Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


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Hello.  The begin with, I’d like to thank all the people who sent me e-mails wondering if I was, you know, dead–although I would like to point out that, had I been dead, I wouldn’t have been able to answer them.  No, I was just tired, incredibly tired, so that I would do things like go, “hmmm, I’ll just sit here and have this tea, and then I’ll do something sensible.”  But  I’d be sitting in this big overstuffed chair, and an hour and a half later I’d wake up and realize I’d been asleep and the tea was cold. 

Anyway, I’m better now, and I do understand that I’ve gotten too old for the kind of schedule I was keeping over the last weeks, which doesn’t mean I won’t have to do it again in a month or so.  But in the meantime, I’ve been reading Vanity  Fair–no, I’m not a slow reader, the Penguin Classics ediction I have is over eight hundred pages long, and the type is not large; plus there’s that thing of sitting down and falling asleep–and I’ve been thinking about decadance and decline.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about why I don’t believe we are seeing the kind of situation Rome saw at the time of the fall of the Empire.  And no, I don’t just spontaneously think of things like that with no impetus whatsoever.  The impetus for this came from an e-mail Robert sent me, which responded to an e-mail of mine about what I would do to reform K-12 education in the US. 

My plan–and I really have to get this down somehow–was to turn elementary school and high school into arenas for building American idenity, to concentrate the content of education in those years on American history, literature, civics, art, etc, so that the one thing we would know about everybody who graduated from an American high school is that he would know how his government worked and what the history and culture of his country was.   I would provide a lot of material from Jefferson and Madison and Thoreau and Hawthorne and  Emerson and on down, in a comprehensive way, and leave the broader world–not entirely, but in any depth–to “higher education’ if the student decided to get to it.

If you are not American, you can rework the enitre plan to fit Canadian or  Australian or whatever history and culture, the point was that the purpose of  primary education and secondary education should be basic skills married to a knowledge of one’s own culture and country, a good enough knowledge to turn students into competent citizens, even if they decided not to be effective ones.

Robert responded to this idea with an e-mail that said the following:

>>> really, REALLY wish you were right, but I don’t think so–and one symptom is that you have no hope of implementing such a program. Picture the professorate, arguing that “American identity” is an insult to their particular hobbyhorses–racial, class and “gender” identity come immediately to mind, but there would be more. They’d lead the charge, and right behind them, killing the wounded and looting the dead, would be the teacher’s unions. (La Raza, NOW and Rainbow/PUSH would be the camp followers.) Remember the Bush I standards battles? This would be worse. The conservatives were out of the game even then, and we’ve had 20 years for liberals to die off and be replaced by whackos.

We stand–or stood–with Europe as part of a common culture, and now it’s gone. Three things: the willingness to judge ourselves by other’s standards, the inability to make and implement decisions, and–let’s be brutal here–the lack of the sort of patriotism a nation needs to survive.
We may annoy the French, but “Euro” is a marketing device, and a favorable one. That Baldwin ever worked again in Hollywood after that “I’ll go to France if I don’t get my way in the elections” bit is a VERY bad sign. Serious arguments that Americans should sign on for the ICC–forfeiting jury trials–is a worse one. When you reach the Supreme Court judging acceptable conduct for Americans by what is allowed overseas, the lack of national self-confidence is terminal.
Making and implementing decisions. Read something on the building of the Pentagon some day–or the transcontinental railroads, the Panama Canal, the Model T, the New Deal or the new governmental agencies of post-WWII.  Now watch the Osprey, the fence on the Mexican border, or the stimulus checks. Contemplate the hole in Manhattan and the Big Dig. Work out how long we’ve been trying to adjust immigration, entitlements and energy policy.  Compare the San Francisco 1906 recovery with New Orleans. I realized going into the voting booth this time that if I voted for a transportation program–that sort of thing does sometimes show up on the ballots here–I would retire and move back to Indiana faster than anyone would–now–build a road or a Metro line. After all, I only have 6 or 8 years left. I don’t know what’s caused it, but public or private, local or national, something’s gone, and it’s something critical.
And patriotism–yes, Americans are more satisfied with being Americans than the Euros are with any of their present identities, but it’s cheering for the local sports team, not a national cohesiveness. No serious bloc will give up its program in the national interest. They mean for someone else to do so. I’m a 25-year man–not retired, but that’s another story. When I heard about 9-11, I called my old unit and then the local recruiting station. I got right through. Yes, the nation was under attack, but this didn’t mean anyone should give up shopping and enlist. I read poor Beinert and I want to cry. He’s living in a world that passed away before I could vote.
When your news and entertainment, your educators and your ministers have turned against a culture, it’s over. We’re as dead now as Rome in 400 AD. The city isn’t sacked yet. The quarrel over the successor culture may go on for generations, and some of what I value will no doubt live on, but as a culture, we’re through. Gather a few books and take off before someone burns the library.
I think Robert is wrong on a number of counts above, in terms of the prophecy, but first let me point out one place we missed each other in passing.  Robert is talking about the United States of  America in particular.   I was talking about  Western civilization.
It occurs to me, for instance, that  Rome fell, but it didn’t exactly go anywhere.   Five hundred years after the fall, it was once again the single most important cultural force in the West, and would go on to be the single most important cultural force in the world.  It’s a cultural force now. both directly, and indirectly, through the fact that it was, in the West, the originator of  the Christian churches.
I think that Western civilization goes through these convulsions periodically, due mostly to the fact that most of our best ideas are also our worst ideas.   The emphasis on the primacy of the individual, for instance, gives us the principle of the primacy of conscience, the Bill of Rights, Jonas Salk and Ludwig von Beethoven.  Taken to its logical extreme, it gives us PETA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association,  copper bracelets that are supposed to cure arthritis, and Paris Hilton. 
I don’t know what the answer is here, but I do know that any attempt to reject our core principles–of which the primacy of the individual is one of the most important–ends in much more serious disasters than the fall of Rome. 
Science is an invention of the West.  It grew up in no other place.  It started to evolve in the Islamic empires and was ruthlessly and permanently surpressed.  China and India and Japan all made some discoveries about the natural world, but none of them developed a scientific ceivlization until we gave it to them.  Will one of them one day get better at it than we are, the way former British colonies now routinely beat the mother country in cricket?  Maybe.  But if they do, it will be because they have become part of Western civilization.
I am not a cultural relativist, any more than I’m a moral relativist.   I think human nature has rules that can be discovered, and these rules describe the consequences of what we do and think and are.  No communitarian culture has ever developed a scientific civilization, because scientific progress depends on people who refuse to go along to get along, for whom being rue to themselves is more important than being part of the group.  Individualistic cultures that have attempted to install any serious communitarianism have ended by wrecking their scientists and falling backward in the progress of scientific knowledge.
Robert says that we and Western Europe no longer share a common culture, but he’s wrong.   The Western Europeans are only farther down the road of taking our core ideas to their logical extremes.  Not only are they not non-Western, they’re hyper Western.  They take as given a set of ideas and principles that not only were discovered here, but that every other culture on the planet finds literally incomprehensible.  
Of course, I don’t think that news, education, ministers and and educators, in the US at least, are against us, but that’s a longer story.
Let’s leave it here for now. 

Written by janeh

November 23rd, 2008 at 10:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'Resurfacing'

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  1. First of all, my sympathies to Jane. Yes, the body does get old and it shows. But how I wish I could fall asleep in a chair! My problem is that I can’t sleep. Or I wouldn’t be posting this at 4:30AM my time.

    I’ll comment on two different things.

    A bit of biography – I grew up in the US and moved to Australia when I was 35. Now I’m 72, so I’ve spent half my life in each country. US news tends to be limited here, a half page in the daily paper and maybe 2 minutes in a half hour TV news show.

    But one thing I’ve noticed is how intrusive the US courts have gotten. For example, a few weeks ago the US Supreme Court decided that the Navy could use sonar even if it endangered whales.

    The US has an elected President who is head of the armed services. It has an elected Congress who are responsible for funding the armed services. Both the President and Congress are answerable to the people. Why would anyone expect unelected judges to determine defense policies?

    Robert asked why no one makes decisions anymore, From down here, it looks like every time an elected official makes a decision, he or she gets second guessed by an unelecteed judge.

    Perhaps I’m being misled by the limited news cover down here but the US Courts look far too powerful to me. Is it connected to what Jane said about

    “The emphasis on the primacy of the individual, for instance, gives us the principle of the primacy of conscience, the Bill of Rights, Jonas Salk and Ludwig von Beethoven. Taken to its logical extreme, it gives us PETA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association, copper bracelets that are supposed to cure arthritis, and Paris Hilton.”

    As to education, I think any US education needs to include Europe. It should include the difference between an isolated continent and countries which were continually in fear of invasion. And the contrast between having an empty frontier and a thickly settled country with no room to expand.

    Australian education can’t be limited to Australia. We had no revolution or Civil War and the literature is limited by the population. 7 million in 1940 and 20 million now just doesn’t provide many writers.


    23 Nov 08 at 1:50 pm

  2. No sale. Yes, “Rome” was an important cultural center 500 years after the fall of the empire–and even more so, 1,000 years later. Yes, individualism is important to the definition of the West–you really should read Parkinson’s EAST AND WEST–but if a western Roman of 400 AD reappeared in 500 or 600 AD, he would have seen law, language and learning, government, engineering and civilization swept away. The successor culture kept little but Christianity, a debased Latin rapidly becoming the Romance languages and–in places–the CORPUS JURIS CIVILIS. Read THE DEAM OF MAXEN WLAEDIG or Saxon poems on “the work of giants”–meaning Roman engineering–and tell me what was left of Rome.
    To point out that some things were rediscovered or laboriously reinvented says nothing about the scale of the downfall.
    As for the Euros being “hyper-western” that’s bizaare. Certainly we share common cultural origins, and it may be that we will go down the same path–but it’s not the path of individualism, but the path of destruction. Free inquiry or free speech, when devoted to the wrong subject, can get you 10-20 in much of the EU, where not just the contents of history texts but the facts of history are subject to legislation.
    The attraction of a large immigrant population which it is utterly unable to assimilate is the death knell of Europe. In America too, we have those who appreciate what the country is, but don’t connect it to the beliefs and practices which make it so.
    The individuality which I too value highly is only half a survival trait. It has to be blended with a sense of community or common purpose which put the fisherman and the philosopher into the phalanx, the plebe and the equestrian into the legion and the Irish immigrant and the Boston Brahmin into the regiment. That’s vanished now, and it’s not coming back. The only NATIONAL


    23 Nov 08 at 3:17 pm

  3. {the machinery interupted the rant. As I was saying) The only NATIONAL institution of any strength is the armed forces, and that won’t last by itself. “In deiner Lagern sind Ostereich” the poet wrote–“In thy camps is Austria.” But when he wrote that, the Austrian Empire was less than 70 years from extinction.
    I fear our time frame is similar.


    23 Nov 08 at 3:28 pm

  4. I have to agree with Robert about Rome in 600AD not being a successor to the empire.

    As for the present state of the US, I don’t know what went wrong but I don’t think its solely the fault of the present education system.

    Consider the anti-Vietnam war protests of 1968. That was 40 years ago. Why didn’ the University faculties say “You don’t like the war, we don’t like it, but that doesn’t give you a right to seize University buildings and break into the office of the president.”

    How did draft evaders beconme heroes? How did people accept comparing Johnson and Nixon to Hitler?

    Remember this was 20 years after the Second World War ended. The students who were protesting were children of people who had fought that war. How did riots get equated to free speech?


    23 Nov 08 at 4:14 pm

  5. I look on the whole Western Civilization thing as kind of an amorphous mess rather than the Europeans going on one path and the Americans on another – with, I suppose, the Canadians, as usual, somewhere in between. I don’t know where that leaves the Australians – like the Canadians, but warmer and with more poisonous animals, perhaps?

    I’d put the Bill of Rights thing on the debit list, myself, since I see it as tied very tightly to the unelected decision-makers John complains of. That is, I see it as functioning not so much as protection for the individual as a framework from which quite a range of unelected interest groups can launch their programs to have the force of law put behing *their* vision of what it means to be a free individual in a modern democracy. I think that sort of thing should be left up to the people we elect to Parliament, but I admit that my views are those of an idiosyncratic minority in Canada.

    I expect the American … not empire, exactly, but period of dominance… will fade away as others have and others will, while the basic ideas of Western civilization continue to flow and mutate. Like an amorphous blob, like I said. Or maybe I’m just too close to see clearly.

    I don’t think that the US is entirely dead as a military power because they didn’t start recruiting for a war after 9-11. I thought at the time that they should have treated it as a criminal attack – although since the criminals were in a failed state with an unrecognized government, going into Afghanistan was an acceptable response. Arming up for WW II against terrorist squads wouldn’t be.
    But that argument not only a dead horse, but a rotten one. The US is badly and expensively bogged down militarily, but it’s still militarily powerful. It’s not dead yet, far from it, however serious its current problems.

    I do think that what Jane says about educating children to know the basic political and cultural ideas of their country is important. As a Canadian, albeit one with strong US ties, who moreover lives way, way outside the typical Canadian’s zone of just north of the US border, my views may not be typically Canadian ones. We do try to teach the basics. Not well, I think, and I think many Canadians would agree. When it comes to deciding what to teach, what our culture is, the Anglos worry about too much influence from the US – the Francophones are fascinated by the US. Plus ca change etc – we gained independance by evolution, not revolution, and the most influential war in that evolution was probably fought alongside our colonial masters, not against them. So what happens after that? Some of us start taking a deep interest in supporting another superpower!

    There’s a big difference between education for citizenship in the most powerful country in the world and in the much weaker next-door neighbour. Maintaining what’s distinct while not pissing off a major trading partner and important ally while wailing about the youth who only want American singers and actors while exporting, at least temporarily, a lot of our best and brightest…that’s our challenge, but they are really only details. In the big picture, any culture or county has know who they are, where they came from and what they stand for. And they have to have a way to transmit the important details of what it means to be a member of the culture or a citizen of the country to the next generation. That’s critical. And it has to be done in a way that doesn’t produce a culture that is too narrow, nor one that lacks cohesion.

    I think the North American connection to European culture and history is more one of a second cousin twice removed than of kissing cousins. I love Europe. I love reading about it. But when I visited there, I realized that I wasn’t European. Genetics isn’t destiny. It’s like the director of a mixed-race South African choir I heard on the radio this morning said – we’re African. We don’t belong anywhere else. I’m North American. I don’t belong in Europe, even in the UK, where my ancestors came from, and not in Spain or France or Denmark or anywhere else I visited and enjoyed enormously, and would go again if I could. People – any people – can and should look at what’s being done in other parts of the world, and pick and choose useful ideas, but they don’t need to pick only the ones which are cultural cousins.


    23 Nov 08 at 4:16 pm

  6. John said: “How did riots get equated to free speech?”

    Surely someone’s written a good book on this, although I can’t think of one.

    If I had to guess, I’d say that it was partly a result of yet another rediscovery of revolutionary ideas that date back at least to the 1700s. Some version are peaceful, many are not. Someone pointed out to me once that revolutions and such don’t often happen when things are at their absolute worst. Then people are too absorbed in finding food to eat or keeping out of the way of the secret police to have the time or the ability to revolt. It’s when things get a bit better that revolutions break out. So… the 60s. The big wars are over. Most people in the countries most affected – US, France, Germany, Italy – are relatively prosperous. They’ve got free time; they aren’t scraping for food to eat. There are (as there always have been and always will be) injustices, real and imagined. In the Middle Ages, the idealistic and the ambitious might have called for a crusade. In the 60s, they called for revolution.

    Just a guess. I’m sure someone’s written a good analysis of the period.


    23 Nov 08 at 4:24 pm

  7. Loks like Jane hit a hot topic here. i want to comment on what Cheryl said about the Bill of Rights.

    Amending the Australian Constitution requires a public refernadum with all citizens over 18 required to vote. The amendment must get a majority of votes and pass in at least 3 of the 6 states.

    The Australian Constitution does not have a Bill of Rights. There was an attempt to add one in 1989 but it failed in all 6 states! One argument against it was the behaviour of the US Courts.


    23 Nov 08 at 6:01 pm

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