This is the introduction to a new book entitled AN AMERICAN CIVILIZATION. Regular readers -- and thank you for your support and patience these past long months -- may notice that there is in this chapter some recycled material, although none from the SILENT AMERICA essays. In this one case, I could not think of a better way to express an idea I had played with back in 2004.
[UPDATE: This post has been substantially re-written since it was first posted.]
There is a British tradition at Christmas time, a tradition I would love to see transplanted to these American shores. It’s an old form of interactive theater called the Pantomime.
I almost wrote ‘interactive children’s theater,’ but that would be to sell it short. Children’s theater today is completely Barneyfied – all syrup and rainbows. Pantomimes were derived from the classics, with pirates and other scary villains, and swordfights and the like. It was the kind of thing a young boy could sit through for two hours without thoughts of escape or serial homicide. It was the first live theater we children had ever seen, a magical experience turbocharged by the immediate proximity of the most magical night of them all.
There are two traditions that I remember clearly. First, the young male leads – Peter Pan, say – were invariably played by hot young women in tights, leaving eight year old boys watching swordfights, rooting for Peter or Puss in Boots, while in the deep back of the mind some faint but growing voice was whispering under all that cheering, saying Man, look at those legs! That was confusing.
What wasn’t confusing was the audience participation. Children and parents were encouraged to hiss loudly when Captain Hook entered the stage, to shout warnings of ambush and hiding places. It was a loud, screaming, cheering, full-on blast.
Now the other thing I remember is that moment in Peter Pan where Tinkerbell lies dying…dying from a lack of belief. It is at this point that Peter Pan would walk to the front of the stage, and implore us in the most desperate terms to clap as loudly as we could to show how much we believed in her, believed in magic, believed in redemption, believed in the power of our own belief. We would clap till our hands were raw, clap and stomp our feet until the foundations shook, parents and children alike, while Peter would shake his head sadly and tell us it wasn’t belief enough. Then we would clap like furies, scream like Viking berserkers, mom and dad beside us, hollering and shouting and stomping their feet, a wall of sound, a rhythmic, pulsating tsunami of emotion…and then, just then, the slightest stirring of a delicate hand…
Humans are animals. I do not mean that in a negative way. But that is what we are: creatures capable of great good and great harm, susceptible to animal fears and passions, lower than angels but not without grace. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – a man who has seen a fair amount of both good and evil – wrote of that fault line, “that line separating good and evil, passing not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties, but right through every human heart."
As animals, we are wired to live in a state of nature. In the long marathon of our history, our civilizations are only the last two or three halting steps. It took millions of years to build the human animal. It will likely take that long again to design out all of the passions and furies that brought us here.
Until then, we live with a choice: to live in a state of nature, or a state of law. The state of nature is the default condition that the huge majority of human lives has lived under, and continue to live under to this very day – lives solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short in Hobbes’ memorable phrase. Or, we can choose to impose upon our internal fault line a series of laws and customs, a Civilization, that imperfectly attempts to keep as many of us as possible on the side of the angels.
That Civilization is not a natural state. It is highly artificial and daily runs into our proclivities for murder, greed, pride and mayhem. And because of that artifice, it is a structure that not only must be built, but one which must be maintained, only once, and that is constantly. Victor Davis Hanson -- whom I deeply admire -- described this as rust build-up on an iron structure, rust that must be regularly removed if the structure is to remain standing. That seems exactly right to me. And so here is my poor attempt at providing something no more or less important than a small wire brush.
The maintenance of that Civilization requires many prerequisite tools, and in the following pages I hope we can examine some of them. But the elbow grease, the one indispensable element, is that belief: belief that this work is worth doing. It is the belief that we can drain the open sewers of our most base impulses, and in their place build lives of decency and civility. It is, in the long run, the belief that we can make Tinkerbell fly.
Now there are people who do not much admire this iron bridge we have built, this bridge from the terror and anarchy of the jungle to the distant shores of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. There was a time when these forces were strong enough to tear down that bridge. That time may again come. But for now, they lack the power to pull down this Civilization. But they do have the power to get us to forgo the wire brush.
In the pages that follow, I will do my flat-out level best to try not to generalize, and to confine my anger specifically to those who daily unscrew the bolts and drill out the rivets of this magnificent Civilization. We are past the point of name-calling now. The hour is late. This is too important for arguments between Republicans and Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals, or Hawks and Doves. There are villains and heroes aplenty on all sides, and we are going to need every hand that we can get.
So where are we?
Islamicist terror masters are about to go nuclear, and an army of foreign nationals are flooding over the border. Liberals haven’t had a new idea since the National Health Card, Conservatives would lose the next election if they ran unopposed, Western birthrates are plummeting, lawlessness is rampant, everywhere you look the seams are starting to crack, and above it all sits an Imperial Congress riddled with corruption, stone-deaf to the howls of public outrage, and looking very tender indeed at the merest thought of being held accountable for anything. Why, it’s calamity enough to put you in mind of Shakespeare:
Now is the Winter of our Discontent, made more of a Bummer by these Sons of Pork…
Yes, yes – I get it. To the Untrained Eye it looks like Western Civ is going to hell in a hand basket; each of its former stalwarts marching silently into the sea, our only consolation as Americans being that we appear to be at the back of the line, leaning to the side of the queue to see which part of Europe takes the Big Drink first; our own progress towards oblivion being delayed somewhat by the usual band of Right-Wing Gun Nuts, Morality Hypocrites, Talk Radio Blowhards and Chickenhawk Bloggers – all four categories of which, thanks to Hugh Hewitt and Kim Du Toit, I now find myself in.
It doesn’t seem to take much arguing to conclude that Western Civilization, if not on the path to utter destruction, is at the very least somewhat frayed around the edges. One gets that sense of desperation most clearly from my good friend Mark Steyn (whom I have never met nor spoken to and who doesn’t know me from Adam) and his reports from an aging and impotent Continent whose civilization has ruled the world for no less than half a millennium and who now stands hunched and toothless, without even the courage to shake a fist at the backs of their new overlords… who, indeed, seem only able to mutter their gratitude that they will not live long enough to witness the final collapse.
When my mother, who is British, thinks of the shores of England she sees Spitfires returning home after splashing the Hun invaders in the North Sea. Nowadays you’re more likely to visualize twerps like George “Shrinkage” Galloway, sunbathing in his red leotards on her pebble-strewn, frigid shores, and Red Ken Livingston sitting alone in the only warm patch of water in the entire English Channel. And needless to say, we are not without our own species of Suicide Lemmings. Surely the existence of Michael Moore is proof enough – as if more proof was needed – that given enough Civilization, the laws of Darwin will often be supplanted by those of Murphy.
Everywhere I’ve looked – and I’ve been looking around a lot – I get the sense of powerless frustration, of standing on the beach as the Thousand Foot Wave rises up to block out the sun and take everything we have built and fought for with it.
The forces of ignorance and barbarism – bearers of ruin and despair wherever they make camp – are growing in confidence. But beside their will to destroy and die they have nothing. These Death Cult barbarians think this is all they will need – that, and an initial alliance with the forces they most despise. I still hold out hope that they will crack open a second book – a history book, say – that might at the eleventh hour give them some insight into the avocado nature of the Civilization they seem determined now to assault: soft and pulpy on the outside, impenetrably tough and hard within. They are going to do more than chip a tooth on us, these raving, bloodthirsty lunatics: they are about to make, I think, the same mistake that others have made before them – to see the Cindy Sheehans and Michael Moores as representative of a corrupt and dying culture, rather than what they really are: somewhat entertaining animal acts we Westerners use to pass the time while waiting for the next opportunity to pull the gloves off, and kick some new inhuman, barbaric horde onto the ash heap of history, where reside Aristocracy, Slavery, Fascism and Communism, holding in common only the mark of our boots on their asses.
There was a time, an age ago, where the differences between what we call the Left and the Right seemed more or less academic; maybe the distance from one high-rise tower to its twin – close enough to see the coffee mugs and family photos on the other side’s desk.
Then something happened.
Now we peer across a divide so wide that we can no longer see the other side; where the residents of the opposing camps are not viewed as having a difference of opinion so much as being considered insane.
Two worldviews this opposed cannot both be right (although they could both be wrong). I was about to write that one of them must be closer to the truth, but I stopped myself, for often people will define truth as conforming to their ideology, rather than the reverse. But surely one of these positions must conform better to reality, to the evidence, for anyone with an open mind to see?
Which one? And how do we tell?
People of good will on both sides value peace and freedom, yet we have diverging choices to make, and we have to make them now. We have to chart our course, a course for our country, and ultimately, a course for the entire world.
We need a map. Several are for sale. How do we choose?
Actually, it’s not so difficult. We can choose the map that best conforms to the coastline we see unveiling before us. We choose the map that best matches reality – the objective, external, indisputable reality of bays and promontories, capes and gulfs and rivers and shoals.
We can, indeed, lay out competing philosophies on the table, and see where each conforms to reality and where it does not. No maps are without distortions; none of these are likely to be, either. And one map may conform perfectly to the coastline in one area, and be dreadfully amiss in another. We can cut and paste them as we wish. This is too important for us to be arguing about who is right – all our energies must go to getting it right.
And before we start, we must agree to one thing: we will never be so full of arrogance and blinded by pride that we dare confront a place where our map does not match the coastline, and proclaim that the coastline must be wrong.
I have a mental map of the world. So do you. So did Lenin, and al-Zarqawi, and Winston Churchill, and Attila, and Ronald Reagan. Everyone has an internal map of how the world works.
The problem is that we get rather fond of these maps. Some people feel that if one only had enough paper, and enough time, one could chart the world without ever going up on deck at all. They trade and collect and discuss these charts as if they were comic books or baseball cards. If they see something on another map that seems to agree, more or less, with what they have sketched out on their own, they feel vindicated. This is human nature. I do it, and you do it too.
How much pain and torture, how many human lives -- each as unique and wonderful as your own -- have been snuffed out of existence because self-righteous, power-mad bastards have waved maps written decades, or centuries, or millenia before, without so much as a peek out the window at how the world really works? How many of the criticisms leveled at this civilization are genuine, and how many are nothing more than sketches on parchment in the minds of bitter and vindictive people who dare not face the light of day? How many people have died because a person would rather see a thousand people taken out in the night and shot in the head -- or a million people, or a hundred million -- seen them shot in the head, rather than facing the coastline and changing their mind?
When you use your common sense, your personal experience, over any of the so-called “social theories” being sold at fire sale prices, you are walking out of the dungeon of social theory and endless argumentation, walking up the ladder, mounting the bridge and looking out the window to see whether or not the map matches the coastline. If it does not, then it doesn’t matter how credentialed or tenured or respected the cartographer is or was -– he is wrong. He says river delta; there sits a barrier reef. Wrong!
Navigation by means of reason and logic, taking sightings from historical landmarks and always keeping the firm hand of common sense on the wheel, can steer us clear of these dangerous and confusing shoals. This sort of thinking, what is essentially scientific thinking, is a new tool, relatively speaking. It is a powerful tool, one that makes powerful demands of us, asking us to forgo pride and ego and preconception. It asks us, as blind men and women in the darkness of the present, to walk into the future not by imagining a map that is to our liking, but rather to learn to navigate like bats and dolphins, pinging our surroundings, interrogating nature and history at every turn, finding fixed points of reference that we can use to triangulate where we are and where we are headed.
These people, down below, arguing endlessly in the chartroom -– they have a word for themselves that they find flattering. They call themselves intellectuals. A friend of mine referred to me as an intellectual the other day, and I nearly knocked him off the bar stool. What a repellent thing to say to a man who tries on a daily basis to pre-flight his facts to make sure his theories – his maps – are as accurate as they can be. Things change. Things that were once true sometimes no longer are. The map has to change or you are in deep yogurt. It is that process, not my map, that I am trying to teach to the best of my ability.
There was a time when intellectual meant someone who uses reason and intellect. Today, people who call themselves intellectuals are in a form of mental death spiral: they search for, and find, those index cards that support their world view, and clutch little red books like rosaries in the face of all external evidence. They are ruled by appeals to authority. Their self-image and sense of emotional well-being trumps any and all objective evidence to the contrary.
Many (perhaps most) things these intellectuals believe are so wrong, in so many places, that they are far worse than no maps at all. They draw all manner of hazards where there are none, and disastrously, they show open seas and smooth sailing in the most treacherous and deadly places. Such maps are not merely worthless; they are dangerous. Ronald Reagan once said that the problem is not that these intellectual social theorists are ignorant; "it's just so much of what they know isn't so."
I am hammering this point here in the very beginning because so much of the corrosion attached to this American Civilization is, in the final analysis, nothing more than the assertions of pedigreed people who have an axe or two or three to grind, and in order to scrape off that corrosion, we are going to have to look at hard facts and draw our own conclusions.
How many students today believe what they believe because they met someone who knew a guy whose girlfriend turned him on to an article by Noam Chomsky? Noam Chomsky predicted, in his even, intellectual, authoritative, tenured manner, that if the US went to war in Afghanistan after 9/11, the result would be 3 million Afghan casualties. How many of these students who worship St. Noam independently ask themselves why he had come up 2,999,500 bodies short? Noam is not wrong by a factor of one or two; Noam is not wrong by an order of magnitude. Noam is not wrong by a factor of a hundred to one. Noam is wrong by more than three orders of magnitude. Noam is wrong by a factor of 6,000 to one. Noam says the reef is three miles off the port bow, when in fact it is barely ten feet away. That’s six thousand to one. Noam says the ocean is a thousand feet deep when in fact the keel has been ripped out and is sitting on the sandbar back yonder: that’s a 6,000-to-one error. Extrapolating this accuracy rate, if Noam writes 6,000 pages on the evil of the United States, how many pages of truth might there be in such a twenty-volume set?
Does this mean that everything Noam Chomsky writes is nonsense? Not at all. He is a professor of Linguistics. I am not qualified to say how accurate the work in his field of expertise is. I can however make a stab at how accurate he is in the field of US foreign policy, and if you have a handheld calculator at home, you can make the same comparison and achieve the same results.
We are not blind, and we are not crippled, and the world is not a novel or a treatise or a theory or a manifesto. It exists. We can go look for ourselves. And on the way up, when those desperate elitist bastards start clutching at your ankles and implore you to stay below where it’s safe and argue some more…be sure to kick those sons of bitches right in the teeth. Their blind obedience to their Big Ideas have killed more people in history than anything except disease. Boot to the teeth, I say.
But that’s just me. You’ve been around. You’re no sap. What do you think?
Socialist intellectuals will tell you that Cuba is a model nation: universal free health care, near total literacy, and essentially no gap whatsoever between the rich and the poor. They call it an island paradise where brotherhood and compassion reign in stark contrast to the brutal inequalities of the heartless and racist capitalist monster to the North, ruled by its Imperial Nazi King, who is the devious mastermind of all manner of Conspiratorial Wheels and is also a moron.
Capitalist intellectuals -– and there are not many, since most of these people have jobs -– argue that Cuba is a squalid, corrupt, poverty-ridden basket case, a land of oppression and secret police and torture chambers run by a megalomaniac who practices the most idiotic, inhuman and degrading economic system ever invented.
So here we sit in the chartroom, with our competing maps. What to think?
Well, ask yourself what it would take to give up your home, your country, your family and all your friends. Ask yourself how desperate you would have to be to sneak out in the night, and strap your family – your grandmother and infant son – to a collection of inner tubes lashed together and set out in the dark surf across 90 miles of shark-infested water in the dead of night, hoping against hope to make landfall. We can all agree, I think, that that kind of desperation could only be driven by a fairly passionate first-person opinion of such things. Surely this goes beyond what you or I would do to win a map argument at Starbucks.
So. Go up on deck, get out the telescope, and answer one simple question for me and for yourself:
Which way are the rafts headed?
We need to know how to cut to core truths. We need to practice testing our maps against the shoreline. We need to do this, and more – right now – because as we sit here together, you and I, something delicate and precious is dying before our eyes for the simple lack of belief in what it represents.
We need to put our children on our lap and clap like furies.
While the comments have gone, I fear, my main motivation has always been the words of support and honest criticism that readers have so generously taken the time to write. I'd love to continue to hear from you by e-mail. You can reach me at bill at ejectejecteject dot com