I believe that religion, generally speaking, has been a curse to mankind – that its modest and greatly overestimated services on the ethical side have been more than overcome by the damage it has done to clear and honest thinking.
I believe that no discovery of fact, however trivial, can be wholly useless to the race, and that no trumpeting of falsehood, however virtuous in intent, can be anything but vicious.
I believe that all government is evil, in that all government must necessarily make war upon liberty…
I believe that the evidence for immortality is no better than the evidence of witches, and deserves no more respect.
I believe in the complete freedom of thought and speech…
I believe in the capacity of man to conquer his world, and to find out what it is made of, and how it is run.
I believe in the reality of progress.
I – But the whole thing, after all, may be put very simply. I believe that it is better to tell the truth than to lie. I believe that it is better to be free than to be a slave. And I believe that it is better to know than be ignorant.
Henry Louis Mencken
I really like Mr. Mencken, but choosing to know is a lot of work, and generally unpleasant work at that.
Surely if you read this blog, you’ve come across others that have mentioned Peggy Noonan’s recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, A Separate Peace. It generated a lot of commentary, but none here. I didn’t discuss it. But I will now.
Ms. Noonan writes:
I think there is an unspoken subtext in our national political culture right now. In fact I think it’s a subtext to our society. I think that a lot of people are carrying around in their heads, unarticulated and even in some cases unnoticed, a sense that the wheels are coming off the trolley and the trolley off the tracks. That in some deep and fundamental way things have broken down and can’t be fixed, or won’t be fixed any time soon. That our pollsters are preoccupied with “right track” and “wrong track” but missing the number of people who think the answer to “How are things going in America?” is “Off the tracks and hurtling forward, toward an unknown destination.”
That’s been a theme here at TSM for quite a while. It’s what I’ve been, in my own small way, trying to fight. Nor am I alone. In An Important Question from April 2004 I quoted Francis W. Porretto’s commentary on the Supreme Court upholding the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance Reform Act:
So long as speech was protected, Americans could claim with some justice that we were in some sense free. If Tuesday’s Supreme Court decision prevails, we will not be able to call ourselves even partly free. We will be a people in chains. Chains forged to protect incumbents from having their records in office publicized in the press as they stand for election. Chains forged to increase the power of the Old Media, granting their journalists and editors the last word on political campaigns. Chains forged by (and for) men to whom “the people” are not only not sovereign, but are a force to be fastened down and made to do as they’re told by those who know better.
And I quoted the Rev. Donald Sensing from a post at his site written the same day as Francis’:
I predict that the Bush administration will be seen by freedom-wishing Americans a generation or two hence as the hinge on the cell door locking up our freedom. When my children are my age, they will not be free in any recognizably traditional American meaning of the word. I’d tell them to emigrate, but there’s nowhere left to go. I am left with nauseating near-conviction that I am a member of the last generation in the history of the world that is minimally truly free.
If that’s not “trolley off the tracks” language, I don’t know what is. Ms. Noonan continues:
I mean I believe there’s a general and amorphous sense that things are broken and tough history is coming.
I think she’s right. I’m surprised it took her this long to reach that conclusion.
A few weeks ago I was chatting with friends about the sheer number of things parents now buy for teenage girls–bags and earrings and shoes. When I was young we didn’t wear earrings, but if we had, everyone would have had a pair or two. I know a 12-year-old with dozens of pairs. They’re thrown all over her desk and bureau. She’s not rich, and they’re inexpensive, but her parents buy her more when she wants them. Someone said, “It’s affluence,” and someone else nodded, but I said, “Yeah, but it’s also the fear parents have that we’re at the end of something, and they want their kids to have good memories. They’re buying them good memories, in this case the joy a kid feels right down to her stomach when the earrings are taken out of the case.”
Fred Everett at Protein Wisdom commented:
Noonan has a real gift for florid melancholy and I for one don’t need my natural instinct (especially during the fall) for melancholy encouraged.
Besides, every generation, feels like the “wheels are coming off” in some sense.
Billy Beck at Two-Four replied:
Yup. But you know what?
Every now and then, they’re right about it.
Noonan has another example, too:
A few weeks ago I was reading Christopher Lawford’s lovely, candid and affectionate remembrance of growing up in a particular time and place with a particular family, the Kennedys, circa roughly 1950-2000. It’s called “Symptoms of Withdrawal.” At the end he quotes his Uncle Teddy. Christopher, Ted Kennedy and a few family members had gathered one night and were having a drink in Mr. Lawford’s mother’s apartment in Manhattan. Teddy was expansive. If he hadn’t gone into politics he would have been an opera singer, he told them, and visited small Italian villages and had pasta every day for lunch. “Singing at la Scala in front of three thousand people throwing flowers at you. Then going out for dinner and having more pasta.” Everyone was laughing. Then, writes Mr. Lawford, Teddy “took a long, slow gulp of his vodka and tonic, thought for a moment, and changed tack. ‘I’m glad I’m not going to be around when you guys are my age.’ I asked him why, and he said, ‘Because when you guys are my age, the whole thing is going to fall apart.’ “
Mr. Lawford continued, “The statement hung there, suspended in the realm of ‘maybe we shouldn’t go there.’ Nobody wanted to touch it. After a few moments of heavy silence, my uncle moved on.”
Lawford thought his uncle might be referring to their family–that it might “fall apart.” But reading, one gets the strong impression Teddy Kennedy was not talking about his family but about . . . the whole ball of wax, the impossible nature of everything, the realities so daunting it seems the very system is off the tracks.
And–forgive me–I thought: If even Teddy knows…
Yes, if even Teddy knows.
Director Billy Wilder once said:
An audience is never wrong. An individual member of it may be an imbecile, but a thousand imbeciles together in the dark — that is critical genius.
And it really doesn’t matter whether what they’re criticizing is a play, a film, a book, or their own society.
The part of her op-ed that has drawn the most flak has been this:
Our elites, our educated and successful professionals, are the ones who are supposed to dig us out and lead us. I refer specifically to the elites of journalism and politics, the elites of the Hill and at Foggy Bottom and the agencies, the elites of our state capitals, the rich and accomplished and successful of Washington, and elsewhere. I have a nagging sense, and think I have accurately observed, that many of these people have made a separate peace. That they’re living their lives and taking their pleasures and pursuing their agendas; that they’re going forward each day with the knowledge, which they hold more securely and with greater reason than nonelites, that the wheels are off the trolley and the trolley’s off the tracks, and with a conviction, a certainty, that there is nothing they can do about it.
I suspect that history, including great historical novelists of the future, will look back and see that many of our elites simply decided to enjoy their lives while they waited for the next chapter of trouble. And that they consciously, or unconsciously, took grim comfort in this thought: I got mine. Which is what the separate peace comes down to, “I got mine, you get yours.”
Glenn Reynolds responds:
Certainly the extensive depression that Noonan attributes to coastal elites doesn’t seem to show much in my circles. Nor in the circles of blogger Phil Bowermaster, who writes: “What is so all-fired important about the disposition of journalists and politicians?”
Bowermaster notes that the whole coastal-elites-and-media establishment is not just going to fall apart — it has to a substantial degree already done so. But while this is bad news for the Dan Rathers of the world (and perhaps for the dateless columnists at some big metropolitan dailies) it’s not so clear that it’s bad news for the rest of us. In fact, I suspect that the elites’ discontent comes in no small part from the fact that ordinary people are becoming more powerful all the time, making the elites just a bit less elite with each passing year.
Or the blogger whose name cannot be mentioned who said:
So what can we do to stave off this social and political collapse?
Our power elites are too protected, the various components thereof are too preoccupied with furthering their (conflicting) partisan philosophies, and all we have left is the Constitution, which somehow still stands despite such inroads as the Kelo decision, the Patriot Act and Chicago’s gun prohibition laws.
What our “elites” seem to have forgotten is that when they have argued themselves into impasse, and the social order and infrastructure have collapsed, it will be left to We The People to fix it, with our beloved Constitution to guide us. Let’s just hope that after all these years of having government do our work for us, that we remember how to.
Remember, folks, the Constitution is not what government and lawyers say it is: the Constitution is what we say it is.
And if the “wheels come off the trolley”, or the trolley goes off a collapsed bridge, We The People will survive. Whether our “elites” will survive such catastrophe depends on how they address the looming crisis in the next few months and years.
But I think Mr. Reynolds et al. are missing the point. Robert Mandel at Mandelinople writes in his post It’s Called the Roman Empire:
I have felt this way for a long time.
Last month I wrote of New Orleans:
We are either going to rise as a nation, like the Phoenix, or sink into the abyss. Either we are going to restore the America of old, the values, traditions, and beliefs, or we are going to find ourselves the Roman Empire.
When people say of the chaos, “That’s not America”, they are right. That’s not America. Yet it is in America. That’s the problem.
A festering ideology has metasticized, revealing a lingering malignancy. We are truly infected with a disease of malaise and dependency. This has nothing to do with racism, the civil war, Jim Crow, or any of the other futile attempts at amelioration. No, this has everything to do with a set of policies that for forty years has stolen the soul and spirit of people, destroyed their will and their drive. It is a policy which says “we’ll take care of you, because you can’t take care of yourself.” And we see the results.
This past January, I observed:
The end of the Roman empire, and thus the end of antiquity, is traditionally marked in text books from the sack of Rome in 476 by Oadacer. Certainly one needn’t stop there, as the sack in 406 by Alaric, the defeat of Valens at Adrianople, or even the moving of the capital to Constatinople all could mark the end. Yet, one could very well mark the end of the Roman empire from the time the first Romans began to leave the cities and head to the hills, so to speak….
There is great angst felt by so many Americans. What troubles us twofold: that so many simply don’t care enough about the country and that so many don’t care that so many don’t care.
Then I ran across a post at Silent Running by Tom Paine, Confidence that connects to that Roman theme tellingly:
“It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.”
– Lord Kenneth Clark
I apologise for the Bill Whittle style title, and I promise this post won’t be nearly as long as any of his much weightier tomes, but I believe I may have something to say beyond the standard pointing at our political opposition and laughing. Right and good and pleasant though that is.
I’m in the middle of watching the BBC documentary series “Civilisation: A Personal View” by Lord Clark. He made a point in the first show so devastatingly true that it struck me with almost physical force.
He was doing a piece to camera, while standing in front of, and underneath, a Roman aqueduct, and talking about what makes up a civilisation. Now Lord Clark was raised in the British academic tradition, and would have been constitutionally incapable of beginning any work without first defining his terms, and so this was in a sense his coda for the whole series.
He said that one of the most important features of a civilisation, if not the most, was confidence. Confidence that it would still be around next year, that it was worthwhile planting crops now, so they could be harvested next season. Confidence that soldiers wouldn’t suddenly appear on the horizon and destroy your farm. Confidence that an apple seed planted in your backyard will provide fruit for your grandchildren. That if you paint a fresco, the wall its on will still be standing in a century. That if you write a book, the language you use will still be understood half a millennia in the future. And that if you hauled stone for the great cathedral which had been building since before your father was born, and which your baby son might live to see completed if, the good Lord willing, he lived to be an old man; your efforts would be valued by subsequent generations stretching forward toward some unimaginably distant futurity.
And above all, the self-confidence that you are part of something grander than yourself, something with roots in the past, and a glorious future of achievement ahead of it. When the Romans lost that self confidence, when they began doubting their own purpose, they began to die.
When the Rhine opposite Cologne froze on the last dying day of the year 406CE and the motley horde of Suevi, Alans, and Vandals charged across the Imperial border into the privince of Gaul, that was the beginning of the end merely in the physical sense. They were simply taking an axe to an already rotten tree.
And that is precisely what Osama Bin Laden believes he is doing to Western Civilisation right now. Those planes being rammed into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon were to instill in us the same fear felt by the centurion in charge of a pitifully small garrison in a lonely fortificationas he looked out across the ice at the thousands of savages who were about to overrun both him and his entire world. Osama, and the Islamist movement he represents, have calculated that we are the modern Rome, and that we are bored, decadent, and have no faith in ourselves.
And that’s just the intro.
We’re on the cusp of what futurian Ray Kurzweil calls “The Singularity,” the point at which, he predicts, technology accelerates into an incredible new future. He says it will happen around 2040. But we have to get there first. Dave Justus at Justus for All writes in his commentary on Ms. Noonan’s piece:
It is obvious that our society and our technological capabilities are both evolving at an incredibly fast rate. The future has perhaps never been more uncertain and it is becoming increasing difficult to predict what society will be like. It is obvious that this future has its perils, and there will doubtless be perils that we cannot even imagine in the not too distant future.
Peggy seems to understand the scope of this change, but not the fundamental nature of it.
What we are experiencing I think is a dramatic empowerment of the individual, and a corresponding decline in the ability of the ‘elites’ to control events. Glenn Reynolds writes on this phenomenom frequently (it is the focus of his new book) and blogging is one aspect of it. We can easily imagine that liklihoods of the not too distant future, molecular manufacturing, biological redesign, and human-machine integration will accellerate that trend to an amazing degree. Indeed, that is the subject of another book that is making waves, The Singularity Is Near.
The wheels are coming off, we are leaving the tracks. I submit though that this is because we are taking flight, not because we are crashing.
Perhaps, but I keep seeing the playback of all of those initial attempts at powered flight, and at best expect some real short flights and bumpy damned landings. I wonder which is going to happen first, the tremendous expansion of the power available to ordinary individuals, or the collapse of the infrastructure that will permit it?
Civilization is a fragile thing, really. It’s not so much masonry and steel as it is an idea, and as Tom Paine put it so eloquently, a lack of confidence in the idea of ones society may mean its death-knell. Moreover, technology that has increased the power of the individual has also meant that the destructive power of individuals is also increased. Ask the French, who are having a helluva time controlling rampaging Muslim youth who are called to act by internet postings and organize via cell phone networks, striking in small groups and escaping before the authorities can respond.
Philosopher Arthur Koestler wrote,
Politics can be relatively fair in the breathing spaces of history; at its critical turning points there is no other rule possible than the old one, that the end justifies the means.
I think everyone acknowledges that we’re at or nearing such a critical turning point, and I think Koestler is right. Moreover, the expansion of individual power is something that no government is happy with. The elites have struggled hard to achieve their positions, and are in no mood to yield even if it means the destruction of their society around them. They have theirs, and to keep it they are, so to speak, willing to fiddle while Rome burns. But when the fires start, the ones that don’t care will suddenly care, and they will look to the elites, not to themselves, for their protection.
This too, has been a theme here. Jeffery Gardner in his April 27 Albuquerque Tribune piece, Save us from us wrote:
During the 1992 presidential debates, there was a moment of absurdity that so defied the laws of absurdity that even today when I recall it, I just shake my head.
It was during the town hall “debate” in Richmond, Va., between the first President Bush and contenders Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
A grown man – a baby boomer – took the microphone from the moderator, Carol Simpson of ABC News, and said, in a fashion: You’re the president, so you’re like our father, and we’re your children.
See? My head’s shaking already. Where did that come from? Would a grown man have told a president something like that 100 years ago – or 50?
We’ve got our wires crossed, and our ability to accept responsibility for our lives – once so ingrained in our American nature that President Kennedy felt comfortable telling us to “ask not what your country can do for you” – has been short-circuited. We’ve slouched en masse into an almost-childlike outlook: You’re the president, so you’re like our father.
The fact that an adult – on national television, no less – would say this and later be interviewed as though he’d spoken some profound truth struck me then, as now, as more than a little absurd. It was alarming.
No more alarming than the quote from the Autum, 2004 City Journal piece, The Myth of the Working Poor by Steve Malanga:
A welfare mother, screaming at New York mayor John Lindsay (responsible for much of the city’s rise in welfare cases), expressed the (welfare) system’s new philosophy: “It’s my job to have kids, Mr. Mayor, and your job to take care of them.” It was a philosophy that bred an urban underclass of non-working single mothers and fatherless children, condemned to intergenerational poverty, despite the trillions spent to help them.
Our elites have spent decades and billions to produce a significant portion of the population that is dependent on no one but them, and Peggy Noonan is, I think, quite right that many of them have abandoned the field. Add to that the fact that we are in what Wretchard at The Belmont Club calls The Long War, and quotes Newt Gingrich’s House Testimony before the Subcommittee on Intelligence:
The Long War is 90% intellectual, communications, political, economic, diplomacy, and intelligence focused. It is at most 10% military. We have not yet developed the doctrine or structure capable of thinking through and implementing a Long War (30 to 70 years if we are lucky) on a societal scale. This challenge is compounded because it is fundamentally different from waging the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The Cold War was essentially a grand siege in which a defensive alliance could contain the Soviet Union until it collapsed.
Wretchard comments himself:
The world may be reverting to the pre-European era, and Gingrich’s Long War may really be the Long War for the survival of the West. Not its return to dominance, but simply its right to continued existence; to the chance of rediscovering its identity.
Islam has always been militant and the West only recently supine. In fairness, Islam’s only fault may be that it retained a belief in itself long after the West embraced self-disgust. It may be that Gingrich’s Long War is less about fighting Muslims than about the West rediscovering itself. While it’s apparent battlefields may be in the mountains, jungles and desert fastnesses, the only frontier that matters is in its own heart.
In our confidence in ourselves, and our societies. In an earlier post, The Terrible Slow Sword, Wretchard comments on what others see as America’s new Civil War, the one between our Left and Right factions that divides us, as Ms. Noonan noted, about 50/50:
Probably the most interesting angle on the Valerie Plame affair is from Syrian blogger Amaraji who manages to link it to world and Middle Eastern events. He characterizes the deteriorating situation in Syria as one example of emergent problems that have started and will fester because of what he calls the new American Civil War.
It might even be possible to argue that what Amaraji calls the ‘New American Civil War’, instead of driving events in Syria and Lebanon, is itself being driven by the structural shifts of the new century. It would go a long way toward explaining why the political structures of the late 1990s have been so deranged by September 11. The United Nations, transAtlantic diplomacy, the doctrine of deterrence which underpinned Cold War strategy, the entire multicultural and globalizing agenda — all of it — has been called into question not by a small cabal of neo-conservatives — that would be ludicrous — but by the pent-up force of thousands of events in a world now striding to the center stage of history.
Either way, Ms. Noonan’s prediction of “tough history coming” seems darkly accurate.
About five days after Tom Paine posted Confidence (and long before I stumbled across it), I wrote True Believers on essentially the same topic. Interestingly enough, both of our pieces end with exactly the same question: “What do you believe?” I believe Ms. Noonan may be right, and there is tough history coming, and it’s because of our New American Civil War. I believe Arthur Koestler is right, and that when we hit that “critical turning point” then “the ends justify the means” will be the order of the day. I believe that Rev. Sensing may be right, and that I may be “a member of the last generation in the history of the world that is minimally truly free” whether we do it to ourselves or discover that Osama was right about the rot at the heart of the tree of the West. “We the People” will still exist, but in what form remains a question to which we cannot see an answer. Indeed, the Constitution is what we say it is, but Arthur Koestler’s aphorism has been proven time and time again, and we may find ourselves under one iron boot or another.
At least for the coming cycle of history.
As Billy Beck advised,
I’m off to bed.
Sweet dreams, kids.