WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENED
In an acute essay, Spengler, the essay writer at ‘Asia Times’,* reflects on the differences between Chinese and American (hence Western) culture nowadays.
Using the phenomenon of Susan Boyle as his touch-point, he assesses that type of Western phenomenon in which a not-particularly-talented but nice enough person (she is a middle-aged woman from very modest circumstances) is suddenly ‘raised up’. That term is my own; I use it in full awareness that it comes freighted with Biblical density: the golden idols, the golden serpent, and Christ were all ‘raised up’ – Christ, in fact, twice in one weekend: on the Cross and then from the Tomb.
“There is an undercurrent of self-worship in the aptly-named ‘American Idol’ and its British knock-off which raised Boyle to stardom.” The Seventies ‘Me’ generation, distinct from the Boomers in their teen-Sixties, have somehow wound up merely self-worshipping, and brought their young along with them.
Spengler recalls one of his own insights of several years ago that “at some time during the 20th century, the people of the West elected to identify with what is like them, rather than emulate what is above them”.
Reaching for a Beyond – even more than an ‘above’ – is vital to genuine human development (let’s not go with ‘fulfillment’ – too freighted, and not in a good sense). This existence, to any perceptive human being, is simply wayyy too complex to face it on your own; to stare into the maw of existence, cavernous and frightening, will do baaad things to a human being.
You might wind up like staring into the flames and then jumping in, or chasing the thing all over the world until it turns on you, or hoping you can manipulate some angels or devils to smooth your path, or just standing up and saying either that you’ll do it on your own until you die or that nothing matters much anyway so partay away. That might seem like a lot of options, but … not really.
And it reminds me of something that John Maynard Keynes asked about his countrymen in the Fifties: how did the Brits manage to go, in the space of one generation, from being “Romans” to being “Italians”?
I think the answer to that question lies to great extent in the Brits’ exertions of the previous decades: World War 1 and its massive losses, the Depression and its pervasive deprivations, the Second World War with its monstrous demands as well as its acute self-denial (rationing, ‘going without’ for the sake of the troops, ‘making do’ with all manner of cheap substitutes), all the while holding themselves together as productive adults by ‘doing your bit’, under the added life-wracking threats of not only personal deprivation but also the risk of personal death and national destruction.
If you were born in Great Britain about 1900, it’s a sure bet that by the age of 50 you’d have had a history-book-full of experiences grappling with ‘History’, trying to hold your self and your life and your loved ones and your society and culture together by ‘doing your bit’; that’s enough challenge, romance, adventure, and existential exertion for anybody in a single lifetime. It’s no wonder that they dispensed with Churchill** as soon as possible, and voted in Labour, in the hopes that now their government and perhaps History would do something for them, instead of the other way around.
After all, they had mused, look at the Americans: ruddy, optimistic, well-provided-for, and annoyingly cocky and self-assured in that ‘young’ and sort of thoughtless American way. They sort of felt that they were owed, and that feeling is hardly irrational, given what they had been through.
But they also felt that none of the ‘old ways’, the ‘old virtues’, had really made their lives much better, compared – certainly – to the Americans, who seemed to have it all, and effortlessly so.
The big problem, however, was that while the British people had a definitely justified right to feel that they should be given a few nice things, Great Britain was financially exhausted and the Empire – especially as regards India, lynchpin of Britain’s world-class wealth – was breaking apart. The government was in no shape to provide for its citizens on the American scale.
(Rationing, started in the early war years, lasted into the 1950s).
But while the Brits started to see themselves as being 'owed', which started them down the road to the bread-and-circuses mobs of the later Roman Empire (and hence towards Keynes's "Italians") they never saw themselves as "victims".
That self-assumed identity didn't really catch on until the 1990s in America, where suddenly you a) were convinced that you had been done-wrong, b) were helpless in the grip of your pain and your outrage, and c) needed the government (prodded by 'your' particular Advocacy lobbyists) to do something to make the pain go away.
Suddenly, simply feeling pain and outrage became - oy - an 'achievement', a day's work, a life identity with its own 'meaning' and 'purpose'. It held great promise of 15 minutes of 'fame', which was probably more than you were going to get any other way in your life. Fifteen minutes - for far too many folks that seemed like a good-enough trade-off for the abandonment of any larger purpose and meaning. Anyway, all those 'abstract' words were just socially-constructed tools of oppression, so what else, really, was left?
And that became a wildfire mind-game that left "Italians" in the dust.
A solid point could be made that the Brits, by virtue – as it were – of their virtues, were in 1945 a far more mature people than the Americans who were dizzy if not also drowning in their material wealth and success. There are layers to human existence, as there are to the human self, and to have a solid operational competence in those higher, less material realms of existing, is a real achievement that no amount of cash can ever purchase.
But it’s a hard case to make in the best of times; We are, after all, a young species and still developing, and it’s a hefty leap into the warp-drive spaces of multi-level maturity; the astounding frontal-lobes capability is the most recent major development in humans, and it hasn’t quite been reliably mastered yet. In its way, it’s the difference between playing checkers and playing Spock’s Vulcan chess with its multiple stacked boards. It’s not yet a widely-achieved or popular skill, with its unremitting requirement for self-awareness, seriousness, self-application, patience, and careful, consequential thinking processes. Living so as to always enhance one’s capabilities, living as it were in the frontal-lobes rather than in one’s more primal brainparts, is a full-time task as demanding as sailing a balky ship on the high seas.
If anything, most of the Brits would have settled for a good game of checkers after a decent meal and a good pint and a smoke or a favorite show on the telly.
And that’s understandable, surely.
The Americans faced no such ominous shadows. They came out of the war in a hell of a lot better shape than when they started, and since the rest of the developed world was seriously damaged and exhausted, the Americans were doubly Number One.
But the American citizenry still felt they needed some peace and quiet, and some cashing in to make up for their own exertions during the war. Throughout the Fifties they basked in steady employment, good enough wages, an expanding economy, and a level of convenience – other peoples would call it luxury – that 50 years before was accessible only to the rich.
It was their kids – the Boomers – who grew up simultaneously pampered and bored, and they didn’t even know it. Excitement for them came in the form of being Hippies, the youth-ish adventure of not-conforming, rendered even more attractive to their teen-y selves by the fact that one consequence of not-conforming was the eradication of constraints, internal as well as external. You could tune-out, or you could give yourself to a big corporation … but either way you didn’t have to let yourself be ‘hemmed in’. Make love or make money, but do it without having to feel like you were in harness, like you were fenced-in, like you were nailed to some ‘structure’ that would keep you from ‘just being yourself’.
And then when the spirit of ‘revolution’ swept the developed world in the dizzying mid-Sixties and later, it offered the best shot for those who wanted to make a mark on the world without all the humdrum of a job; the more direct route to seeing yourself make a bang was ‘revolution’ and there were several available.
Impatience and purist intolerance of half-way measures became ‘virtues’ (though they would never be called that) and free rein was given both to the giddy rush of the ‘high’ and to ‘revolutionary zeal’ – there were no fences or trellises, internal or external, to slow or shape them.
The ‘freedom’ of ‘feelings’ attracted both Hippies interested in endless summer afternoons and revolutionaries who sought their own assorted versions of ‘better things’. It fueled them both.
The Brits just wanted a break; the Boomers wanted to break things (yes, some to get more better goodies and some to build on the broken ruins a ‘better world’).
But one way or the other, the West arrived at a place where ‘structures’ were considered oppressive; but I think that the great danger there was in rather thoughtlessly assuming that interior self-structure is as oppressive as assorted micro or macro structures external to the human being. That’s the equivalent of taking your ship apart to make it ‘less rigid’ even as you are sailing on a deep and unruly sea; whether you are on a pleasure cruise or a ‘mission’, taking apart your vessel’s structural members is a project highly ill-advised. The ocean will swallow your weakened vessel, no matter how good the intentions with which you deconstructed its vital shape.
But ‘feelings’ reigned, and a successful and surfeited West could afford to laugh at oceans and their dark, feral mysteries. We would be ‘sensitive’, and that – plus being ‘open’ to anything the Beltway pushed Our way – would constitute Our great progress and achievement. The sterner virtues of character and self-mastery were simply dingy and malicious oppressive tools of ‘the Industrial Age’ (which for those who have joined Us recently happened before the presidency of Ronald Reagan but after the resurrection of Christ, more or less). O brave new world!
“Churlish resentment of high culture comes from the slacker’s desire for reward with neither merit nor effort: the sort of artistic skill that requires years of discipline and sacrifice is a reproach to the indolence of the popular audience of the West.” Yes, that’s part of it. But it wasn’t just slacker-churlishness. There was the immature youth-y assumption that all that effort and discipline was just a form of confining ‘structure’ from which the Spring-like natural goodness of ‘life’ had to be liberated, in individuals and in societies; and there was the impatient revolutionary zeal that saw any discipline except the destructive purposefulness of revolutionary ‘progress’ as simply a form of obstructionist ‘bourgeois’ conformity to oppression.
The idea that culture and society was the achievement of ‘art’, that maintaining a certain level of civilization was an art-form, went overboard. To Hippie-slacker and revolutionary alike, it was all just ‘oppression’. And ‘liberation’ through getting ‘free’ of all that was the only way to go. Being a Citizen, then, was merely a form of cooperating with ‘oppressive structure’.
Further, the idea that the ‘self’ was a work of art, and that mastering the self was itself an art-form, also went overboard. The ‘self’ was just naturally ‘there’, and all you had to do was ‘let it all hang out’ and all would be well for you and – if you were thinking that big – for your world. Although, then, your ‘world’ had shrunk to whatever it was that you ‘liked’, and the rest faded off into a dim haze.
You can’t go very far in that direction before you get into some very dark woods, some very heavy and ominous seas. And things – and selves – will start to come apart.
“The fantasy life of nations has consequences in the real world.” Yes, and of individuals too. And the worst is that you lose the ability, which youthful immaturity doesn’t have to begin with, of distinguishing between your fantasies and any ‘reality’ out there, beyond your fantasies. (Can you say War in Iraq?)
Fantasies unanchored in reality will only be greeted as liberators for a while; after that they are revealed as lethal illusions. (And again: can you say War in Iraq?)
And into this morass of ‘feelings’ the people of the West sank. Whether in pursuit of the ultimate ‘high’, or in pursuit of fantasied or well-intentioned ‘progress’, ‘feelings’ fueled an unthinking Flattening of human life; the Beyond and its ability to nurture working ‘structure’ – however imperfectly realized – in self and society was lost. Tossed overboard, actually, by ‘slackers’ and ‘revolutionaries’ alike.
The Me-generation sank into its own desires and hopes. The revolutionaries sought to remove any impediments to its ‘progress’ that might be posed by – thanks to the Ideological Feminists – ‘thinking’, ‘tradition’, ‘discipline’, ‘mastery’, ‘excellence’, or any of a hundred other achievements of the West or – for that matter – any of the world’s great civilizations.
The Chinese, Spengler notes, aren’t going that route. They have seen enough of the world’s and life’s lethalities to understand that personal mastery and achievement in excellence, purchased through parentally-supported self-application and practice, are the only reliable paths to any realistic hope of conducting a life in this Vale of Tears (my phrase, and not one the Chinese culture would use).
It’s amazing – though not a point that Spengler makes – that despite Mao’s decades of ruthless and brutal destruction of any ‘traditional’ Chinese culture or philosophy, yet the Chinese have recovered the nub of their own civilizational roots (although incorporating some Western elements as well). I doubt that the decades of revolutionary wrack imposed by Mao and his ‘visions’ will fail to inflict further consequences on their efforts, but they’re on the Long March to mastery and achievement. That’s a ‘long war’ – if you will – that’s going to pay off bigtime.
They are living to achieve, not simply to survive or to ‘enjoy’. Nor are they going to allow themselves to be corralled into the soup-rabbit pen of believing in some fantasy that if you just ‘feel’ strongly enough then you will be ‘OK’.
Nor are they going to allow themselves the fantasy of believing that ‘feeling’ is itself a substantive and significant achievement. They aren’t going to equate mere ‘feeling’ with ‘living’; that’s only true of the more primitive brainparts. Their concept of ‘living’ and of being human is a lot more capacious than the Flattened, shrunken facsimile that is currently being touted over here.
What only Bobby-soxers and Beatles fans did on the streets outside theaters and auditoriums in the Forties, Fifties, and early Sixties, is what far too many people in the West do now, and consider it a successful day’s work. Indeed, trying to feel-good-about-yourself is now a full-time chore for a lot of folks.
Spengler raises the example of the British ‘rust-belt’ town of Blackburn in Scotland’s West Lothian. “There is life after economic death, but it is not pleasant … On Friday and Saturday night besotted boys and girls in extreme states … riot through whole quarters of ruined industrial towns … A good deal of Britain’s working class is unemployable at any price, too lazy to move to London to take jobs waiting tables or driving buses”.
The unemployability of children raised to believe that their ‘feelings’ alone are important, especially the ‘feeling’ that they are ‘oppressed’, ‘owed’, and – somehow – generally victimized, is probably more relevant here in the States than anybody really wants to think about.
The ‘slackers’ of the ‘90s were canaries in the mine, and doubly so: they had no interior structure or trellis – let alone Trellis – upon which a self and a life could be built and conducted; they had never been required by their parents or society to develop anything like that. But then too there actually were no longer any guarantees that the nation’s economy could provide even the semblance of reliable and even modestly remunerative work.
And perhaps, besotted by a too-limited diet of movies about winsome slacker kids in their 20s and 30s and video games with their ephemeral but ‘exciting’ successes, many cohorts of the young simply feel that ‘work is too ‘boring’, that anything less than the life they see on the screen (a fantasy too easily mistaken for reality) is distasteful and less ‘real’; they’ll wait until they get what they want – or until it comes to them, like Noah’s dove returned to him, only without having to do all that building the ark and getting laughed at and loading all the animals up and facing the mother of all floods. They’ll wait.
Wait for … Godot? What will be coming along? A ‘discovery’ by ‘talent’-hunters for ‘American Idol’? Or by an all-saving professional sports talent-scout? Or any of half a hundred mythical saviors who will write the checks that will provide the life they’ve seen on the screen and have assumed is the birth-right of every American or Western ‘kid’?
Meanwhile they ‘wait’, absorbed in texting vacuously to each other, spending their time and energy getting excited about the lives – or brief 15 minutes – of others or about the latest new this or that which they either have to have immediately or endure the reproach and self-reproach of being not-cool. And there are now cohorts of chronological adults with the same constricted sense of life.
It has turned into a Flattened existence in the West, regardless of how well-intentioned the dark paths that have led to it. We might all say with Chester A. Riley: “What a revoltin’ development dis turned out ta be!”. But the young never knew anything else but their fantasies, and now not even those fantasies can be sustained; the American Dream Machine is gone, baby, gone. And perhaps on some level they know that, whether their adults have the fortitude and maturity to discuss it with them, or the wit even to recognize it.
Worse, Spengler raises a point that nobody here wants to touch: economic recovery may indeed come, but not to the West.
Try rolling that around in your mind for a bit. That We here are now Britain in 1947 and nothing is ‘coming back’; that We’ll be lucky to keep up a standard of material living closer to 1940 than to 1999 or 2003.
Nor do We generally possess the internal structures and strength to handle that well; that’s all gone, baby, gone too. We disassembled Our spiritual and characterological strengths the way they took apart the urban and interurban trolley and rail systems in the late 1940s. And now there’s not enough cash to rebuild them, and probably not the industrial capacity to do it either.***
Our internal infrastructure as a people –let alone our competence as The People – is in even worse shape than Our material and production infrastructure. And even if some equivalent of the old Depression-era WPA and CCC were politically possible, are those in need of employment physically or spiritly (‘spiritually’ is getting a bit too specifically religious) fit to do the work?
“The terrible suffering of the 19th and 20th centuries left every Chinese parent with the conviction that the world shows no mercy to mediocrity.” Fat from its seemingly eternal material abundance and addled by a far too rich and sugary diet of fantasy, Americans opted to simply abolish mediocrity by having government bureaucracies prohibit its use as a term or a concept; Americans, they figured, are not ‘mediocre’ because nobody is allowed to say that anybody else is mediocre.
For all We know, some ‘advocates’ are in the Beltway right now agitating for a Constitutional ‘right’ not to be called mediocre, backed up by Federal civil-rights law and god-knows-what legal penalties. Or perhaps offering the constructive suggestion that to say a kid needs to move beyond a present condition of mediocre performance will be classified as ‘child abuse’, for which Byzantine or Soviet level strictures are already in place.
Meanwhile, the Flatness of the genuine human experience that the West offers to its young simply increases in density, even as the enfeebled economy becomes increasingly unable to pay for the life-long vacation at the fantasy-park. It’s a hell-hot irony that as the life-enhancing sense of the Beyond was deconstructed, the visions of bright sunny uplands promised in replacement by the tactically shrewd but profoundly unwise ‘revolutions’ have turned out to be the vehicles of a saccharine and insubstantial imprisonment.
Far too many in the West now ride on trains, almost as if in boxcars, to Flatness. And as Bonhoeffer ruefully noted, “Once you’ve gotten on the wrong train, walking backwards through the cars isn’t going to help”.
*He is now revealed as David P. Goldman, now on the editorial staff of the magazine ‘First Things’.
**Neocons who have raised up Churchill as an idol, take serious note here.
***Recently, a foreign company bought the rusting but still intact SS United States, tied up at a New Jersey pier; she was the marvelous liner built here in the very early 1950s, one of the most graceful and speedy liners ever built. They wanted to restore her, but to their surprise discovered that there were no American shipyards that retained the know-how to restore her.
On a less nostalgic note: imagine what will happen if We lost one or two of Our vaunted naval super-carriers. In World War Two We turned out quantities of large fast attack carriers quickly and competently; how long would it take American yards to provide replacements nowadays? And how would they be paid for?