23 Apr 2017     home | more politics

David Brooks and the "Crisis of Western Civilization"

More concern about civilization, not from Steve Bannon this time but from the very civil New York Times pundit David Brooks, with a story different from Bannon's.

Brooks writes glowingly of Will and Ariel Durant and their Story of Civilization. Brooks describes the Durants as having "told human history (mostly Western history) as an accumulation of great ideas and innovations." Getting to what he sees as civilization's crisis, Brooks writes:

Starting decades ago, many people, especially in the universities, lost faith in the Western civilization narrative. They stopped teaching it, and the great cultural transmission belt broke. Now many students, if they encounter it, are taught that Western civilization is a history of oppression.

The first consequence has been the rise of the illiberals, authoritarians who not only don’t believe in the democratic values of the Western civilization narrative, but don’t even pretend to believe in them, as former dictators did.

More and more governments, including the Trump administration, begin to look like premodern mafia states, run by family-based commercial clans. Meanwhile, institutionalized, party-based authoritarian regimes, like in China or Russia, are turning into premodern cults of personality/Maximum Leader regimes, which are far more unstable and dangerous.

Someone who calls himself Socrates responds to Brooks. He writes:

Democracy and western civilization are doing just fine, but have temporarily lost their sea legs amidst a well-organized group of right-wing political terrorists, who have mastered the tools of propaganda and television to maintain the cancerous effects of oligarchic greed, organized religion and power-mongering over reasoned discourse, human rights, science, birth control and common sense.

Someone else joins those who see ruination:

Western Civ has been ruined by political correctness ....That's another reason for the collapse of Western Civ--colleges are teaching that all white world leaders are just plain evil period.

Someone has another reason for the ruin of civilization:

Colleges are teaching that all white world leaders are just plain evil period. But I could write a narrative also based on a soupcon of truth that western civilization is dying because we are simultaneously creating a new unifying philosophy of power that comes with corporatization, kleptocracy and a religious belief in capitalism that creates a new aristocracy. It wasn't grown on pampered campuses.

There were over 1,000 responses, and I agree with those who describe a connection between world civilization and western civilization and don't dwell on anyone's special accomplishments. And I don't see civilization quite like the Durants did. (Both died in 1981.) They wrote that civilization "begins where chaos and insecurity end." Will Durant was a devout Christian, and he wrote that there must be "some unity of basic belief, some faith – supernatural or utopian – that lifts morality from calculation to devotion, and gives life nobility and significance despite our mortal brevity." But somehow civilization survived despite the breakdowns of order (always temporary), the religious and civil wars and other insecurities. Rather than unity of belief, civilizations survived a lot of cultural diffusions while living with conflicting ideas.

The Durants wrote in Chapter 12 of their Lessons of History: "Civilizations are the generations of the racial soul."

Utter nonsense.

Also in Lessons of History they wrote of "laws of biology" and war as "a nation's way of eating."

Not progressive.

They added:

...every invention or discovery is made or seized by the exceptional individual, and makes the strong stronger, the weak relatively weaker, than before.

This sort of Darwinism was part of the racist narrative, but the Durants were not as bad as some. They criticized the racism of the 19th century writers Gobineau and Houston Stewart Chamberlain and racists who belonged to the early 20th century. The Durants were a part of an inching forward of civilization on the race issue. Civilization moved further forward with the Allied victory in World War II and then with the breakup of the British and French empires (the Vietnam War that came in the wake of French colonialism having been a temporary setback). A big picture of civilization from 1800 to April 2017 suggests progress rather than civilization falling apart. It seems we will not again have a president as racist as Woodrow Wilson. We have distaster in Syria which can't go on forever. Some of today's negatives — except for a growing population — will diminish. The better part of humanity is not caving-in. They are fighting back as we see this weekend in the enormous pro-science demonstrations. Politics has not been keeping up with technological change, but the failures of those with outmoded ideas will move them back. It's not wildly optimistic to think that respect for democracy will hold, that young people will continue to want to make a contribution, and (to get close to one of John Lennon's lines) there will be less religion too — while respecting the rights of people to think, worship and vote as they please. We have authoritarianism raising its head — as in Turkey. But civilization is likely to hold together as it has over centuries of rough going. And what is likely to come in the decades ahead is a distrubution of wealth not quite as favorable to those who have advantages in wealth accumulation. This is reason for optimism.

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