by Jay Johansen | Feb 17, 2020
I used to wonder how civilizations die.
Oh, there are some obvious cases.
A small enough civilization could be wiped out by a natural disaster, like a volcano or a tsunami. There's not much people can do to control such things, even today. But this seems pretty rare. Minoan Crete was wiped out by a volcano. That's the only historical example I can think of. Not that there haven't been terrible disasters that killed large numbers of people, but they don't destroy whole civilizations.
A small civilization could be conquered or wiped out by a militarily powerful neighbor. Superior art and literature aren't going to stop an invading army. Even if the people have superior technology that includes military technology, at some point they can be overwhelmed by superior numbers.
But there have been plenty of cases of civilizations being destroyed more from within than from without. Even if the final blow was dealt by an invading army, how they got to a state where this invading army was able to defeat them? Westerners typically think of the Roman Empire. But there have been many empires throughout history that have risen to great heights and then decayed and died: Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, China (several cycles), Spain, Britain.
So okay, it's easy to see how politics can be corrupted. Some demagogue comes along who persuades people that they have to give him dictatorial powers to fight some real or imagined enemy, and people fall for it.
But how is it that science and technology are sometimes seen to go backwards? You'd think that once a fact is learned, it would be easy to retain it. You write it down somewhere and now anyone who wants to know can look it up. Maybe you need to make a bunch of copies so that one fire doesn't destroy the only copy, but that's about it. Right?
But now I look at 21st century America, and I see exactly how civilizations fall.
Our institutions are being corrupted one by one.
The news media used to be about, well, spreading news, telling people what was happening around the corner and around the world. Now it's mostly about spreading propaganda to support their favorite politicians and tear down opponents.
Education used to be about teaching children reading and math and science and history. Now it's mostly about teaching children the correct (i.e. liberal) position on controversial social questions.
Science used to be about the scientific method, gaining knowledge through experimentation and observation. Now it's mostly about organizations with the word "science" in the name issuing a press release that supports a political or social viewpoint. And if you ask for experimental evidence to back up their claims, you're labeled "anti-science". Real science means blindly believing what the self-proclaimed experts tell you.
The arts used to be about creating works of skill and beauty. Or when an artist wanted to expose ugliness, he created a work that graphically showed that ugliness. Today we praise as "great art" insipid works that any 10 year old could reproduce in 5 minutes.
Churches used to proclaim the word of God. Now many see their mission as saying "me too" to the latest opinion poll. Because God forbid that we should offend anyone by calling sin "sin". (Irony intended.) The church no longer evangelizes the world. Now the world evangelizes the church.
I was in elementary school when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon. I remember my friends and I excitedly talking about what our country would do next. Would we build a permanent base on the Moon? Build a space station? Go to Mars? None of my friends suggested that what we would do next was come home and forget the whole thing. We all thought that it was like Columbus discovering the New World. Of course this would be followed by further exploration and colonization.
But Columbus was the wrong analogy. America's first trip to the Moon wasn't like Spain's first trip to America. It was more like the Viking discovery of Vinland. The Vikings discovered America about AD 1000, 500 years before the Spanish. But while Spanish civilization, for all its flaws, was dynamic and growing and thriving, Viking civilization was dying. The discovery of Vinland was the last great achievement of a civilization in decline. They sent a couple of expeditions to America ... and then they went home and never returned. The Vikings who discovered America sailed from Greenland. And as an outpost of Viking civilization, the Greenland colony was struggling to survive. They didn't have the energy to maintain the population and economy of Greenland, never mind try to expand into the Americas. Much like the US today is struggling to hold our society together. We don't have the energy to expand.
Once when my daughter was little she and I saw something on television about the Lunar Module, the vehicle that actually landed on the Moon, and I mentioned that my father had helped to build it. (Actually he was quality control inspector, but that seemed a bit much to explain at her age.) For many years after that she referred to the Lunar Module as "grandpa's spaceship". She asked me if people were still traveling to the Moon now. I said no. She asked why not. I said, "Because today we're too busy fighting crime and drug addiction to have the energy to go to the Moon any more."
When Rome was in its final days, were the people all frantically trying to find a way to save the country, and just nothing worked? Or did they go around complacently saying, "Oh come now, everything is fine"? I wonder if Romans were saying, "So big deal, we withdrew from Britain. That province was never worth anything anyway. It was a smart move. We weren't chased out, we sold off a bad investment. And so what if the emperor likes to molest little boys? What he does in the privacy of his own palace is no one else's business. Really, the empire is as strong as it ever was!" Etc.
Because there are plenty of people today saying that America's decline is progress. People praise the media for censoring ideas they don't want to hear, saying this is necessary to protect the public from being confused. They celebrate Sin Pride Days. They pass laws penalizing anyone who refuses to go along with the moral decline.
I'm writing this in 2020. Last year some of us celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. In 1969 America's proudest achievement was that we put a man on the Moon. In 2019 America's proudest achievement was that we put a man in the girls locker room.
Is there any hope? Of course. We could still pull back from the brink. We could reform and rebuild our institutions. But the problem is that they don't want to be reformed. Repairing them will require fighting the people who control them tooth and nail.
© 2020 by Jay Johansen
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