If you’re an American teen or young adult, you’re a pioneer. You may not think of yourself as a pioneer, and you may not relish the idea of being a pioneer, but that seems to be the role that history has in mind for you.
Many Americans sense that America is in deep trouble. People ask: Why did Rome fall? Why have other empires fallen? Why, when people know that their societies are going down, don’t they change their self-destructive ways? The answer seems to be that if people could change their self-destructive ways, they would. Then why can’t people change their self-destructive ways in time to avoid the trouble they thus bring upon themselves? The answer to that question would involve us in a discussion of psychology and spirituality. For now, let’s focus on the pioneering mission that history seems to have given to the current generation of teens and young adults.
Pioneering generations have been here before. And though history can’t guarantee success in pioneering endeavors, it can offer helpful hints.
Let’s look for some of those helpful hints by going back thirteen-hundred-and-forty years to the year 632, the year when, for the purposes of the pioneering mission entrusted to the current generation of teens and young adults, it all began.
In 632, the Prophet Mohammed passed from the earth (ascended into heaven if you’re a believer.) Barely a decade later, the sword of Islam came storming out of the Arabian heartland to sweep as far to the north and east as modern-day Iran and as far to the west and south as modern-day Morocco. Eighty years later, in 711, the armies of the Umayyad dynasty crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to create, on the plains of the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain), the Caliphate of Al-Andalus. Fast forward twenty-one years to 732, a century after the Prophet’s passing, and Muslim forces, vaulting the Pyrenees – the mountainous border between Spain and France – invaded the lands of the Franks (the largest and most powerful confederation of German tribes whose territory included modern-day France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands and some of the Eastern European countries). It was there, at Tours, on the banks of the Loire, in modern-day west-central France, that Charles Martel, the leader of the Frankish forces, halted the Muslim advance in a battle that may have saved the life of Western Christendom.
Charles Martel died in 741. Eleven years later, in 752, Pope Zachary deposed Childeric the Third, the last Merovignian king (the dynasty that had ruled the Franks for almost four hundred years), and crowned Charles’ son, Pepin the Short, King of the Franks. Four years after that, Pepin repaid the favor by attacking the Lombards, a South German tribe, whose territory, in the north of modern-day Italy, Pepin seized and turned over to the Papacy, creating the medieval Papal States. Pepin went on to expand his Frankish kingdom by annexing Aquitaine (modern-day southwestern France) and Burgundy (the overlap between modern-day southeastern France and northwestern Italy). Pepin died in 768, and his son, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), came to the throne.
Charlemagne added to the Frankish holdings until he came to reign over nearly all of modern-day Western and Central Europe. The only time he suffered a setback was in battle with the Moors of Al-Andalus (the Iberian Muslims). Charlemagne’s army was routed by the Basques as it retreated across the Pyrenees. The first great epic of modern chivalry, Le Chanson de Roland, commemorates the rout by recounting the noble death of Charlemagne’s bravest general.
Grateful for Charlemagne’s support, Pope Leo III, on Christmas day, in the year 800, crowned Charlemagne emperor of what came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire, a collection of European ethnic groups that, for nearly five hundred years, had been ruled from Byzantium (the Eastern Orthodox branch of Christendom that included much of modern-day Turkey, Greece, Albania, Armenia, parts of Russia and the Balkans). The Byzantine empire, heir to the Roman Empire, was now headed by Empress Irene whose authority Pope Leo refused to recognize because, as he saw it, there couldn’t, by definition, be an empress.
Charlemagne died in 811. His son, Louis the Pious, came to the throne. Louis had three sons: Lothair, Pepin and Louis the German. Louis and his sons fought constantly with one another, and Louis’ sons fought among themselves. Some years later, Louis had a fourth son, Charles the Bald, who joined the fray. The kingdom that Charlemagne had united was torn apart by these quarrels. The Treaty of Verdun, in 863, divided the Frankish realms into thirds: one-third to Lothair, one-third to Louis the German, one-third to Charles the Bald. (Nothing, apparently, to Pepin.) Thereafter, Charles the Bald managed, in 875, to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor only to die, two years later, in 877.
Charles the Bald’s son, Louis the Stammerer, succeeded Charles as King of the Franks but not as Holy Roman Emperor which title, in 881, went to Louis the German’s son, Charles the Fat. Louis the Stammerer’s son, Charles the Simple, succeeded Louis as king. Charles the Simple’s son, Louis the Fourth, succeeded Charles the Simple as king to be succeeded by Louis the Fourth’s son, Louis the Fifth, who, dying childless, was the last Carolingian king (Carolingian from “Charles” Martel, the founder of the dynasty).
The Carolingian dynasty lasted two-hundred-fifty-five years, from Charles Martel’s victory in 732 to Louis the Fifth’s death in 987.
While the Carolingians were consolidating what became modern-day Europe, modern-day England was in the making. In 732, the year Charles Martel halted the Muslim advance in Europe, there were four major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (Wessex, Mercia, Northumbria and East Anglia) and no less than fifteen minor kingdoms (the largest of which were Kent, Sussex and Essex). These kingdoms were forever at each other’s throats, though they managed to combine forces when it came to battling the Vikings who were harrying their coastlines and rivers.
The most prominent Anglo-Saxon king, in the mid-700’s, was Aethelbald of Mercia who was murdered by his bodyguards in 757, whereupon Offa, the self-styled Magnificent, came to the Mercian throne where he ruled, for thirty-nine years, until his death in 796.
Mercia’s fortunes then went into decline as Wessex’ fortunes rose until, in 871, Alfred the Great came to the Wessex throne and became the leader of all the Anglo-Saxons. Northumbria, meanwhile, had been absorbed into the Danish or “Danelaw” portion of what, until the Danes arrived, had been an Anglo-Saxon land. In 875, East Anglia, too, was absorbed into the Danelaw. For the remainder of the eight hundreds, Alfred, the Anglo-Saxon, and Guthrum, the Dane, ruled together until, in the nine hundreds, during the reign of Edward the Elder, the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons merged to create modern-day England.
Why all these names and dates?
There’s a pattern in the eight generations of the Carolingian kings matched by the eight generations of the Anglo-Saxon/Danish kings.
A once vibrant dynasty begins to falter. In its final hour, a vigorous challenger rises up to defeat the ailing champion thereby to become the founder of a new dynasty. The next generation consolidates and the third generation expands upon the gains won by the first generation. The decline begins in the fourth generation and takes four further generations to end in collapse. The number of generations may be fewer or greater than eight, but this eightfold pattern appears to be repetitive.
How might this eightfold pattern play out in our American experience?
Let’s say that, on average, a generation’s pre-eminence lasts fifty years. The first colonial settlement that survived in British North America was Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607. Counting forward eight generations takes us to the year 2007. That was only five years ago.
One-hundred-sixty-nine years separate the founding of Jamestown in 1607 from the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Two-hundred-thirty-six years separate the Declaration of Independence from the current year (2012). The mid-point of these two-hundred-thirty-six years is 1896. During the first half of the post-colonial American experience, beginning in 1787 when the Constitution was ratified and the U.S. was born, America fought three wars of note, suffering defeat in the War of 1812, achieving victory in the Mexican War of the late 1840’s and experiencing neither victory nor defeat, some twenty years later, in the bloodbath of “civil” war. During the second half of this two-hundred-thirty-five year interval, America has been involved in two major wars (World Wars I and II), four minor wars (the Korean War, The Vietnamese/Indochinese War, the Gulf Wars I and II) and now the “War on Terror.” In addition to these wars, there was the pivotal Spanish-American War the seed of which sprang in the mid-point year, 1896, when the Cuban Revolutionary, José Martí, sought to win Cuban independence from the declining Spanish empire.
The Cuban revolutionaries of 1896 drifted into the countryside to begin a slow, corrosive campaign of guerilla resistance to the ruling land barons. Spain responded by cracking down on anyone suspected of aiding the revolutionaries. Enter Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The plight of the oppressed Cubans roused American sympathies and sold newspapers. “Yellow Journalism” arrived on the scene as the media published lurid tales of the brutality that the Spanish padrones were allegedly inflicting upon the Cuban campesinos. Meanwhile, American shipping and produce interests, suffering financial losses as a result of Cuban instability, pressured Congress to take the matter in hand. As the 1890’s drew to a close, negotiations with Spain resulted in a declaration of Cuban autonomy to begin on New Year’s Day, 1898, Cuba to remain an independent but affiliated Spanish possession in the increasingly American sphere of Caribbean influence.
On January 11, 1898, in response to civil unrest in Havana, President McKinley dispatched a large battleship, the U.S.S. Maine, from its port in Key West, Florida, to protect American interests in Cuba. A few miles into the harbor, a massive explosion erupted. The ship sank, and two-hundred-sixty-seven crewmen perished. The media cried sabotage! The President asked Congress for fifty million dollars in war appropriations. Although it turned out that the explosion was due to engine malfunction, media accusations of Spanish perfidy stoked the furnace of war fever egged on by the alleged atrocities that the Spanish were committing in Cuba, tales that later proved to have been fabricated by the Hearst press, the ruse captured in Hearst’s famous comment to his photographer, Frederic Remington, “You furnish the pictures; I’ll furnish the war.”
On April 20, 1898, the White House delivered an ultimatum to the Spanish government: accede to Cuban independence or suffer the consequences. Spain stood fast. On April 25, Congress declared war on Spain. Cuba was the pretext. The Philippines was the prize.
The phrase “Manifest Destiny,” coined by editor John L. O’Sullivan, first appeared in the July/August, 1845 issue of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. The phrase echoed the belief, widespread at the time, that America had a providential mission to annex the Republic of Texas, which had lately won its independence from Mexico, and to extend American sovereignty in the Northwest and so to possess and govern the midsection of the North American continent “from sea to shining sea” and, across that shining sea, up to the gates of Old Cathay. Although the term was no longer in vogue by the time of the Spanish-American War, the belief that America had a divine mandate to extend its power and influence at home and abroad was very much alive as the country cast its eye westward across the Pacific.
While the contest for Cuba was going on, a similar thrust for independence was underway in the Philippines. The eclipse of Portuguese colonization in the Far East had “opened the door” to efforts by the Western powers, including Spain, to succeed to the Portuguese largesse. On May 1, 1898, the American fleet defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Shortly thereafter, American forces captured Manila, making the U.S. master of the Philippines. With Samoa having already been occupied, the seizure of Guam quickly followed.
Meanwhile, an American invasion of Cuba was taking its toll on the Spanish defenses. The most dramatic confrontation between the American and Spanish forces, rising, in time, to the status of legend, took place in the battle for the city of Santiago de Cuba, when the “Rough Riders” of the First Volunteer Cavalry, under the command of former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Teddy Roosevelt, stormed the Spanish emplacements on San Juan Hill. Though the Americans suffered a slew of casualties, the Spanish lines were broken, and the defenders were forced to flee. The image of Tough Teddy (for whom the cuddly Teddy Bear was mischievously named) was instrumental in T.R.’s rise up the political ladder until, in 1900, he was “kicked upstairs” to become President McKinley’s second term, Vice-Presidential running mate. When McKinley was assassinated the following year, Roosevelt found himself a surprised occupant of the Oval Office.
On the heels of American victories in the Philippines, Guam and the all-but-certain outcome in Cuba, Puerto Rico fell easily to the force of American arms.
Spain, defeated, sued for peace. On February 6, 1899, the U.S. became an internationally recognized empire, including, among its possessions, a lease, in perpetuity, of the naval base in Guantanamo Bay at the southeastern tip of Cuba. In 1901, in a reversal of the principles laid down nearly two centuries earlier in the Monroe Doctrine, Congress passed the Platt Amendment stipulating that the withdrawal of American forces from Cuba would be contingent upon American management of various aspects of Cuban internal affairs, a policy that lasted for fifty-eight years, until 1959, when the Castro-led Cuban revolution effectively negated the Amendment’s provisions.
Four generations, beginning in 1789, takes us to 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union fell. Two generations from 1789, the halfway point between the creation of the U.S. and the fall of the Soviet Union, takes us to 1889 and the start of the “Gay ‘Nineties,” the era that set the Western world ablaze with the ferment of Impressionist painting, the Birth of the Blues and the new literary realism of Ibsen, Chekov and Henry James.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that America is declining and falling. When might our decline and fall have begun?
Could it have begun with the Arab oil embargo of the early nineteen-seventies? The fall of Saigon in the mid-seventies? Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” that, in the eighties, widened the growing and ultimately gaping divide between the rich and the poor? The decline in esteem for government, in the nineties, when Bill Clinton was impeached for his dalliances in the White House? The tragedy of 911with the resulting loss of American prestige abroad and civil liberties at home? The hard economic times that picked up their pace during George W. Bush’s presidency? Globalization and the dominance of the multinational corporations? The social, political, economic and cultural collapse of the American middle and working classes? Perpetual war abroad coupled with the incarceration, at home, of an ever growing number of our people? From an illiberal perspective, might American decline and fall be traced to the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left, Revisionist Feminism, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, Woodstock, Roe v. Wade, the pill, gay and lesbian mainstreaming, the other lost war, the one on drugs?
A mere sixty-seven years ago, in 1945, at the conclusion of what may have been the most devastating war in humanity’s history, America emerged as the world’s top dog. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the fourth generational year, 1989, America was the last one standing. How could the decline and fall of America have begun earlier than a mere twenty-two years ago when we were the world’s sole remaining superpower?
Or might America’s decline and fall have begun much earlier than these recent events?
The transition from republic to empire has often been the turning point in a culture’s journey from rise to peak to fall. The transition from American Republic to American Empire, brought about by the Spanish-American War, may have been the cresting of a wave that, when the history of post-colonial America will have been written, may turn out to be to be the peak that ushered in the fall.
A span of seventy-nine years, from 732 to 811, separated the Frankish victory over the Muslim invasion of Europe from the death of Charlemagne, at which point the Carolingian dynasty tipped into a decline that took one-hundred-seventy-six years to complete: from 811 until, in 987, the dynasty passed into the pages of history. Likewise, a span of three-hundred-ten years separated the murder of Aethelbald of Mercia, in 757, from the coming of William the Conqueror to English shores in 1066. Alfred the Great died in 899. By then, the decline of Anglo-Saxon dominance in what was to become modern-day England had long since begun. If that decline began roughly in 875, when the Danelaw firmly established itself on Anglo-Saxon soil, it turns out that one-hundred-eighteen of these three-hundred-ten years were a period of cultural rise while it took one-hundred-ninety-two years for that rise to peak and fall. In the Frankish case, four-fifths of the period of rise and fall (82%) may be accorded to the fall. In the Anglo-Saxon case, two-thirds of the period of rise and fall (63%) may be accorded to the fall.
It took Rome, the mightiest of empires, five-hundred-twenty-five years to decline: from Julius Caesar’s coup d’etat in 49 B.C. until the deposition, in 476, by Odoacer, a German chieftain, of Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor. Rome’s history spans some 1230 years if 753 B.C. is taken to be the date of Rome’s founding. Rome’s rise accounted for 58% of its existence. Rome’s fall accounted for 42% of that existence, a length of rise before the fall that may be unparalled by any subsequent Western empire. If 1896 is the current mid-point of America’s post-colonial existence and if the final five years of the nineteenth century will have turned out, in history’s reckoning, to have been the peak in the transition from American rise to American fall, with our current period being the denouement, then our time on earth, as a viable society, will have approximated a statistician’s normal curve. As things in nature tend to regress to the mean, the median span of a given culture’s time on earth tends to approximate the norm, our own culture, perhaps, being no exception.
[quote]Those who refuse to entertain any discussion of decline actually risk accelerating the process. The failure to have a proper discussion of relative decline also risks leaving American public opinion unprepared for a new era. As a result, the public reaction to setbacks at home and abroad is less likely to be calm and determined and more likely to be angry and irrational – feeding what the historian Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style in American politics.”
– Gideon Rachman, London Financial Times, October 24, 2011[/quote]
Today’s teens and young people are entering the American scene at a time of collapse and dissolution and will be leaving the American scene having brought about – or having failed to bring about – the post-American rebirth that history has given them as their pioneering mission. We’ll explore, farther on, how they might fulfill this mission and the twin snares that may prevent them from doing so.
In the final phase of their existence, collapsing societies have often sought to downsize their populations. The downsizing has frequently been haphazard; the poor, the disadvantaged and the ill-prepared being the most frequent victims. On occasion, the downsizing has been more targeted as in the Nazi holocaust, the Soviet purges and the ethnic dislocations of contemporary national upheavals.
Ben Franklin is rumored to have said, “We bequeath you a republic if you can keep it.” America kept its republic, by force if you take account of the Civil War, for a hundred-and-eleven years, from the ratification of the Constitution in 1787 until the outbreak of the Spanish American War in 1898. The republic lasted as long as it did in part because America was in its rising, expansionist phase. The American republic gave way to the American empire at the turn of the twentieth century. Empires, in their declining phases, tend to become totalitarian before they disintegrate.
The hallmark of a totalitarian state is the ability of its agents to inflict violence on those who have no way to resist or to hold accountable those who inflict the violence. Compared to other totalitarian states, America, at the present time, is a relatively benign totalitarian state. Though the men and women who comprise America’s police and armed forces could, with little fear of the consequences, inflict murderous violence on a portion of the American people, few of these servants of the totalitarian state have done so or would willingly do so. At the same time, those who choose to demonstrate publicly against the policies and programs of the totalitarian state do take their life in their hands. The Constitutional protections from government repression that the Bill of Rights was meant to ensure are no longer in effect. These provisions of the Constitution and many of its other provisions have become relics of a vanished American past.
Meanwhile, the attitude of each community and constituency for itself, an attitude prevalent among the Boomer and Gen X generations, is symptomatic of a period of cultural decline and fall. German National Socialism, Italian/Spanish Fascism and Soviet/Asian Communism – the triumvirate of totalitarian regimes with which we’re familiar by virtue of their dominance for much of the past century – sought, with some success, to counter the centripetal force of decline and fall by attempting to instill in the hearts and minds of the people subject to their domination a centrifugal loyalty to a transcendent ideal: the race, the nation, the collective. American corporocracy – the fourth totalitarian regime to have emerged in the waning days of the past century – offers no such compelling ideal and is, perhaps on that account, a less virulent type of totalitarianism.
If we were looking for the symbolic “Crossing the Rubicon” moment when the corporocracy entered its totalitarian phase, we might point to the Supreme Court’s coup d’etat, in the 2000 Presidential election, when five of the Justices, unopposed by the legislature or the executive, stopped the Florida re-count that would have awarded the election to Al Gore and handed the election to the losing candidate, George W. Bush. Although, during the ‘aughts, there was much talk of the “imperial presidency,” the power of the executive has diminished to the point at which the President has become a figurehead whose opposition to the corporocracy, were it to occur, would likely be ineffectual.
Yet even as the totalitarian state appears to have achieved its goal of political domination, cultural hegemony and economic control, a countervailing force has arisen to circumvent and, ultimately, undermine this monopoly of state power. The mutually contending communities and constituencies that make up the American body politic pose no threat to the totalitarian state. Some of these communities and constituencies benefit from its existence. The countervailing force that has arisen to mitigate and eventually to neutralize the totalitarian state’s dominance, hegemony and control comes from within the totalitarian state itself.
We’re familiar – at least an older generation is familiar – with the stereotype of the bored bureaucrat seated at his or her desk, ensconced in his or her cubicle, pounding away on the typewriter in some department of the Nazi Reichswehr or Soviet commissariat, indifferently checking off the box on the identity papers that will send this one to the gas chamber or the gulag, that one to the store to fetch a pound of butter or to the farm to buy a liter of milk. At the end of the day, home he or she goes to play with the kids, feed the cat and, in the evening, to listen to strains of Mozart or Tchaikovsky playing on the victrola, having nary a care for the fate of those whose papers have landed, for processing, on his or her blotter so long as he or she gets his or her paycheck at the end of the week.
This image of the bored bureaucrat is a caricature but not a wholly inaccurate one. Despite what may be the good intentions of many decent bureaucrats, the function of the bureaucracy, in the totalitarian state, is to waste time, talent, effort and money by binding people in a knotted rope of regulation and formality that exists primarily for its own sake. As the enforcement arm of the totalitarian state, bureaucracy seeks, by its ever increasing demands for an ever greater volume of useless and unproductive activity, to instill, in those subject to its dictates, a spirit of passivity, resignation, inevitability and banality, an acquiescence in the absurd, a tolerance for the nonsensical, an attitude of personal and collective disempowerment, the adoption of a world view that regards bureaucracy’s pronouncements as authoritative prescriptions of how life is to be lived down to its most casual aspects and trivial pursuits.
Institutional education, in the form of schooling, is the chief means by which bureaucracy seeks to establish the legitimacy of its world view at a time of life when people are most impressionable. The American church, temple and mosque are companion enablers of secular, bureaucratic domination, the church/temple/mosque, like the school, being the state’s deputized value transmitter.
A young friend of mine, a six-grader at the local public school, showed me one of the practice problems assigned in preparation for her upcoming standardized math test. She and her classmates are tested numerous times during the year, and most of their classroom instruction is geared to prep them for these tests. The distance between New York and Chicago is eight hundred miles. A train leaves New York traveling west at fifty miles an hour. At the same moment, a train leaves Chicago traveling east at seventy miles an hour. At what distance from New York (or Chicago) will the two trains meet?
That, said my young friend, is a silly question. I asked her why it was a silly question. “Because there are hills and valleys and towns and farms along the way. The trains will speed up and slow down. What if there’s a cow on the tracks? What if there’s a snowstorm? You can’t tell where they’re going to meet. It depends.”
I asked her if it troubled her that she was being asked a silly question. No, she said, it didn’t. I asked her why it didn’t. Because, she said, the important thing was to do well on the test. I asked her why it was important to do well on the test. Because…, she thought for a moment…, it is. The lesson that one learns from this exercise, in the sixth grade and, indeed, at a much younger age, is that something meaningful and something nonsensical are equivalent alternatives when it comes to gauging reality and that if the nonsensical, in the judgment of the authorities, should prevail over the meaningful, the nonsensical, as a practical matter if not in principle, is to be preferred. The instilling of this Alice in Wonderland view of reality is, perhaps, the primary, if inadvertent, goal of institutional education.
Lord Acton may have said that power corrupts, but that’s not to say that power necessarily corrupts. Wisdom, humility, forbearance and common sense can moderate the tendency of power to corrupt. These are not virtues that one readily associates with the American national character. Bureaucracy is an effective tool of social control in totalitarian states in which the population has been politically neutered and ideologically spayed, but there’s a price to pay for this control in terms of the entropy that bureaucracy introduces into the psychological foundation on which totalitarian social structures rest.
The basement of my house serves as a studio apartment. There’s a living/kitchen area, a bedroom and a bathroom. To get from the bedroom to the living/kitchen area or vice versa, you have to go through the bathroom. I wanted to put a door in the wall between the bedroom and the living/kitchen area to eliminate the need to go through the bathroom.
The building code in my town is extremely detailed. As I sifted through its vast array of rules and regulations, it became clear that there was no way, given this height restriction, that width restriction, this distance restriction, that jamb and threshold restriction, that I could legally install a door in the wall between the bedroom and the living/kitchen area. But nothing, apparently, prohibited me from inserting a window. To satisfy the requirements of the building code and hopefully to prevent the insurance company from reneging on its promise to insure the property should the house burn down, given that I would have violated a provision of the building code by installing a door, one may, instead of walking through a door, go from the bedroom to the living/kitchen area or the other way ‘round, by stepping on a stool, swinging one’s leg over the sill at the height of three feet, climbing through the window and gingerly letting oneself down on the opposite floor. (It seems I’m not obliged to install a pane in the window.)
Granted the illustration is baroque. But it’s precisely because bureaucracy’s requirements are so often arbitrary, whimsical and senseless that bureaucratic domination and control has become so firmly entrenched as the arbiter of how things are to be done. Totalitarianism results when bureaucracy has succeeded in breaking our will to resist arbitrary, whimsical and senseless requirements. Passive, cooperative and apologetic, we accommodate, without protest, to tyranny.
If that’s all there was to it – the ability of totalitarianism, via bureaucracy, to rule a populace rendered powerless and not caring that it’s been rendered powerless – we’d be living in an Orwellian world in which any and all independent thought or action would instantly be detected and crushed. But even as bureaucracy nurtures the totalitarian mindset and propels the world it dominates toward an Orwellian dystopia, bureaucracy fertilizes the soil of the totalitarian state’s destruction.
Here’s a trivial example of the way in which this fertilization occurs. That the example is trivial demonstrates the process the more vividly.
I recently had some dental work done. I have a modest dental insurance policy that will pay a portion of the cost if I obtain prior approval for the procedure. I submitted my request for approval. The request was turned down despite the fact that the policy explicitly covers the procedure. After several phone calls and faxes in which I pointed out the provision of the policy that covers the procedure, I obtained an approval. The policy would now pay a portion of the cost, leaving me to pay the balance. I had the work done and paid the dental clinic my share of the cost.
Along with my initial request for approval, I submitted to the dental clinic some twenty pages of faxed material to verify that my policy, covering the procedure, was in force. When the insurance company finally approved the claim, I re-submitted the paperwork to the clinic along with the approval form from the insurance company that said that the insurance company would pay what the insurance policy said it would pay. The dental clinic submitted the claim, with the paperwork attached, the paperwork that the insurance company already had but requested nonetheless. Since that time, I have been on the phone with the dental clinic, the insurance agent who represents the insurance company and customer service at the insurance company for a total of several hours attempting to get the claim paid. The billing person at the dental clinic tells me that she, too, has been on the phone with the insurance company for several hours. In addition, there’s been a great deal of faxing of material already faxed. It’s months later and there’s no payment in sight. The clinic tells me that if it doesn’t receive payment soon, it will turn my account over to “collections” whose agents will harass me until I or the insurance company pay the insurance company’s balance of the bill. If the insurance company refuses to pay its share of the bill, what am I going to do, sue them? The insurance company will pay or not pay as it pleases.
The person at the dental clinic who has done the clinic’s billing for, she says, nearly twenty-five years tells me that “this goes on all the time.” Claims always get rejected the first, second and even the third time around. Eventually claims are paid or not paid. I asked what happens if the insurance company doesn’t pay and, despite being harassed by “collections,” I don’t pay. She shrugged. Her job is to submit and re-submit claims, photocopying and faxing the day away, generating bills and statements which she inserts into patients’ charts. Somehow the money comes from somewhere. How it comes or where it comes from is not her concern. She cheerfully does her work and gets her paycheck. I asked her how much of her time she estimates she’s spent on processing my claim, which has yet to be paid. Oh, three or four hours, she said. How many more hours does she estimate she’s likely to put in? A few, a lot, who knows.
The point of recounting this episode is not to say, “poor me” nor to complain about the ways in which corporate entities – in this case an insurance company – can make good on their promises or not as they choose nor to make a surreptitious pitch to reform a dysfunctional health care system administered by some combination of brisk and lazy bureaucrats. The point is to illustrate, via this mundane example, in contrast to the previous baroque example, that bureaucracy, when left to its devices, is like the sorcerer’s apprentice. It will successfully accomplish a contradictory objective. People will be remarkably busy, slaving away, from dawn to dusk, in their warrens and offices, yet no productive work will be done.
Bureaucracy is parasitic upon the body politic in that it drains the life out of the state that the bureaucracy has been created to serve. Here, in an odd way, is its virtue. Visualize a nurse poised with a needle that he or she is about to plunge into the arm of a patient who awaits the injection. Imagine that the inch or two that separates the tip of the needle from the flesh of the tricep is so clogged with an immensity of redundant paperwork, so jammed with hours of unproductive labor, that the needle can’t traverse those final inches of apparently empty space to pierce the patient’s arm. The frantic enzymatic action of bureaucracy breaks down the protein of creative thought and productive activity not to the amino acids of valuable work but to the waste products of useless endeavor that get excreted through the organs of petrifaction.
A top-heavy, out of touch, overweening bureaucracy facilitates a culture’s decline and fall. Only military aggression abroad and police repression at home facilitate decline and fall more rapidly. In the process, bureaucracy becomes an anodyne no less than a parasite, a source of protection against the despotism that accompanies a culture’s dissolution. Just when the totalitarian state seeks, via the intrusion of bureaucracy, to prescribe and regulate every aspect of personal and collective life, becoming, in the process, a behemoth of domination and control against whose dictates resistance would be as futile as the resistance offered by a lone Federation starship encountering a galaxy-sized cube of the Borg, the totalitarian state finds itself stymied by the stultifying weight of paralytic bureaucracy that immobilizes the totalitarian state via a multiplicity of contradictory rules, regulations, policies and programs that have morphed into a miasma of bibelots in gibberish, making it nigh on to impossible for the ordinary person to obey bureaucracy’s commands and requirements even if he or she wishes to do so.
We see in the frantic growth of bureaucracy’s frequently indecipherable rules, orders, dictates and pronouncements, the manufacture of an artificial complexity that prevents individuals and organizations from carrying out their tasks and fulfilling their purposes, a composite image of cultural collapse trending toward societal dissolution, a suspended pas de deux, one partner being the irresistible force of the totalitarian state’s domination of a demoralized populace (the operant term these days is “zombies”), the other partner being the immovable object of a bureaucracy so fettered by its inability to administer its gargantuan repository of conflicting policies and pronouncements that the dancers, like waxed figures clenched in inanimate embrace, have become frozen statuary on society’s stage while the music of arbitrary authority drones relentlessly on.
A better metaphor may be that of small, traumatized children, hiding in the recesses of a dark house, where, for as long as they can remember, they’ve been terrorized by a sick, demented, violent parent. But the place has been quiet for so long that, while staring at one another through the gloom, the children have begun, quietly and tentatively, to venture out of their hiding places, ready, with each timid step, to scurry back to the safety of their niches and caches. They creep through the hallway and parlor and peek into the kitchen. There the hated parent lies, still and supine, sprawled on the floor. Is this a trick? Shall they run and hide? Courageously, they approach the source of their terror and peer down at the object of their fear. Is he sleeping? Is she dead? Eventually they nudge, then poke, then shake, then kick the body. Sure enough, no sign of life. Maybe it was booze. Maybe it was drugs. Maybe it was a bullet in the brain. Something seems to have taken the life of the tyrannical abuser. The realization dawns: “Free at last! God Almighty, we’re…” And then the shiver of dread: What are we going to do? Who’s going to look after us? Who’s going to take care of us? Who’s going to show us the way?
[quote]History is bunk. –Henry Ford[/quote]
In a real-live replication of Frodo’s fictitious journey to Modor during the pre-Harry Potter era, today’s teens and young people bear the American ring toward the Cracks of regenerative Doom with no guarantee that they’ll accomplish their mission of charting a viable post-American future. Today’s teens and young people inhabit a culture that’s neither willing nor able to come to grips with its altered circumstances. The American people sense danger. Many Americans have become frightened, suspicious, mistrustful, paranoid, violent. The totalitarian state finds itself swept into the maw of the turbulence that its hubris has created. The rope that America fashioned to belay itself to ever higher levels of global domination has become the petard by which the bulk of the American people are now hoist. The twist in the rope is the self-deceptive hope of an easy if not necessarily a quick fix. The house that’s now divided against itself, with each community, constituency and special interest seeking its advantage at its supposed rivals’ expense, can’t continue to stand. The ground of mutual care and cooperation is giving way. Collapse and disintegration follow. To bring about its demise, the dying culture enlists the aid of psychological processes that convert the normal desire to grow and thrive to the perverse desire to shrink and wither. The eighth generation, born among the ruins, rebuilds on a firmer foundation or perishes.
In our boom and bust economy, bubbles expand and pop. The next (or the next to the next) bubble to pop may be the student loan bubble, a bubble that’s already enormous and shows no sign of deflating. A large number of today’s students may be unable to repay these loans that can’t, like other debts, be discharged in bankruptcy, at least not yet. Large banks hold much of this ballooning debt. When the banks begin to falter from lack of repayment, the politicians who look after their interests will attempt to bail them out. “Cap and ease” they call it. Good for the banks, not so good for the indebted multitude.
Here, then, are three proposed portals of American decline and fall through which today’s teens and young adults must pass on their way to a post-American regeneration. Time will tell how accurately, if at all, these portals have been forecast.
But first a question.
At what point, during the years 1861 through 1865, might it have been acceptable for one Confederate, in conversation with another, to have referred to the Southern war effort as a Lost Cause? After Shiloh and Hell’s Half Acre? After Lee and Longstreet fled the field at Gettysburg? After Grant took Vicksburg? After Sherman marched to the sea? After the surrender at Appomattox? There are benighted souls who still, a century and a half after the fact, fly the Stars and Bars in an effort to persuade themselves that the Cause was never Lost. As it happened, the South did rise again but not as the Confederacy. At what point might it be acceptable to acknowledge the “inconvenient truth” that we, the people, have lost our battle with the totalitarian state and that we have no realistic alternative but to acknowledge our defeat and prepare, as we live through the dark time, for our hoped for rebirth?
First portal: the middle and working classes – which is to say most Americans – are finished. They will be impoverished. Unlike those who’ve always been poor, most American teens and young adults didn’t grow up poor and don’t know how to be poor. It’s a skill they’ll need to learn. We’re witnessing the emergence of what might be called the New American Peasantry from the chrysalis of the lost war for middle and working class survival.
Second portal: the vast majority of the American people will balk at facing their impoverishment and will do little to try and ameliorate it; rather, they’ll respond to the bitterness and resentment occasioned by their impoverishment with a mixture of rage and resignation interrupted, on occasion, by lunging attempts, on the part of various communities, constituencies and special interests, to gain purchase for themselves at the expense of their equally impoverished neighbors, aggravating, in the process, divisions of race, gender and other social criteria by which we’ve consented to be divided and ruled.
Third portal: the totalitarian state will eventually, without challenge from a discouraged and powerless people, run out of fuel and sputter to a halt. Then, if the eighth generation accomplishes its pioneering mission, comes the risorgimento.
The late British historian, Arnold Toynbee, in his twelve-volume Study of History, building on the work of Gibbon, Spengler, Macauley and other noted historians, describes three overlapping phases in the collapse and dissolution of what he calls “civilizations.” A period of growth, productivity and expansion fosters a climate of arrogance that prompts a fatal overreaching, bringing the rising civilization into conflict with neighboring civilizations both in time and space, a conflict that draws that overreaching civilization into political, economic, social, cultural and financial turmoil. A “time of troubles” ensues whose resolution, when the forces of disintegration have set in, takes the form of a “universal state.” Now the descent to the nadir begins, ending in an “interregnum” that precedes that civilization’s re-birth or its passing away. Toynbee is not a determinist. He sees no necessity inherent in this process. But the pattern, as we’ve observed, is repetitive and appears to be the rule.
Sociologists William Strauss and Neill Howe, with a deterministic bent, posit a cyclical progression of four “turnings,” each turning taking more or less a generation to accomplish and each highlighted by a specific personality type and historical task. (The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy: What The Cycles of History Tell Us About America’s Next Rendezvous With Destiny). The title of popular works of futurists such as Richard Heinberg (Peak Everything: Waking Up To The Century Of Declines) and James Howard Kuntsler (The Long Emergency: Surviving The End Of Oil, Climate Change And Other Converging Catastrophes Of The Twenty-First Century) in step with contemporary historians Chalmers Johnson (Nemesis: The Last Days Of The America Republic), Andrew Bacevich (The Limits Of Power: The End Of American Exceptionalism) and, from a different perspective, Niall Ferguson (Collapse and Empire) capture the flavor of much current thinking on the topic of rise and fall American-style. To be optimistic, the mythology of Western culture – mythology being the expression, in image and narrative, of history’s themes and lessons – points as unerringly as the seasons of nature to the rebirth that follows death and dissolution.
Rather than attempt a discussion or offer a critique of these sources (other than to recommend them), I’ll share a brief reflection on the nature of institutional education, the culture’s primary means, along with the church/temple/mosque, of socializing the young.
It seems to me that school, including what’s called higher education, has come in for a great deal of unfair criticism. As John Taylor Gatto has pointed out in his monumental Underground History of American Education, schools are doing what they’re meant to do. Schools seek to serve the needs of today as they gaze backward toward yesterday, not as they might peer forward toward tomorrow. Institutional education’s success or failure should be measured by the way in which it prepares young people for life in the rear view mirror. Institutional education performs its task most auspiciously when it fosters conformity, standardization and adherence to conventional norms. The totalitarian state requires a populace content to be divided and ruled, whose dissatisfactions seek resolution through the internecine warfare of community vs. community, constituency vs. constituency, “spy vs. spy.” Institutional education’s job is to promote the regimen and endorse the ethic of decline and fall, to reward its tenets and legitimize its values. Those who feel that schools should do otherwise might do well to avoid them.
An incidental purpose of institutional education is to impart the skills necessary for competitive individuals to prevail in the war of each against all, victory and defeat measured by various social, political and economic indicators.
A recent incident at a Metro-Boston middle school is instructive in this regard. A parent took umbrage at the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, believing that his children’s school ought not promote what he regarded as an idolatrous form of state worship. He also didn’t like it that his children might be ostracized by their classmates should his children, in line with their – or his – principles, refuse to participate in the exercise. Other adult members of the community rallied to the Pledge. Of note was the response of one of the rallying parents. If you don’t go along with the majority, of course you’re going to be ostracized, she explained. And the virtue of ostracism is the opportunity it affords the ostracized to develop the strength of character necessary to hold, under duress, to unpopular views.
Her piquant view of what school, as a pedagogic model of life in community, is about is a précis of the essence of institutional education as a facilitator of cultural normativity which, today, is the process of national decline and fall.
The transformation of the American middle and working classes to the status of a peasant class would reverse an historic trend that began in the fifteenth century at the dawn of the modern age. The defining characteristic of a peasant class is lack of ownership of (i.e. possessory rights in) land and capital, what Karl Marx called the “means of production” and now, with financial assets comprising the greater part of the non-residential wealth of the middle and working classes, the fruits of production. Loss of wealth can come about through inflation of the money supply accompanied by the “debauching” of the currency, chronic debt that can never be repaid, the bursting of any number of asset bubbles and the resulting foreclosures and bankruptcies not underwritten by bailouts. The coup de grace could come in the form of the seizure of property on account of an individual’s or a family’s inability to pay the excises and imposts levied by insolvent federal, state and local governments. The fact that most Americans, particularly comfortable Americans, appear to disbelieve that such things could happen, having had no experience of them, may make this expropriation the easier to accomplish. Today’s seniors and young adults may feel its effects earlier than those in their prime working years.
At this juncture, a small minority of the American people – the targets of the opprobrium expressed by the “99 percenters” who occupied Wall Street and related venues – could, in association with foreign interests with whom they share a class and cultural affiliation, lay claim to substantially all the wealth in America. If the American population weighs in at three hundred million, give or take, that’s a ruling elite of several million, a substantial number. Say that another ten percent of the population were to find employment as guards, in the form of police and private security forces, hired to protect the privileged one-percent. That’s upwards of thirty million well-fed, nicely compensated, armed and highly trained individuals, in squadron, to serve as a domestic occupation force to ensure the pacification of the remaining two-hundred-sixty-five or -seventy million. Respond to stirrings of rambunctiousness among a disgruntled population with one or two vicious and highly publicized massacres and the majority may be deterred from further protest. Moreover, this deracinated mass of the American people would be, according to one of the portals stated above, a peasantry that’s more likely to conspire against and battle one another than to unify, in common cause, in an effort to confront, bravely in the face of overwhelming odds, the arms and ideology of the ruling elite. In the end, the “Eighteenth Brumaire” of today’s Great Correction might leave us with an America that as little resembles the Constitutional Republic of the Founding Fathers as Napoleon’s Grande Armée that took the field at Austerlitz resembled the costumed nymphs and satyrs who disported, for the Austrian Princess’ amusement, in the halcyon days of Louis XVI, on the manicured lawn of the Petit Trianon.
The evolution of a New American Peasantry would go hand in hand, the one being the complement of the other, with the rise of a New Manorial System of ownership of land and goods vested primarily in global mercantile consortia. This international rentier class and its armed retainers wouldn’t likely, in the manner of medieval feudalism, require the corvée labor of impoverished serfs. An economy that can supply the material needs of the seigneurial class from formerly “Third World” peonage wouldn’t have much need of the services of millions of unemployed Americans, the majority of whom wouldn’t or couldn’t successfully compete with their Asian, African, Latin American and, possibly, Eastern European counterparts. Not only would the majority of the American labor force, “educated” or not, be surplus, they’d be superfluous. There would be no reason to sustain its existence. In the past, such excess populations have slaughtered one another in wars, decamped, as immigrants, to other lands or, as would-be invaders, sought to oust and supplant native populations. The downsizing of the superfluous may eschew the rapidity with which National Socialism and Soviet Communism dispensed with those whom these regimes considered detrimental to their well being. The strangulation of famine, disease and violent crime, sufficiently quarantined, could be an equally effective means of “demographic cleansing.”
Because this is a horrible scenario, ugly to contemplate, many of us may be apt to dismiss it. Again, having had no experience of the conditions that have sparked such horrors in the past and, largely for that reason, having little facility for grasping their potential in the present, most of us can’t imagine that such things could happen. We may forget that it was World War I, not World War II, that was billed as “The War To End All Wars.” That blood-letting conflict and the ones that have followed in its train are intervals in a Hundred Plus Years War (1898 to the present) that shows little sign of abating. Indeed, the “War On Terror” is a struggle not against a corporeal enemy but an inchoate state of mind. It is a perpetual war that can have no end.
If poverty were to sweep the land like a Black economic Plague, it’s conceivable that a politically powerless and economically disenfranchised peasantry might find itself inhabiting, as squatters, vast manorial estates that would encompass many square miles, private preserves similar to the Roman latifundia of the three- and four hundreds or something like our government-owned parks and reservations: areas now set aside for conservation, for timber harvesting and mineral exploitation, for Native Americans. Federal, state, even local governments, no longer able to extract more than a trickle of wealth from an impoverished peasantry, may all but cease to function. Communities and neighborhoods would emerge ex tempore, composed of families, friends, colleagues, age cohorts. Beneath a penumbra of acute surveillance and a saturated police presence, most communities may find, to their surprise and somewhat to their relief, that they’ll be left alone, there being no reason to harness or hinder them so long as they remain quiescent. What exists in the way of civil government may then be makeshift, flexible, adapted to the needs of the moment. Though the welfare state may no longer exist, the warfare state, unchecked, may consume itself in an orgy of futility whereupon the wings of freedom, though bound in chains and gowned in rags, its presence having been banished from the scope of living memory, may quietly unfurl with the slightest incipient flutter.
While there’s plainly a risk of anachronism when it comes to making generalizations, I think it’s fair to say that the middle class, college educated, progressive members of the Boomer and Gen X generations, along with many of our younger peers, were not, on the whole, opposed to the corporate takeover of America. Many of us were happy to get in on it. Nor did we oppose injustice, discrimination and unequal treatment on principle. We opposed injustice, discrimination and unequal treatment when these ills affected select communities and constituencies. We seemed, on the whole, to feel that if the day should come when members of these select communities and constituencies would no longer be subjected to injustice, discrimination and unequal treatment, these ills would have vanished. Thus when the civil rights movement phased into what was called “affirmative action” and when privileged, middle class, college educated feminists became a social and political force to be reckoned with – when members of these communities and constituencies were now being preferred – when injustice, discrimination and unequal treatment again became the law of the land but in reverse, this reversal was touted as “social justice;” and the existence of “reverse discrimination” was denied because, in this progressive way of thinking, there could not, by definition, be “reverse discrimination” much as, in the year 800, there could not, by definition, in Pope Leo’s mind, be an empress in Byzantium.
The distance from Scottsboro, Alabama to Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina is eighty years as the crow of American history flies. When it became apparent that the young African-American woman, who’d attended the Duke University lacrosse players’ beer blast, had made false accusations of rape and sexual molestation, many members of the Duke University faculty and administration as well as members of the Raleigh/Durham chapter of the NAACP, knowing that the accusations were false, nonetheless called for the privileged, obnoxious, white members of the lacrosse team to be prosecuted and sent to prison. Their reasoning was simple and appealing. Have some number of African-Americans – the Scottsboro Boys, for example – been murdered, lynched and found guilty of crimes they didn’t commit solely because they were African-American and happened, due to ill fortune and bad timing, to be in the wrong place at the wrong time? Well then, sauce for the goose…
In her groundbreaking work, Men, Women and Rape, published in the early nineteen-seventies, feminist author, Susan Brownmiller, proposed that every man is guilty of having raped every woman; meaning that a man who has never raped a woman is nonetheless guilty of having raped a woman who has never been raped. Ms. Brownmiller was using rape in the sociological, not the physiological sense, but the charged metaphor graphically illustrated the point that when the abstract trumps the concrete, it becomes unavoidable that social justice must be purchased at the cost of individual justice.
One may agree, disagree or have no opinion about this kind of reasoning. The point is that those who reason along these lines are neither interested in nor capable of bringing about the kind of changes that might help the teens and young adults of a collapsing culture live decent, productive lives. I’ve asserted that my generation, the Boomers and early Gen X’ers were, generally speaking, content to be divided, ruled and set against one another by race, gender and similar criteria for the benefit of those interests that have been content to exploit us all indifferently. The problem, for today’s teens and young adults, is that it’s not we who, as a result of our choices, are getting what we deserve; it’s you who are getting what we deserve.
America is a class system, not a caste system. If one has the entrepreneurial talent and opportunistic temperament – the “people skills” – that our culture holds up for emulation, if one is practical, ambitious and adept at image manipulation, if one doesn’t mind being a trifle duplicitous in one’s professional conduct and a tad unscrupulous in one’s personal relations, one may, with the breeding that bestows shrewdness and sophistication, do very well in the teetering sway of a culture in decline. Collapse and dissolution don’t happen overnight: they customarily take four generations to bring about, possibly five, as we saw when we looked at the dynasties that brought modern Europe and Britain into being. “The sins of the fathers (sic) are visited upon the sons (sic) unto the fourth generation…” is how the Bible puts it. Every generation is both a first and a fourth (and an eighth) generation. As a fourth generation, today’s teens and young adults are witnesses to what may be the final phase of America’s decline and fall, a descent from the peak that arguably began at the turn of the twentieth century. As a first generation, they’re the pioneers of whatever will come after the dissolution of America and the disintegration of its empire.
Still, unless one feels the urge to be a martyr, why opt for impoverishment if one doesn’t have to? Here we have a glimpse of the twin snares mentioned earlier: on the one hand, the tendency to lapse into passivity, hopelessness and automatism in the face of what may seem to be overwhelming odds stacked against a generation called to live through the collapse and dissolution of the culture into which its members have been born; on the other hand, the tendency to lookout for Number One, to adopt the attitude of everyone for him- or herself and devil take the hindmost. If these outlooks become the prevalent view and motivation of today’s teens and young adults, the resulting cynicism and opportunism will thwart their mission to raise the phoenix of a new and better America from the ashes of the old and dying one. In that case, some of today’s teens and young people will do well in government and corporate service, the two having become one and the same, but most will eke our a subsistence living, if a living at all, by working as internal migrants of the “been and gone” economy.
In any event, these reflections have in mind those teens and young adults who, due to the quality of their talents, temperaments, psychology and faculties of the soul, lack the capacity or the willingness to exploit, to their advantage, the opportunities for self-advancement at others’ expense that a disintegrating culture may have to offer; which is to say, those teens and young people who grasp intuitively that one has little choice but to hang together lest they hang separately.
Imagine the campus of a private boarding school or college. The buildings, re-possessed years ago by a financial institution that took title to and promptly forgot about them, have fallen into disrepair. They stand rotting and neglected, looking like the ruins of a bygone civilization. The landscape, too, is bereft. Weeds and brush abound where once there were teas and cotillions, attended by graduates, their dates and families. A tribe of wandering young people, smartphones and iPads a distant memory of a vanished past – the internet requires a grid; a grid calls for power; power is the provenance of those who can pay for it; those who can pay for it are few and far between – stumble upon the crumbling remains of this once thriving but now morose establishment. Having nowhere to go and little to do save scrounge for their dinner, they move in and take over the place. In time, one and then another pipes up and says, “Let’s start a school.”
A school. The notion sounds quaint. Schools were places that, in a previous age, sought to guide young people, first in assembly line fashion to prepare them for “jobs,” then in ambient ways better suited to the plasticity of their intermittent periods of uncertain employment, through the peril of adolescence to the safer harbor of adulthood. Mentors and role models in the form of “teachers” specialized in this occupation. Parents observed the process as an auxiliary of commentators, cheerleaders, critics, helpers. Some of what went on in these schools made sense; much of it didn’t. The schools went broke because their patrons and sponsors went broke. Few of these schools were self-sustaining. They grew no food. They spun no thread. They made no bricks. They chopped no wood. They were “learning environments” in which the learning consisted primarily of the acquisition of the skills needed for the manufacture of the images and the cultivation of the personal styles and professional contacts that made it possible for students and graduates to make their way in a doomed and collapsing world.
The socially perverse stage of life called “adolescence” has departed along with the schools that promoted this cultural curiosity during those intensely troubled times. The teens who now live among these vine-clustered remnants are not adolescents. Many of the young women are pregnant at the age of thirteen and fourteen as were many of their ancestors. Many of the young men have begun putting their hand to the plow at the age of eleven and twelve. These young people are taken up with matters of material survival which preoccupation, perhaps ironically, has prompted in them a conscious desire for spiritual nourishment. Having never heard the term nor been exposed to the concept, they have spontaneously, from the workings of forces within themselves, created the Sabbath, a time of rest, reflection and recuperation in lives that, as the Shakers put it, devote “hands to work and hearts to God.” Slowly, with whatever sources of help they can muster, these young people rehabilitate the careworn structures in an effort to make them, once again, a place of living and learning, the one no longer alienated from the other. As for practical skills: they need to eat, to make and wear clothes, to keep warm in winter and cool in summer. They need to become artisans and farmers, teamsters and merchants, scholars, administrators, technicians, healers. And they need to see to the well-being of the next generation. The curriculum lays the clock of discipline on the hours of daily life as a tablecloth is laid upon a table. School serves the function it always has. It socializes the young by making a time and place for the young to socialize themselves.
The day came when God was so distraught with what He saw happening down here on earth that He shouted from on high, “I know I said I wouldn’t, but I’ve changed my mind. A week from today, I’m going to send a flood to wipe you all out!”
The priest got up and called on the people to confess and partake of the sacrament.
The minister got up and called for the people to repent and return to the Lord.
Then the rabbi got up and said, “Okay, folks, we’ve got seven days to learn how to live under water.”
Photo by Einar Erici. The Parish Constable August Ländin and others at a horse and carriage on a country road at Åkeshov in Kårsta, Uppland, Sweden. Circa 1930.