The Uncivilizing Revolution of The West
Those living in a society or culture during or after a revolution are often unaware of the nature and extent of that revolution becauase it is nearly impossible to imagine what came before.
In his brilliant, "Aliens Cause Global Warming," lecture to the California Institute of Technology, though his purpose was to demonstrate the impossibility of predicting even the near future, Michael Crichton demonstrates the radical changes that have occurred since 1900 that can only be described as a revolution. For example, the main means of transportation in 1900 was horses, but in a few years, nobody was riding horses. In 1900 no one had ever heard of atomic energy. "Remember, people in 1900 didn't know what an atom was. They didn't know its structure. They also didn't know what a radio was, or an airport, or a movie, or a television, or a computer, or a cell phone, or a jet, an antibiotic, a rocket, a satellite, an MRI, ICU, IUD, IBM, IRA, ERA, EEG, EPA, IRS, DOD, PCP, HTML, internet, interferon, instant replay, remote sensing, remote control, speed dialing, gene therapy, gene splicing, genes, spot welding, heat-seeking, bipolar, prozac, leotards, lap dancing, email, tape recorder, CDs, airbags, plastic explosive, plastic, robots, cars, liposuction, transduction, superconduction, dish antennas, step aerobics, smoothies, twelve-step, ultrasound, nylon, rayon, teflon, fiber optics, carpal tunnel, laser surgery, laparoscopy, corneal transplant, kidney transplant, [or] AIDS...."
If it were possible to bring someone from the nineteenth century to the world of today, it would be totally incomprehensible to them. The differences in the two periods (1900s vs 2000s) as described by Michael Crichton are primarily scientific and technological. If you could bring someone from the 1950s into today's world, they also would not recognize it; they would, in fact, be horrified. There is no doubt in my mind, that if they believed in Hell, they would be convinced that is where they had landed. Some of the difference between the 50s and today are scientific and technological, but the primary differences, the ones that would scandalize the visitor from the fifties are cultural and social, because what they would be seeing is a society that is losing the last vestiges of Western Civilization.
[This writer did live to see the 50s, and is horrified by the recognition of what the world has become and saddened that so few can see it.]
What Is Western Civilization?
Western Civilization was the culmination of a long process, the roots of which can be traced back to the Greeks, in the areas of philosophy, politics, the sciences (particularly mathematics), and arts as well as to Judeo-Christian influences, particularly the emphasis on reason, absolutes (inviolable objective facts), values, individualism and independence. The civilizing process began in earnest with that period roughly spanning the 14th through the 17th centuries called the renaissance, particularly its revival of learning and advancements of science, and culminated in the 18th century enlightenment and, the so-called, scientific revolution.
While historians describe the enightenment in terms of the philosophy, science, and technological developments of this period, they are not themselves the "civilizing" process that led to Western Civilization. Philosophy was certainly a necessary contributor to that process, and science and technology were consequences of it, but the civilizing process, itself is best illustrated by its consequences expressed in terms of the dominant views of the society and culture it had produced. Those views include the following:
1. The certainty of an objective reality, whether that reality consisted only of the "natural" (visible, physical) world or included the "supernatural" (invisible, non-physical), it's existence and its nature is absolute and independent of mans knowledge or consciousness of it.
2. The recognition that reality, and all its parts, including man, have specific natures, and whether one believes those natures are determined by God, or simply are, those natures are absolute. To live in this world successfully and happily one must discover what those natures are and live and choose accordingly. To the secular, defying reality means certain disaster; to the religious, defying reality (sin) means Devine retribution. In either case, it is reality that is the final arbiter of right and wrong choices.
3. The conviction that man is endowed with the faculty for discovering and knowing the nature of reality, his mind, and that his mind is capable of that discovery. Whether that knowledge is knowledge of the physical (science), or abstract principles (philosophy) or understanding what has been "revealed," (theology) man's only faculty for apprehending that knowledge is his mind, and the only process by which that knowlege is apprehended is reason, the formalization of which is logic. The fundamental rule of logic is: there are no contradictions. Nothing can both be and not be, no proposition can be both true and not true, no choice is both right and wrong, no act is both good and bad.
4. The belief in individaul responsibility based on the fact that men must live by conscious choice (volition), and that their choices, for better or worse, must be based on their own knowledge, because minds exist one to a person. Men can learn the truth on their own, indivdiually, but most men learn from others. However one acquires it, each individual still must choose based on his own knowledge, enjoying the rewards of his right choices and actions, or bearing the consequences of his wrong ones.
5. The necessity of individual liberty, because an individual can only be responsible for his choices if he is free to make them, and only if he his free to learn from the consequences of those choices, good or bad. It means an individual owns his own life, because he either owns it completely, or to some extent is a slave, and slaves are not free to choose. It means he must be free to think whatever he chooses, because thinking is his means of making the judgements necessary to choose. It means he must be free to express what he thinks, because one cannot think freely if constantly on guard about everything one expresses. That's called freedom of speech and press. It means he must be free to keep and use the product of his efforts because it is an extension of himself, and one cannot learn from the consequences of one's choices if someone else is in charge of them. That's called property rights.
6. The certainty that the purpose of one's life is to live and enoy it, not to suffer and die. Living as a human being is not avoidance of pain and suffering, but the pursuit of happiness and the achievement of joy.
It is difficult to imagine that these views were dominant in 19th century Europe, because the writers of that period did not express these views explicitly—they are implied, however, in the spirit of the age. In fact, it was only in America these views were explicity expressed and fully dominanted culture and society, which is exactly why the United States became the freeest and most properous nation in the history of the world. For most people today it is difficult to realize, for most Americans in the 50s, these views were implicitly, if not explicitly, the dominant views as well.
Post Western Civiliztion
An exact beginning of Western Civilization is difficult to identify because it was the result of centuries of influences that brought those views and concepts just described to dominance; the end, however, can be identified precisely, as well as the processes that lead to that end. Until very early in the 20th century, in spite of threats to it eminating from European academia and certain "intellectual circles," especially the European philosophy that followed in the wake of Hume, the civilizing process continued until it was brought to an abrupt halt by the two world wars. Civilization has been in decline ever since, and all but ended, even in America, by the end of the 60s.
In her description of the "spirit" [which she called "sense of life"] of that age near the beggining of Western civilization's decline, Ayn Rand wrote:
"As a child, I saw a glimpse of the pre-World War I world, the last afterglow of the most radiant cultural atmosphere in human history .... If one has glimpsed ... that kind of culture—one is unable to be satisfied with anything less.
"I must emphasize that I am not speaking of concretes, nor of politics, nor of journalistic trivia, but of that period's "sense of life." Its art projected an overwhelming sense of intellectual freedom, of depth, i.e., concern with fundamental problems, of demanding standards, of inexhaustible original, of unlimited possibilities and, above all, of profound respect for man. The existential atmosphere (which was then being destroyed by Europe's philosophical trends and political systems) still held a benevolence that would be incredible to the men of today, i.e., a smiling, confident good will of man to man, and of man to life.
"It has been said and written by many commentators that the atmosphere of the Western world before World War I is incommunicable to those who have not lived in that period. I used to wonder how men could say it, know it, yet give it up—until I observed more closely the men of my own and the preceding generations. They had given it up and, along with it, they had given up everything that makes life worth living: conviction, purpose, values, future."
[The Romantic Manifesto, "Introduction"]
Civilization's Last Gasp
The civilizing process never reached the levels in Europe it did in The United States, and it's decline in Europe was much earlier and more rapid than in the US. In spite of the decline in the US, resulting largely from the disillusionment of the depression and the demoralization of two world wars, from 1940 onward, the principles and ideas of Western Civilization remained the dominant implicit view of most Americans, even if in explicit terms, those principles were not always held consistently; nevertheless, the power of those idea caused something quite remarkable in American history which I can only describe as a mini-renasience, lasting a single decade known as the 50s.
In the same way, "the atmosphere of the Western world before World War I is incommunicable to those who have not lived in that period," as described by Rand, the grandeur of the cultural and social hights reached in the 50s is incommunicable to anyone who did not live through those years. Even more significant is the fact that the differences between the fifties and today which is the difference between a civilized people and a uncivilized mob, is impossible to describe. Nevertheless, it is what I am attempting to do in this article, a task made much harder by the fact that those who hate Western Civilization have done everything possible to obfuscate the true nature of the 50s.
For example, in her disgusting article, "The American Family" published in the November 1999 issue of Life Magazine, Stephanie Coontz mixes distortions, misleading statistics, and outright lies to provide a completely distorted picture of the 50s.
She starts off by correctly noting, "in the 1950s, for the first time in 100 years, the divorce rate fell while marriage and fertility rates soared, creating a boom in nuclear-family living," and, "For the first time, a majority of men could support a family and buy a home without pooling their earnings with those of other family members. Many Americans built a stable family life on these foundations." But then she writes, "The superficial sameness of 1950s family life was achieved through censorship, coercion and discrimination. People with unconventional beliefs faced governmental investigation and arbitrary firings."
This is a total misrepresentation. One would have been hard-pressed in the fifties to find two families that were the "same." It's true, they shared many of the same basic values and traits of character that made the fifties what they were, but if there was anything that characterized the fifties, that is almost never mentioned, it was individuality. No one in the fifties felt compelled to do anything because someone else was doing it, and there were as many variations in what families did as there were families.
Much of what is called "censorship" in the fifties was actually the individual choice of consumers, or the decision of private institutions about what they would publish or broadcast, and whatever censorship there was, it was mild compared to today's oppressive restrictions on speech and press in public schools, universities, and government facilities, as well as the media in general, which forbids all manner of "politically incorrect" speech. The accusations of coercion and descrimination are simply fictions.
The people with "unconventional beliefs," happened to be communist spies. And this, "... poverty remained more widespread than in the worst of our last three recessions. More children went hungry, and poverty rates for the elderly were more than twice as high as today's," is an outright lie. No children starved in America in the fifties, and "poor," meant, you drove a second-hand car and did not have a TV.
Why would anyone tell such lies? In the case of Stephanie Coontz it's because she's a Marxist, and to this day, "is listed as an 'advisory editor' of Against the Current, a bimonthly theoretical journal of the Marxist-Socialist organization Solidarity." She writes her lies because she hates all that period in America's history represents, an age dominated by individuals who had convictions, purpose, values, a belief in the future and the certainty, "anything was possible," and that life was worth living.
Everything was not perfect in the 50s. Individual liberty was not what it was at the end of the 1900s; the Roosevelt "new deal" (1933 to 1945) and the, "Prussian education system," since the 20's, had done their damage. These, together with many homegrown socialists who received their educations in Europe during the 1800s, the influence of leftist ideas brought to this country between the world wars by such men as Wilhelm Reich (1939), Erich Fromm (1934), and Herbert Marcuse (1933) and others of the Frankfurt school was beginning to dominate the universities (such as Columbia University, Harvard, Brandeis, and the University of California, San Diego), as well as the media, and Hollywood, which they still greatly influence.
Nevertheless, the 50s represented the high point of Western Civilization in the US during the 20th century. We'll examine that twentieth century heigth of civilization by seeing the kind of people that comprised that society in the next article in this series.