, but the problems all show up throughout western civilization) with her skeptical eye. Statistics have a way of disguising, not revealing, the truth.

As, for instance, the statistic that almost half of all marriages end in divorce. As she says in a footnote, this is "a poorly conceived statistic. Common knowledge tells us that it must be compounded from a large number of very short marriages (two to five years long) and a smaller number of lasting marriages (upwards of twenty years long).

Much of her argument is economic, but the crucial points are social. Most of us don't live in neighborhoods (the modern village) any more; we live among strangers. We just don't meet each other in person in any meaningful way, so the sense of community and belonging is eroding. To what, then, are we expected to feel the kind of loyalty that leads people to sacrifice in order to maintain the civilization for the good of all? Who are these "all" whose good we will be sustaining? If we feel ourselves not to belong to that group, then we are no longer part of the civilization; and when most members of a civilization feel no stake in its preservation, it will not survive.

Another way we are destroying ourselves is by "credentialing" our students instead of educating them. Everyone these days blames our bad educational system on something or someone, but few people bother to point out precisely how it is bad and why it hurts our civilization as a whole.

Jacobs says, "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."

A topic on which she is a genuine, experienced expert is the abandonment of science. She provides concrete examples -- literally concrete! -- of people who take irreversible actions citing as their authority "science" that simply doesn't exist.

Her science is city life, its ebb and flow, including traffic, commerce, architecture. And she has seen traffic designers, for instance, make decisions that were obviously horrible, all the while reciting as mantras of justification "scientific finding" that can't be found. Like the mythical spouse abuse on Super Bowl Sunday, the farther you track the evidence back toward its source, the less it seems to exist.

She does not extrapolate this to where it obviously leads -- to the vast social experiments that are being performed on our civilization without a shred of scientific evidence to support the idea that they are necessary, desirable, or harmless. But her examples are chilling enough. Scientists do exist -- but, as she points out, the ones who know what they're doing don't spend enough time denouncing those who are making stuff up and calling it science in order to compel other people to let them do harm.

She also goes after dumbed-down taxes. This one will chill the hearts of free-market, low-tax libertarian fiscal conservatives, and they will be full of rant about how wrong she is. But she isn't wrong. Her view is not complete -- this chapter is the one most victimized by her allegiance to the Left and her need to find flaws only with the decisions of conservative politicians -- but the problems she points out are real and the solution is not "more of the same."

Her chapter on the failure of the various professions to police themselves is utterly damning, and we are all paying the cost of those failures. From doctors to lawyers to engineers to the police themselves, when members of a profession resist outside regulation, but then fail to eliminate malpractice within their own ranks, they become a conspiracy against the public and a force for the breakdown of trust.

And it is upon a foundation of trust that civilization is constructed.

Just as Neville Chamberlain trusted Hitler to behave like a rational head of state, trust only works when it is placed in trustworthy people and institutions. Jacobs's message, while it is by no means exhaustive, is both clear and true: We have destroyed or allowed the weakening of core institutions and processes to the point where we can no longer trust them; and unless they can be made to deserve trust again, and then receive that trust, we are truly headed for a dark age in which we can't even remember what civilization looked like.

Whenever I hear somebody answer one of my jeremiads with the deeply stupid question, "Well, do you want to go back to the fifties with segregation and McCarthyism and 'Father Knows Best'?" I feel the chill of despair. We seem to have fallen in love with the idea of hating our own past.

But for those who are ignorant of history -- i.e., anyone whose education was acquired in an ordinary American high school or university -- let me remind you:

It was in the 1950s that the Marshall Plan set a new standard for treatment of defeated enemies.

It was in the 1950s that the armed forces were integrated and the first court decisions struck down segregation in the schools and began the road toward the integration of all races into the fabric of American society.

It was in the 1950s when television programs actually tried to show inexperienced families how kind and loving parents responded to problems and solved them peacefully.

It was in the 1950s when actively subversive Communists extended their rule over nearly half the population of the world, and America led the way in standing against the further extension of this evil, oppressive, cruelly anticivilized ideology.

It was in the 1950s that the GI Bill opened the doors of the American university to people who a generation before could barely afford to stay out of the workforce long enough to get a high school diploma.

The 1950s were the last decade in which marriage was still believed to be permanent, illegitimate births and abortions were rare, and adults chaperoned children to keep them from having sex before they were ready to deal with the consequences.

No civilization has ever been as successful at bringing freedom, self-government, relative safety, and a chance for happiness to such a large proportion of the human race as the civilization of western democracies under the leadership of the United States of America. And a rational claim can be made for the idea that the 1950s represent the peak from which we have deliberately and unnecessarily fled, heading irrationally downward into darkness.

Jane Jacobs offers possibilities for solving the problems she lists, and her ideas must be taken into account. Unfortunately, she only sees some of the problems; we are farther gone, and on more fronts, than she realizes.

As with our vanishing, squandered resource of oil, we continue to live under the illusion that there's plenty of civilization left. We continue to think it will go on forever, without our needing to make any sacrifices or take any collective action to preserve it.

And by the time we realize that Jane Jacobs's jeremiad, far from being radical, was barely scratching the surface of the danger we face, I fear it will be too late to reverse course.

Maybe it already is.

But then, maybe it isn't. And if enough people take the time to read, to think, to set aside their fanaticisms and actually open their minds to the possibility that their dogmas -- of the Left and Right -- might be incomplete or wrong, then maybe we can turn back the clock to a time when our civilization was worth emulating, worth joining, worth fighting for, and worth spreading through the world.

Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.

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