by Jay Johansen | Dec 23, 2016
I used to wonder how civilizations die.
Oh, sometimes a small civilization is destroyed by the armies of a bigger and more powerful civilization. There's not much mystery there.
But how do great and powerful civilizations die? What happened to the Roman Empire? To the Spanish Empire? To the British Empire? It's no answer then to say that they were beaten by enemy armies. How did they get weak enough to be beaten?
But over these past twenty years or so in America, I have seen it happen before my eyes. When I was a boy, America put men on the Moon. I remember my friends and I talking excitedly about what the next step would be. Would we build a permanent base on the Moon? Build huge space stations where thousands of people would live and work? Travel to Mars? It was often said that the Moon landings were like Columbus's first trip to America. It would quickly be followed by more expeditions and colonization. None of us guessed that the next step would be ... nothing.
I now realize that Columbus was the wrong analogy. When Spain sponsored Columbus expedition to America, they were an empire on the rise. They had just driven the Muslims out of Spain and unified the country. They were a growing and dynamic empire. America's trips to the Moon were more like the Viking's trips to America. The Vikings discovered America over 400 years before Columbus. They sent a few expeditions, and then abandoned the effort. The problem was that the Vikings discovered America when their civilization was starting downhill. They were struggling to keep their colonies in Greenland alive. They had no spare energy to start new colonies in America. The Viking discovery of America was the last hurrah of a dying culture.
How do civilizations die?
Government shifts from statesmen to demagogues. When liberals win an election, they move the country fast and far to the left. When conservatives win an election, they move the country to the left more slowly. Government always grows. Freedom always shrinks. They keep up the forms of the Constitution, but gut the substance. Judges and bureaucrats make laws. Limits on the power of government are ignored. In Rome, they still had a Senate for centuries after the emperors had made it irrelevant. In America, our Congress is fast becoming irrelevant as the courts rule from the bench.
The military may still be strung, but they are hamstrung by political considerations. America lost the Vietnam War, not because we didn't have the raw military power to win, but because politicians put so many restrictions on our trips ability to fight. Today we are not even allowed to say that the enemy are Muslim terrorists. We are required to pretend that we don't know who attacked us or why.
The media used to pride themselves on vigorous, open debate. In the past, some media outlets would boast of their fairness and objectivity. Others would be openly partisan, but they did not try to deceive their readers. They said they were presenting the case for X and they presented it as best they could, but honestly. To be caught in a lie was a shameful thing that discredited your newspaper for a long time. Today, our media wring their hands over how they can continue to lie to the people when the Internet makes it so easy for people to hear the truth. They debate how to shut down "fake news", i.e. anyone who disagrees with them. I've had several conversations about "fake news" with liberals where I've said that it is better for people to hear all sides of a question and let them sort out truth and lies for themselves, and the liberals have consistently replied that many people are unable to distinguish the truth from the lies, so we need a "gatekeeper" to protect them. I've heard many people say that the other networks consider Fox News to be "a joke". I don't doubt that that's absolutely true. One network fails to preach the party line, and instead of the others saying, "Isn't it great that there a diversity of views out there to keep us all honest", they ridicule and attack them.
The schools shift from teaching children science and math and history to teaching them the approved view on political questions. When I was in school in the 1970s, I could see that science classes were shifting from teaching the scientific method and how scientists discover the laws of physics and chemistry, to political lectures about how we need to protect the environment. History classes were shifting from teaching the facts of what happened in the past to political lectures on the evils of capitalism and how ashamed America should be of racism and sexism. When my children were in school (my youngest graduated three years ago), the schools were still going strong on the wonders of socialism, and had added considerable time and effort to teaching that homosexuality is perfectly okay, and that guns are so evil that even drawing a picture of a gun is cause for disciplinary action.
Our scientific institutions used to be devoted to learning the laws of nature. But performing experiments and analyzing the results is difficult and expensive. Today it's much simpler. The Democrat Party decides what scientific theories would be most useful to them politicially. They issue a press release stating thei6r conclusions. Then anyone who questions these theories finds himself unable to get research grants or get published in many scientific journals. Science has shifted from "facts that can be demonstrated by experiment and observation" to "facts that cannot be questioned because an organization with the word 'science' in its name said so". Most recently they're talking about making it a crime to disagree with the government-approved theories. Perhaps it started when the government banished any questioning of evolution from the classroom. Now that that battle is won, they are seeking to impose huge fines on companies that questioned global warming. Perhaps Galileo's old cell is available.
Divorce has become increasingly common. More and more couples are living together without benefit of marriage. And while they often say things like, "we don't need a piece of paper to prove our commitment to each other", in fact many of them separate at the drop of a hat. In the 1950s, about 20% of black children were born to single mothers. Today it is 70%. The role of parents is being taken over by daycare centers and preschools. Our culture denigrates the role of father. TV commercials regularly portray men as bumbling idiots who can only survive because their wives bail them out. We debate whether it should be a crime to discipline your children, and then we are surprised when children grow up to be undisciplined.
Perhaps it all started with our churches. When I was a boy many churches decided that the way to reach people was to soften the message. People might be turned off if you talked about God's laws and sin and Hell. Better to just talk vaguely about love and happiness. Who could disagree with that? The catch, of course, was that if you are so bland that you offend no one, you will also excite no one. In the effort to make themselves inoffensive, they made themselves irrelevant.
I think many were frightened when atheists claimed that "science" had proven the Bible wrong. Would their faith stand up to scrutiny? So instead of examing the facts and either defending the Bible or honestly rejecting it, they decided to "re-interpret" it to match whatever the trendy ideas of the day happened to be. They declared that whenever the Bible talked about something that you could actually test, when it talked about history or touched on science, this should not be taken literally or authoritatively. It didn't matter if the Bible was wrong on these subjects. But when the Bible talked about spiritual things, like morals and the supernatural, then it was authoritative. The catch to that, of course, is, If this book is not reliable when it talks about things that I can actually test, why should I believe it when it talks about things I can't test?
They changed doctrine to suit the latest opinion poll. A majority don't like the prohibition on women preachers? Let's toss that out. Today it's considered intolerant to condemn homosexuality? Let's be more flexible on that. Etc. Instead of the Church evangelizing the world, the world evangelized the Church.
Is there hope? Of course, there's always hope. Maybe the new administration will help to turn things around. Maybe not; maybe they will fail miserably. But even at best, government cannot do it alone. Almost every institution in our society needs to be reformed.
I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die. Revelation 3:2
© 2016 by Jay Johansen