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.

Britain’s Decision to Leave the EU

uk-eu-brexit

Yesterday most of Europe, and the financial markets, were unnerved by the British people’s decision to leave the European Union (EU). The Brexit referendum was close, but those wanting to leave the EU ultimately triumphed over those wanting to “Remain.” And so the divorce notice has been served. Like all divorces, there’s a chance this will be messy and expensive—especially in the near term for the Brits.

What I found rather amusing, and yet totally unsurprising, was that after the polls had closed in Britain, Google Trends reported a high volume of searches related to questions about the Brexit referendum, containing phrases like “What is Brexit? or “Why should we stay in the EU?” These searches were being, as The Washington Post described it, “frantically” queried by the Brits.

This is humorous in a Saturday Night Live sort of way. It’s also just pathetic. I suspect that a lot of Brits didn’t really grasp the complex implications of their vote. Like many Americans, they probably listened to media pundits, rabid partisans, and rank propagandists, and didn’t take to time to read widely what the experts had to say and then try to determine how the outcome might serve or not serve their true interests.

This was a complex matter. The decision to leave or remain, in my view, shouldn’t have been decided by popular referendum. It should have been a decision of the ruling government. We elect representatives, called MPs or Members of Parliament in Britain, to examine these complex matters, confer with the experts and their constituents and then take a vote. That’s their job.

If an MP’s constituents don’t like the vote their MP has taken, they can remove the MP (or party) in the next election and install someone who supports their views. That’s the way representative governments work. The average voter, in complex matters like this, simply doesn’t have enough time (or background knowledge) in their busy lives to properly calibrate.

Personally I can respect and understand both positions, whether one voted to leave or remain. There are valid—though not equally persuasive—arguments to be made on both sides of the decision. Either way, the stakes were high. The opposing arguments both came with various consequences and implications for the political, social, and economic viability of Great Britain going forward.

In the short term this is likely to have negative impacts on the British economy. If Brexit leads to a break up of the EU entirely, we could see tremendous economic shock waves across the world that may cripple most of the European economies, especially Britain’s, for years. And we all know what long term economic problems cause politically: the rise of radicals high on rhetoric and emotions and short on real and lasting solutions.

Gun Violence & A Broken Congress

At a recent PBS News Hour town hall meeting, President Obama was asked a question about his position on gun control.

As you’ll see in the video above, the President’s response is as thoughtful, and responsible, as you’re going to get on this issue. We study public safety problems all the time to find ways to mitigate the harmful, and often deadly, effects. The President gave a perfect example with how we reduced traffic fatalities. We studied the matter and used that knowledge to push public policy that has saved a countless number of men, women, and children from terrible injuries or death.

But we currently have a Congress that blocks the study of gun violence! It’s true. The President rightfully points this out. Think about that. As a public official, your official response to a problem is to avoid allowing any government studies that show how you can respond to the problem. Remember, we have by far the most mass shootings and gun related deaths of any nation in the western world. Maybe it’s just me, but I think that’s a real public safety concern that should be a priority for our elected officials.

If public safety, if protecting our citizens from violent death, is a priority (and it certainly is) then where are our public officials is doing something about it!….besides just offering their “thoughts and prayers” over and over again, year after year. That’s nice, but how about actually taking a good, honest look at the problem and mustering the courage to actually do something about it even if it costs you your seat in Congress. If this matter cost a member his or her seat it was worth it!

The tragic reality is some members of Congress seem to be doing everything they can to avoid and systematically block any attempts at doing anything about this big problem.

There is strong, broad support for a number of common sense gun control measures. We rarely have a proposal, for example, that gets upwards of 85% public support in the polls. We did with a bipartisan measure for 100% background checks. But nay. The public’s overwhelming support (and collective will) were thwarted by special interest lobbies in the Senate. This frames the entire problem with Congress currently. A club of mostly partisan ideologues no longer accountable to the demos.

I’m a strong supporter of the 2nd amendment, but I’m also a supporter of common sense gun control laws. I feel confident reasonable changes to our gun laws are coming, it’s just a matter of time. Eventually the votes will be there (the nation is evolving) and the American public will finally see some common sense prevail on this issue.

Commencement Speakers & Student Protests

Harvard-Commencement1-e1432524723339

Typically during this time of year, we hear about some college students protesting a controversial speaker invited to speak at their commencement address. The students typically interrupt the speaker with verbal protests or some other form of protest like holding up signs. The intention is to confront the speaker. Some of the students find the speaker’s views obnoxious or anti-social or fascist or racist or whatever, and they decide the best course of action is to try and shut the speaker down. It has become a regular event throughout the school year. I’ve had more than a few discussions with some good friends, who cry foul incessantly about this very topic.

My conservative leaning friends—and the conservative media—take the position that these liberal student protestors (and liberals in general really) are hypocrites: they bemoan and belittle conservatives for being “intolerant” of other groups of people and then liberal college students demonstrate open intolerance for conservative speakers and their ideas. Well, as it relates to the classroom or lecture hall, I think conservatives have a fair point about a lack of tolerance by students who protest controversial speakers. However, while I agree with them to a point, I do think there is a time when students should protest the invitation of a speaker. Let me explain.

The university classroom should be a place for debate. Universities and their campuses are places of learning. We learn by exercising our minds through analysis, synthesis, and creativity. Real intellectual growth comes from an open minded engagement with ideas, including those we vehemently disagree with. Learning can be painful. Comfortable and long held assumptions can sometimes be destroyed, revised, or totally thrown into doubt when we’re truly getting educated. This is something ideologues on the political right and the left struggle with. They come to a discussion with preset ideas and caked prejudices that aren’t open to revision…regardless of the evidence or good argument to the contrary. A problem with epistemic closure and an outright refusal to be convinced becomes a stone wall to any genuine learning or growth. 

So when a professor or student group invites a guest speaker they should be allowed to speak uninterrupted. There should be no protests. The speaker, controversial or not, is a guest of the university and the students should mind their manners, act like proper scholars, and allow the speaker, regardless of how much the students may disagree with him or her, to make their presentation. Afterward, however, the speaker should be prepared for tough questions by the students in attendance. Students should show respect, but speakers should also be told that as a provision of speaking at the school the speaker must be willing answer questions from the audience. The give and take of learning requires this.

So when a controversial speaker is schedule to speak, students should read up on them and prepare hard questions. If you disagree with someone what better way “to protest” than to politely and respectfully ask a tough question that reveals the deep and obvious problems with a speaker’s beliefs or ideas. What better Youtube material can you ask for?

Now, what I said in the preceding refers to speakers invited to speak or lecture on a topic during the academic school year.

I take a somewhat different position as it relates to guest speakers for commencement day. Commencement day is strictly about the graduates. It’s their day. They have spent years writing papers, taking tests, debating, and arguing and now it’s time to celebrate and be inspired. It’s not a day for controversy or for inviting speakers who knowingly generate it. So I have no problem with graduating students protesting the invitation of a commencement speaker.

I think the names of guest speakers should be made available in advance as soon a possible. If some students feel strongly enough and want to protest then they should do so. It’s up to the faculty to decide what to do. If the school goes ahead and allows the controversial speaker to deliver their address, then I think the graduates should remain respectful for the sake of all present. At that point, protesting would be disrespectful and rude, not so much to the speaker, but to all the other graduates, guests and parents in attendance. 

So in the classroom and lecture hall I encourage students to protest by listening respectfully and then posing good, tough questions to controversial guest speakers. Don’t shut them down with open protests, challenge their views and ideas with intelligent questions!

But as it relates to commencement speakers, I encourage students to make their feelings known to the faculty and commencement organizers as soon as possible. Protesting the speaker’s invitation is certainly something they have a right to do before commencement day. If the protests are strong enough and broad enough then hopefully the school will listen and move on to inviting another speaker instead.

There are people who think that students should just accept the invitation of a controversial speaker, regardless of whether the graduating students want to hear from them or not on commencement day. I disagree entirely. Graduating students have earned and paid for the right to have a say in this celebration of their accomplishment. Controversy can wait for another time. That day is for coming together and celebrating.