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Cassandra’s Voices in 2016

Warnings to the Modern Age

by Don Webb

Whatever your attitude toward the U.S. presidential election, the outlook is bleak. Shall the U.S. return culturally and economically to 1930 or face four years of impeachment proceedings? Such seem to be the grotesque choices inflicted by partisan hatred, on one side, and disgust, on the other. Let’s take a longer view. We will see that the U.S. — and the world — have a lot more to worry about. Cassandra’s Voices tell us exactly what it is.

Of the four titles in the list, two focus on the distant past; one deals with the present; and the last, with the future. And yet, all four views mutually complement and support each other. Which of them is most pertinent to the world of 2016? One reader has kindly responded to an invitation and nominated a title. We’ll discuss it in due course.

What, then, is our “classic reissue”? All four titles. They deal with everything current: ecological catastrophes, migrations, and authoritarian politics as well as economic and cultural inequality. The first two titles are “distant mirrors,” to borrow historian Barbara Tuchman’s phrase. The third explains an important strain in the present. The fourth tells us where we’re headed.

* * *

Let’s start with the most distant past: Eric H. Cline’s 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. What can we learn from it? For one thing, Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge may have been on to more than they realized when they proposed their theory of “punctuated equilibrium” in 1972. It may apply to societies as well as to evolutionary biology.

The Bronze Age had lasted in a kind of equilibrium for some 20 centuries until the early 12th century BCE. Societies grew but didn’t really change very much. Various states of the eastern Mediterranean often came into conflict but also regularly engaged in trade. They even achieved a “globalization” of sorts in terms of commerce.

The equilibrium was punctuated by the invasion of the Sea Peoples, who put a sudden end to all but Egypt among those societies. Some of the Sea Peoples were pirates; others, migrants. Where did they come from: the western Mediterranean? And why? Who knows? Today, we are witnessing migrations of a proportionally equal or larger scale caused by political oppression as well as cultural and miiitary conflict.

In a state of equilibrium, pressures may build gradually until they reach a tipping point. The Late Bronze Age had been suffering from climate change: a centuries-long drought. Add to it an “earthquake storm” caused by the African tectonic plate’s inexorable march northward. The Bronze Age societies had insufficient institutions of defense, trade and politics to withstand so many challenges arriving at once. A Dark Age ensued, ended only by the Iron Age, a few centuries later.

* * *

James J. O’Donnell focuses on the “wrong turns” of sixth-century history in his epic treatise The Ruin of the Roman Empire: The Emperor Who Brought It Down, the Barbarians Who Could Have Saved It. It shows what was lost, and how. The wrong turns sound uncomfortably familiar today.

The Romans had enough land to accommodate Germanic tribes seeking protection within the borders of the empire, but cultural and political institutions adapted feebly, if at all. For example, the Vandals immigrated from beyond the Rhine and finally settled in the area of present-day Tunisia, where they became Romans. In the east, Goths from beyond the Danube were greeted with suspicion, but many nonetheless became citizens and even high-ranking officers in the Roman military.

One of the Goths, Theoderic, even became an emperor. His reign brought peace, prosperity and unity that Italy would not see again for another fourteen centuries. A successor, Justinian, concentrated on securing his northern border and enforcing religious conformity. By attempting to impose unity, he destroyed any chance of it. The Vandals, among many others, had a future within the Roman empire; Justinian’s obduracy gave the empire no future but the Dark Ages. Immigrants may become a country’s greatest resource, witness Theoderic; fossilized reactionary policies lead to doom, witness Justinian.

Today, as in the sixth century, a calm sense for the long view, the broad view, and a pragmatic preference for the better rather than the best can have a hard time overcoming the noisy anxiety of those who would transform — that is, ruin — what they do not understand.

Civilization is a thing of the calm, the patient, the pragmatic, and the wise. We are not assured it will triumph. (p. 394)

* * *

Our reader recommends the book that deals most explicitly with the present time: Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God. Her work explains the nature and history of fundamentalism, an attitude that permeates politics as well as religion. She points out that the term is inaccurate but admits we’re stuck with it. The word originated in America in association with some early 20th-century Protestant denominations. And it is quite a loaded word; it has a “back to basics” ring to it, but the reality is quite the opposite.

Armstrong traces fundamentalism’s beginnings to John Nelson Darby, who preached an apocalypticism based on tidbits he cherry-picked from scripture. He was ignored in Britain but did find an audience in the United States, which, in the late 1850’s, was on the brink of an apocalypse of its own: the Civil War.

Darby viewed God as a sectarian demon who would fulfill revenge fantasies and a morbid, nihilistic death wish resulting in Darby’s own invention: the “Rapture.” His view of history as stages of conflict was quite modern. It was rationalistic and perfectly in tune with the scientific spirit of the times, including Hegel, Darwin and Karl Marx.

Fundamentalism suffered a humiliating defeat in the Scopes trial of 1925. But it regrouped, evolved, and became even more intransigeant. It re-emerged as a political force in the 1970’s and continues to shape American politics today.

Armstrong traces the history of similar movements in Judaism and Islam. They and the American type have distinct differences from each other but are similar in some basic ways:

“Fundamentalist” groups see themselves engaged in a cosmic war between good and evil. They fear annihilation and affirm their identities by selecting doctrines and practices from the past. Although pragmatic rationalists, they rely on charismatic leaders to create an ideology and action plan. They are adamantly opposed to democracy, tolerance, peacekeeping, free speech and the separation of church and state.

The impulse to create a pseudo-theocratic dictatorship explains a lot, particularly what certain strains in American and European politics seem to have in common with those in parts of the Islamic world.

* * *

Our fourth “voice” addresses both the present and the future. Jane Jacobs’ view ranges from families and neighborhoods to government, economics and even science. And she sees a Dark Age Ahead.

A “dark age” occurs when a culture forgets what it has lost. More specifically, a culture’s institutions — political, economic and cultural — fail to adapt to changing conditions. The institutions become antiquated and are discarded. We see it happening in the “palace economies” of the Late Bronze Age and in the Roman empire’s failure to adapt politically to demographic and cultural change.

The United States has been prey historically to two anti-democratic strains: concentrations of economic and political power. As emblems of individual success, they risk becoming quasi-religious dogmas, even golden calves in popular mythology. In addition, we see another strain emerging: “Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to a society’s decline from cultural vigor,” and it leads to a fortress mentality. (p. 17)

And there we can see the dark age ahead. Cities are built for automobiles rather than people. Communities are carved up and stifled. Family incomes are stretched beyond the breaking point to earn enough for shelter and transportation; and families, deprived of communities, are themselves gradually replaced by another, utterly authoritarian household: the prison.

Consensus cannot form, and political discourse degenerates into sectarian hostility. Democracy itself can no longer legitimize government: those who have the means become rulers, and the professions, corrupted, become their servants. Centuries later, starving peasants scrabble for roots in the shadow of ruins.

Sound familiar? Is there really a dark age ahead, or has it already begun?

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Cassandra's Voices

Cassandra’s Voices
Warnings to the Modern Age

Karen Armstrong, The Battle for God
Eric H. Cline, 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed
John Dominic Crossan, God & Empire
Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead
James J. O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire
Don Webb, Cassandra’s Voices in 2016

Copyright © November 7, 2016 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories

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