Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Il Est Plus Tard Que Tu Ne Penses

When young and ignorant and somewhat trusting, I still always had the feeling that the simple truth, the real story rather than the commentary with an agenda, the uncolored and unfiltered fact, was hidden behind one of those narrow always-locked doors in the school hallways -- inaccessible, to render us powerless. We were filled with canned, frozen and processed foods at home, asbestos tile below us and artificial fabrics around us, plastics and media noise... John Wayne was always on television to teach us our history, the churches spelled out morality down to the most nonsensical detail, the President and the generals were there to wisely lead us.
Except, cognitive dissonance (not that I knew that phrase, or any other defining word; just commonplace truisms) rang around in my head. If we should trust the President, why did Nixon look like an evil troll, a slimy amoral salesman? Why did Jesus, a Semite, look like a cocker spaniel, an Aryan superman? Why was the conquest of Jericho told as a triumphant story from a glorious past -- was it right to slaughter a people to steal their land? I did have a feeling those questions should be kept unspoken in my spinning mind; I resolved to dig like an archaeologist or snoop like a spy to find out why these things did not seem to make sense, no matter how often or insistently they were repeated.
In public school, we were fed (you can't say "studied") American and Virginia history. No broader exposure until college, and even then those not in the humanities were not in the least interested; they'd had enough. I looked at some textbooks recently, and the current ones are sometimes even worse than those bound sleeping pills we had. Only the outside reading, paperbacks mostly, opened up the history of humanity to us. We don't have much to learn from history as "taught." It's up to you, if your curiosity hasn't been stamped out forever already.
Way back in an earlier post, I recommended Freya Stark's Rome Beyond the Euphrates. Thanks to the internet, you may find an old used copy. Why this volume is not in libraries or in print is beyond me. I found another recently, just a pamphlet, also by a wise, forgotten British writer. Take a look at the silly, shallow, partisan trash on the front tables today, in the USA, at chain big-box bookstores and you'll see why we need to dig really deep and far to find some wisdom about history and what we can distill from thousands of years of it (that should be enough data for some solid conclusions, right?).
Sir John Glubb was a soldier and a servant of the British Empire. His (long out of print, of course) The Fate of Empires analyzes the remarkably similar stages, from inception to collapse, followed over the millennia by great states, regardless of which political system they embodied. An empire, it seems, lasts about 10 generations (250 years on the average). The stages seem strangely inevitable, and as it says in the Rubaiyat, "The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ/Moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit/shall lure it back to cancel half a line/nor all thy tears wash out a word of it." They are (summarizing Glubb):
1. Outburst: a little-regarded people appears on the scene, a new and formidable nation which is practical, experimental and unified in purpose. Rapid conquest of adjacent lands proceeds faster and less successfully opposed than anyone can imagine.
2. Commercial Expansion: Within the new large territorial unit with a single administration, commerce is aided and expands in the peace that follows conquest. Making money, not the seeking of glory, becomes dominant.
3. High Noon: Ours was probably the early Seventies (peak U.S. oil production = 1970; highest GNP per capita was 1968). For the Romans, the second decade of the second century. (Glubb divides the Republic and its rise and extinction separately from the Empire).
4. The Age of Affluence: The wealth of the great cities draws many migrants. A multitude of universities arises and intellectualism, with surprising advances in science, develops. With too much wealth and power, in time selfishness and discord, proliferating but lowbrow arts, cleverness, entangling legalism, debate, and inaction make founding values like sacrifice and duty noncompetitive. Education no longer equates to learning and virtue, but is just a route to honors and riches (today 40% of U.S. Ivy League graduates go into finance).
5. Decline and Collapse: Pessimism and frivolity replace confidence and optimism. The heroes of declining nations are always athletes, singers and actors. Economically, the empire costs more than it can collect in revenue, and the mercenaries and heterogenous populations within, reverting to old loyalties and grudges, see no reason to support it any longer.

We were limited, in the junior and senior years of high school, to about one "elective." I had to pass on World History in order to take "Creative" Writing. I didn't miss much, since these worldwide patterns which would have gotten some of us thinking and made some things clear would never have been mentioned anyway. The "regularity of the rise and fall of nations passes unperceived" by writer, teacher, student and citizen. If you don't see the patterns in science, history or most anything else, you are just left with some myths, names, dates and selected information.

Add 250 to 1776.

1 comment:

  1. Decline, I agree with. Collapse, however, can take a variety of forms and could be a total collapse, or a collapse on a smaller scale. I suggest that the American collapse, when it happens, will transform the future America into a present-day England or France, and will be less a collapse than a shifting of power and wealth.

    Of course, I could be wrong, and the world will become ruled by talking apes.