In 1948, T.S. Eliot assumed that western civilization moved inexorably toward a new dark age. “We can assert with some confidence that our own period is one of decline,” he lamented. “The standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity.”
One can only shake his head in wonder and bewilderment at what Eliot might write in 2012.
In the elite world of affairs, the powerful steal more and more through the machinery of politics, depriving us not only of liberty but, of course, of justice. There is, in no real sense, neither liberty nor order, internally or externally.
We have one of the most arrogant men ever at the head of our executive branch, and our executive branch is at the height of its power. His most likely challenger this fall seems like merely a less interesting version of himself.
Our Congress seemingly gave up the right to declare war or make just laws sometime in the 1940s. Never have they reclaimed what rightfully and constitutionally belongs to it, and there is no sign that the body as a whole will overcome impotence.
We are now strapped with overwhelming debt, and, yet, we have made sure the wealthy stay wealthy or get wealthier through the charade of stimuli packages.
On Saturday, Congress overwhelmingly rejected Representative Justin Amash’s amendment to prevent indefinite detention of terror suspects. Only the most historically ignorant can fail to realize that the NDAA–which Amash sought to amend–overturns nearly 1,500 years of finely honed common law rights. Through the NDAA, the government claims the right to own us.
Frankly, the loss of civil liberties during the past two presidential administrations (Obama and Bush) is so overwhelming as to be almost certainly on the permanent road to completion (that is, we will have overturned almost every civil liberty worth anything, never to regain them). Not only have we, as Americans, lost our rights to possess our own bodies, but the proliferation of spying at home and abroad–what the Washington Post has convincingly called “Secret America”–is out of control.
We feel pity for Greece as that country succumbs to implosion. Do we fidget as we pray that our leaders–the ones who spy on us with drones at home and murder many abroad–might just somehow be smart enough to prevent us from the same fate?
The so-called “Arab Spring” has led to the destruction of Christians, Christian churches, and Arab Christian culture while intolerant Islamic forces gain control.
And, the list of disaster after disaster, murder after murder, goes on and on and on. . . .
As we look back over western history, we know that every government falls. Just imagine what the world looked like in 410, hordes infiltrating the remnants of civilization.
Or, imagine the time of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth.
Not a single political body of that day has remained. Only two things have in western civilization in the last two thousand years–1) the Jewish people; and 2) the Catholic/Orthodox Church.
Do we imagine the U.S. will last forever? If so, we are fools. It’s quite possible the U.S. has been done since the second administration of Jefferson. As Gordon Wood effectively argued in his Radicalism of the American Revolution, not a single founder thought the Republic still existed in any real form–or perhaps more accurately, with any real soul–at the time of his respective death.
What if the founding of America was the highpoint of western civilization? What if it served as the end of an era, the culmination of all that came before it, rather than the beginning of a new era? In our understandable American patriotism, we call it a “founding.” What if it’s really an “ending.”
For the sake of argument, let’s take Eliot’s claim seriously. If we are in a period of decline, our role as members of western civilization, as advocates of order, dignity, and liberty, changes dramatically from what it is if if we’re in a time of cultural ascension.
If we are falling, we who reject ideology need to prepare the world for it–to create a foundation not just for the survival of our children but for a revival, a renaissance of some kind, twenty generations hence.
If we believe in western civilization, the contract of eternal society, the communion of saints, we might have a profound duty to preserve, not just a right to exist.
What if Eliot was right?
I see little beyond a bleak twilight. I see no justice in our federal government. I see only poison, corruption, and darkness. I see that our economy is tenuous and shaky at best. I see a national debt that is insoluble. I see an education system that is almost totally utilitarian and without redeeming value, a grand babysitting scheme to keep potential hoodlums off the streets and competition out of the labor pool.
Our position abroad is without direction, and I would guess with only slight trepidation that more people outside of our borders hate us than did on September 10, 2001.
Where is the light? Where do we see hope? There are cracks here and there, but the barriers and obstructions continue to mount, crowding in upon us, forcing us ever closer to the whirligig of the abyss.
Still, as St. Paul reminded us, there is always hope. We have autonomous communities, especially in education, forming–but they are decentralized. We have blistering fast technology and technological improvements. But, where else? Where? I ask with all sincerity. Where else?
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.