The Crisis of Western Civ?

The Course of Western Civilization
The Course of Empire by Thomas Cole

Even Plato, and before him ancient poets like Hesiod, complained that society was going to hell. And think about that, western civilization was just getting started! Throughout the Platonic Dialogues (399 to 347 BC) there’s this undertone of a longing for the past, the sense that something is being lost, that the youth (of Athens) were being corrupted by “the new ways.” The source of this corruption was in the spread of immoral art (too much Homer Simpson), scientific style explanations of nature (which angered the deniers), irreligiousness or heresy, and a disrespect for the old ways, i.e. traditions. So…not much has changed really.

And it’s interesting because Plato isn’t really viewed as a conservative, thanks in part to Karl Marx, and yet Plato’s overall philosophy is, well, about conserving the inherited forms of the moral and political order. Plato (through Socrates) is ultimately saying, in some form or another, that whatever you believe it shouldn’t usurp the established moral and political order—because God knows what you’ll end up with! And for Zeus’s sake, Plato irritatingly prodded, at least, if you’re going to challenge the mos maiorum, try to understand what you really believe and be able to explain it. Define your terms! Ask questions damn it! Relativism—the bane of social cohesion—isn’t very solid footing!

Okay, so this brings me to David Brooks’s lament about the Crisis of Western Civ in a recent column. Brooks starts out—I have to note this—his column by plugging one of the best set of books (I’ve had two sets over my life so far) you can read if you have, and this is the big issue, the time. The Story of Civilization is an 11 volume set running almost 10,000 pages. Definitely not a “I’ll knock this out in a weekend” read. This is a reading project you plan for over, say, a year or more. Even though Will and Ariel Durant finished the series in 1975, the Story of Civilization is still one of the best liberal arts educations you can get on your own. The education is broad, the writing is excellent, and you’ll gather a whole stock of great quotes.

So back to Brook’s column. There is a Western set of values, a grand narrative, though you’d be hard pressed to find many people who could explain it to you, that has animated the rise of Western Civilization. (Note to some Americans reading this: You’re actually part of Western Civilization—just incase you missed that class. 😉) If ideas rule the world, as Lord Keynes assured us they do, then this set of ideas, known collectively as Western Civilization, have guided the rise of the most prosperous and free, most powerful, civilization in history. So probably not a bad idea to hold on to these values. But then who’s judging, that’s just so Western. Anyway, Brooks provides a brief explanation of what these Western values entail:

This Western civ narrative came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and most important provided a set of common goals.

Now there’s a lot more to what makes up Western Civ or culture, but you get the gist. But regardless of how we define it, Brooks wants to remind us the whole project is in trouble, and has been for a while.

Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

It’s amazing what far-reaching effects this has had. It is as if a prevailing wind, which powered all the ships at sea, had suddenly ceased to blow. Now various scattered enemies of those Western values have emerged, and there is apparently nobody to defend them.

Hmmm, grim. To some degree I agree with Brooks. There does appear to be some cracking in the Western Civ narrative, and generally speaking that can be a bad thing for the health and long term viability of Western society…If, and this is important, these cracks in the narrative end up leading to a break. Cracks are typical with wear and tear and require constant repairing, but breaks are very hard to fix and mean things are definitely going to hell.

Brooks contends that the Western Civ decline started “decades ago” (almost sure Brooks means the 1960s), but the evidence seems to suggest, like Plato and Hesiod, that cultural decline is an observation going further back. Take T.S. Eliot, an astute observer of society, he wrote these words in 1948, during the rise, please note, of the Greatest Generation, “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline. The standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.” So Eliot sees decline all around him. It’s all going to hell! A Google search will reveal quotes from across Western history about the decline of society. So we can at least say that the Idea of Decline is something built right into the Western narrative itself.

So Western Civilization is falling apart, but it seems to be taking so damn long and somehow it keeps recovering and then continues falling apart, recovering again, and then back to falling apart again. Might the current fracturing simply be symptoms of Western society going through a stage of development within Western Civilization? I might be wrong (yes, I’m hedging), but this seems very probable. Stages in the growth of a society or civilization (as in the individual) are typically disruptive events; they’re times of change, reflection, discovery, a sense of falling away from old ways, and the altering of perspective. Think of the Enlightenment. The old order, typically, isn’t going to be happy with the change. Now, of course, like Rome ultimately, the whole project could, and likely will, eventually fall into ruin. The course of empire will assert itself. Let’s not forget, for those who paid attention in Sunday school growing up, this is a “fallen world.” One just doesn’t know if we’re experiencing a fall or a stumble…or a stumble leading to the fall; a crack or the beginnings of a break.

I think the real question, since the idea of decline has always been with us, is whether we’re actually facing a Germanic invasion (the cause of Rome’s immediate collapse—the beginnings of a break) or are some people simply reacting negatively to change (as many older generations do): to the defeat of old politics and old ways, to a new generation not like them in many ways, with different ideas, and on the verge of taking power in the society. With new perspectives will come changes, to some degree, always has, in the moral and political order. It’s unavoidable. But does that mean the new generation is giving up on Western values? Does this mean we’re seeing the end of Western Civilization? Or, is the new generation simply reinterpreting these Western values in light of their experience? Hasn’t every generation in Western history, to some degree, done this?

These are my thoughts as I sit here drinking coffee this morning. I’m trying to remain positive as you can see. But hey, tomorrow, after scanning my Facebook feed, I might think it’s all definitely going to hell.

Modern Life Works Against Community & Trust

This past Sunday, the Washington Post had an interesting piece by Bill Bishop. If you don’t know Bishop, and you have an interest in understanding American’s current social and political problems, then I suggest you pick up his book The Big Sort. It really is one of the best books I’ve read in the past 10 years. It’s was a fascinating read.

In this past Sunday’s piece, Bishop looks at why our trust in institutions is at such a low level. In 1964 roughly 75% of the American public trusted their government to do the right thing. By 1976 that trust level was down to 33%. A big swing in 12 years. Now, during that period we had the assassination of 2 major national figures, civil rights unrest, a major political realignment, an unpopular war, and the resignation of Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal. But while all of these things may have added to a decline in trusting government, they aren’t, Bishop argues, the real story here.

Bishop points to two big trends in recent history. First, the decline in people trusting their government parallels a “falling trust in nearly ever institution,” both public and private. So it’s not just the government we’re talking about here, we need to be clear on that. Second, this trust deficit, though maybe not as bad as it is in the U.S., is a trend across most industrial democracies. So it’s not just America either.

Americans may have less trust in their government, but they’re also walking away (no longer trusting or wanting to be involved with) from organized religion and many other civic associations that use to serve in helping unify us. Bishop sees expanding diversity, the welfare state, and rising wealth as social engines that have brought about an “Enlightenment Individuality” in our society, which in many ways is inimical to the maintenance of community and trust. More than ever people are “artists of their own lives,” shedding traditions and cultural norms. While this is liberating in many ways, it’s also, when taken in the large, socially disrupting because it weakens social cohesion.

The interesting point, from a historical perspective, is that this trend is something much older than we think. Where ever there is an intersection of commerce, wealth, culture and diversity, you will have this pull toward “negation.”

As far back as the 1600s, travelers confronted by new cultures and novel deities began to question their own societies’ rules and institutions. “Not a tradition which escapes challenge, not an idea, however familiar, which is not assailed; not an authority that is allowed to stand,” historian Paul Hazard wrote. “Institutions of every kind are demolished, and negation is the order of the day.” This was the Enlightenment, a turning away from tradition and an anointing of reason, scientific inquiry and individualism.

And so while some people may point to Donald Trump as the personification of a movement against the so called “establishment,” it’s far more accurate to say he’s simply riding a wave, a historical trend that has little to do with him at all.

Bishop finishes his piece by saying there really isn’t anything we can do about this. Personally I think he’s wrong on that point. It will take, as William Hazlitt said, “a lot of fine writing,” strong leadership, good will and good government, all things in very short supply right now, to push this long term trend in another direction. But it can be done.

A look at Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance

By Jeff Wills

27161156J.D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, has captured a lot of attention since its release in June. As the current Presidential election has highlighted, the White Working Class (WWC) of this country is in bad shape. Naturally, many are asking why. There’s been a lot academic research into why the WWC is in decline, but Vance’s book isn’t a formal study, it’s a memoir. It’s a personal story, an insider’s view, of a guy who grew up in the rust belt, white working class community of Middletown, Ohio. Growing up in this community left indelible marks on Vance’s soul. This book is about why his people, “Hillbillies,” or in the larger sense the WWC of America, are a culture in crisis. Vance experienced first hand the troubles of this socio-economic group and its mostly self-inflicted misery.

Vance’s family was originally from eastern Kentucky. His maternal grandmother and grandfather moved to Middletown, Ohio, in the mid 2oth century to escape poverty and find work. His grandfather (“Papaw”) went to work for ARMCO Steel in Middletown. Papaw had a good job, with good pay and benefits, thanks to a good company and the steelworker’s union. But as the world economy shifted, industrial jobs began disappearing in Middletown and other rust belt cites in the 70s and 80s. Papaw retired and had a fairly decent pension. But many WWC folks in Middletown (and across the rust belt) didn’t adapt so well to the economic turn.

“When the factories shut their doors, the people left behind where trapped in towns and cities that could no longer support such large populations with high-quality work. Those who could—generally the well educated, wealthy, or well connected—left, leaving behind communities of poor people.”

Not having an abundance of good paying jobs slowly tilted these communities into socio-economic decline. But Vance reminds us that while the economic problems certainly hurt the WWC, the larger problem, ultimately, that kept these communities from adapting, prospering, and improving their lives (then and now) was and still is cultural. Understanding a culture is a challenge—it’s one of the principle reasons Vance wrote this book. Basically culture is a mixture of beliefs, morals, and customs within a population. It is, to use a computer metaphor, the operating software. This makes change very difficult. Culture can be the principle reason for success, as Vance’s grandfather’s and grandmother’s WWII generation of WWC Americans demonstrated, or culture (its sociological and psychological proclivities) can be the central obstruction to progress, improvement, and prosperity.

One of the central threads of J.D. Vance’s book is about describing what it’s like growing up in a broken home and a broken community. His mother had multiple husbands and boyfriends that seem to come and go too quickly for Vance to form any relationships; at one point Vance just avoided getting to know them. His mother and, whoever the current husband/boyfriend was, would sometimes fight intensely, throwing expletives at each other that Vance felt sure people who profess to love each other wouldn’t use. Vance would often end up in the middle of these verbal and sometimes physical sparring matches. He began to fear his own home. In fact, Vance noticed that all around him, in the wider community, these intense conflicts were pretty much the norm: “Seeing people insult, scream, and sometimes physically fight was just a part of our life. After a while, you didn’t even notice it.” He could open his window at night and hear the shouting and witness the police responding to domestic disputes at his neighbor’s homes. The memory of that chaotic, sometimes violent home-life and community still affects Vance today.

“The never-ending conflict took its toll. Even thinking about it today makes me nervous. My heart begins to race, and my stomach leaps into my throat. When I was very young, all I wanted to do was get away from it—to hide from the fighting, go to Mamaw’s [grandmother’s home], or disappear. I couldn’t hide from it, because it was all around me.”

Vance says he was initially a good student, but the constant moving around (his mother moved all around the region) and feeling of fear created by his chaotic home life, took a toll on his grades in school. He couldn’t concentrate in school. He dredged going home at the end of the school day. His health started to decline and he started putting on weight.

In thinking about the connection between home life and school performance, Vance reflects on an episode of West Wing. In the episode the fictional president debates whether he should push for private school vouchers. There is a segment of people who believe one way to cure a failing public school system is to push for more private schools funded by tax payer vouchers. But Vance, a political conservative, reminds us that pushing school vouchers misses the larger point about why many poor or disadvantaged kids from poor neighborhoods aren’t doing well in school:

That [school voucher] debate is important, of course—for a long time, much of my school district qualified for vouchers—but it was striking that in an entire discussion about why poor kids struggled in school, the emphasis rested entirely on public institutions. As a teacher at my old high school told me recently, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.” (bolding added)

One of Vance’s themes, a refreshing one to be sure, is that people look to blame the government for their individual and community related problems, when in reality the problem’s root cause rests mostly with individuals, their decisions, and their own failures and not the government institutions. Poor and disadvantaged children may not perform well in school, not necessarily because of the school or its teachers, but because of the conflict and chaos created by the “wolves” (parents) at home. A very common sense point and an important one to remember in the voucher debate.

Vance’s mother became a drug addict (drug addiction and death from overdose have become a big problem in some of these communities) and she almost overdosed on one occasion. This, along with all the other issues, ultimately led to an agreement between Vance’s mother and his grandparents to allow Vance to live most of the time with his grandparents. Mamaw and Papaw (for whom Vance’s memoir is dedicated) would provide “the safe space,” a place free from constant conflict and chaos. His grandparents would provide the parental guidance and nurturing, that played, what Vance believes, was the central role in why he didn’t share the same fate of so many in his community.

All throughout the region Vance witnessed growing poverty and a growing problem in how people reacted to that poverty and adversity. People didn’t tend to struggle against their problems or work hard to overcome them, but instead they would surrender to hopelessness and fall into a cycle of dependency and laziness. Vance observed many poor but able men preferring to game the welfare system instead of working. Vance said he’d seen many “welfare queens,” but in a confession about race and poverty, Vance admits most all of them were white, not black. Vance talks about the fact that many talked about “industriousness” and “working hard,” but then avoided taking a job because it wasn’t what they preferred. They’d rather be home working the system or living off mom and dad. It wasn’t that there weren’t good paying jobs either. It wasn’t, as the excuse he heard one time, the “Obama economy” either. It just appeared that a lot of young men and women just weren’t willing to work. As Vance said, “You can walk through a town where 30 percent of the young men work fewer than twenty hours a week and find not a single person aware of his own laziness.”

Vance describes this collective lethargy as part of a “learned helplessness,” that had seeped into and infected hillbilly & WWC culture. Vance sees a lack of “personal agency” involved: The belief that no matter what you do, no matter how hard you work, you can’t get ahead. The American dream and the good life just aren’t attainable, so why try. It’s not that your personal choices and your decisions or your lack of effort are to blame, it’s the system! What this really is, though, is an excuse.  Continue reading “A look at Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance”

A Harmless Annual Institution of No Use

Like many of you I hear the new year’s resolutions at every new year’s eve party. Very few people end up keeping those resolutions. Our resolve to lose weight, to work out more, to save more money, to do so many things we feel we need to do, falls victim to our lack of discipline and an easy retreat into settled habits.

It’s just pathetic.

In the January 1, 1863, edition of the Territorial Enterprise, the Virginia City, Nevada, newspaper that Mark Twain worked for, he wrote the following about the useless institution of new year’s eve resolutions:

Now is the accepted time to make your regular annual good resolutions. Next week you can begin paving hell with them as usual. Yesterday, everybody smoked his last cigar, took his last drink, and swore his last oath. To-day, we are a pious and exemplary community. Thirty days from now, we shall have cast our reformation to the winds and gone to cutting our ancient short comings considerably shorter than ever. We shall also reflect pleasantly upon how we did the same old thing last year about this time. However, go in, community. New Year’s is a harmless annual institution, of no particular use to anybody save as a scapegoat for promiscuous drunks, and friendly calls, and humbug resolutions, and we wish you to enjoy it with a looseness suited to the greatness of the occasion.

The Siren Song of Nostalgia

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_(1891)
Odysseus and the Sirens, by J. W. Waterhouse

I’ve been reading a beautifully written book by Adam Nicolson called Why Homer Matters. I highly recommend the book. The book is mostly the memoir of Nicholson discovering that “Homerity is Humanity,” that Homer is ultimately a guide to understanding life. Nicolson was inspired to write the book after reading the story of the Sirens in the Odyssey. For Nicholson, the story of the Sirens is the main thread, the central metaphor, that connects the Iliad and the Odyssey. In a very memorable passage from his book, Nicholson describes what the story of the Sirens means:

The Sirens sing the song of the heroic past. . . . They want to draw Odysseus in with tempting stories of what he once was. . . . The prospect of clear-cut heroism summons him, and he struggles to escape his bindings. But his men, like the poem itself, know better, and they tie him tighter to his ship. They won’t be wrecked on the illusions of nostalgia, the longing for that heroized, antique world [of the Iliad], because, as the Odyssey knows, to live well in the world, nostalgia must be resisted; you must stay with your ship, stay tied to the present, remain mobile, keep adjusting the rig, work with the swells, watch for a wind-shift, watch as the boom swings over, engage, in other words, with the muddle and duplicity and difficulty of life. Don’t be tempted into the lovely simplicities that the heroic past seems to offer.