Pundits on the right and left agree that civilization is a perilous state of decline, although they disagree about why.
* A permissive, hedonistic culture has led to pervasive moral degradation, irresponsibility, and the collapse of traditional family values
* Rampant destruction of the earth’s resources is leading to imminent collapse of the planet’s ability to sustain civilization
In The Idea of Decline in Western History, Arthur Herman traces three hundred years of history of the idea that Western civilization is on the verge of collapse.
In the decades after Darwin, for example, there was an influential school of thought that argued that human evolution had reached its peak and was now in decline — the human species was degenerating to a bestial state. These ideas influenced the Nazis and their forebears on the far right, who believed that the white race was in decline. In a fascinating chapter, the author explains how WEB du Bois, educated in the German university system, developed inverse theories of the superiority of dark-colored races.
Herman cites critics predicting the doom of capitalism on right and left. In the late 19th century, Henry and Brooks Adams argued an arch-conservative case that rampant capitalism was leading to a decline of the aristocratic tradition in American leadership. Brooks Adams contended that American imperialism was the solution to the decline. Karl Marx and his followers, of course, argued that capitalism was about the exploitation of the masses by the economic elite, and predicted the inevitable replacement of capitalism by a worker’s paradise.
Apocalyptic stories often have more in common with each other than they do with the situation at hand. The similarities among the tales of apocalypse invoke a healthy skepticism about today’s purveyors of doom in its various flavors.
I like apocalpytic sci-fi, of the strain including Canticle for Liebowitz, Brazil, 12 Monkeys. The nightmare world in these genres has an cathartic emotional appeal, and they cast an revealing perspective on whatever ominous tendencies lurk in contemporary society.
On the other hand, sometimes the paranoid are right. I recently a Holocaust memoir for a book club. The narrator’s mother had paranoid tendencies all her life. This paranoia saved the lives of mother and daughter when real-life villains were actually attempting to murder them.
In the book, Herman examines the idea of decline, and doesn’t consider whether the paranoid might actually be right sometimes. He doesn’t make distinctions between worries that have been discredited — the rise of a criminal class based on skull measurements by phrenologists — and anxieties that proved prescient — thinkers who forecast the decline of European colonialism — and those who worried about the dangers of 20th century military technology prior to World War 1.
The gloomiest forecasts of 1970s environmentalists haven’t come to pass, but that doesn’t mean that we should ignore global warming and massive declines in fish populations today. The threats to civil liberties posed by the Patriot Act might recede — just as the US recovered from the Alien and Sedition Acts in the early 19th century, and the internship of the Japanese in World War 2. The outcome isn’t inevitable.
The book changes the way one looks at today’s prophesies of doom, but not enough to cheerfully ignore them.