By N.S. Palmer, Ph.D.
I was driving yesterday when, by the side of the road, I saw a billboard for a new television show. It was the usual stuff: a vapidly good-looking actress (and former fashion model) as a cop or psychologist, assisted by her muscular but sexually unthreatening male sidekick and a boss whose gruff manner hid a heart of gold.
Confronted with the news of such deep and meaningful televised entertainment, only two responses were possible: vomit on my steering wheel, or think. I elected to think. In particular, I thought about the on-going destruction and dismantling of Western civilization, a process about which “we the people” seem to have no say and no vote.
Neoconservatives and their corporate sponsors, of course, see their strip-mining of our culture as “creative destruction.” And they do have a point, though not a very good one. In human terms, creation and destruction are simply different sides of the same process. They start with situation A, do things to it, and end up with situation B. That is, of course, different from creation ex nihilo, which is the exclusive province of God.
If you like situation A and don’t want it destroyed to make way for situation B, then you see the process as destructive. If you like situation B and can’t wait to get rid of situation A, then you see the process as creative.
What we call “creation” normally consists of changing a situation in three ways:
- Making it more organized: “bringing order out of chaos.”
- Making it more useful.
- Making it more beautiful.
Criterion (1) is problematic. Some types of organization are more obvious than others, but you can find a rule to describe almost any situation, no matter how chaotic it seems. And if you can find a rule to describe a situation, then the situation is organized according to that rule. There are objective ways to measure the complexity of situations, and complex situations can be ordered or disordered in more interesting ways than simple situations: as Leo Tolstoy says in Anna Karenina, “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” However, complexity by itself does not equal chaos. If we want a reasonable way to distinguish creation from destruction, we’re left with criteria (2) and (3).
Criterion (2), that the new situation must be more “useful” than the old one, leaves open the question: “Useful to whom and for what?” Historically, Western culture has been very useful to most people in helping them to lead happy, fulfilling, morally wholesome lives. It’s true that they were not free to do anything they wanted: They were constrained both by law and by their own sense of shame at the thought of violating their society’s standards of right conduct. But was that really a bad thing? Would St. Thomas Aquinas and our civilization have been better off if his monastery had featured cable television pornography, recreational drugs, loose women, and “anything goes” standards of behavior? Such temptations would severely test even the virtue of a saint, let alone the weaker moral character that the rest of us possess.
Moreover, our history, religion, and culture were our common patrimony. Popular writers alluded to the Bible, to the works of Homer, and to the great events of history with perfect confidence that their readers knew what they were talking about. Can one fully appreciate Milton’s Paradise Lost without knowing anything about the Bible? Can one appreciate Shakespeare with no knowledge of Western European history? Even as late as the 1960s, popular comedians such as Shelley Berman did entire nightclub routines about topics such as psychoanalysis and the writings of Franz Kafka, and their audiences understood. Now, with our new-found freedom, comedy often consists mainly of sex, scatology, and vulgar words that the most talented comic geniuses of the early 20th century managed never to use but somehow got laughs, anyway.
So in spite of its flaws, and often because of them, Western civilization has been very useful to most people. On the other hand, the new post-civilized order is also quite useful to those who get money and power from it: corporations, government, and so forth. A corrupted society and people can offer little or no resistance even to the most fiendish schemes of the plutocratic elite. They will pay endlessly for their cable TV and their pornography because they’ve been told it’s part of their “freedom” to do so. Are they really freer? They’re certainly freer to be their worst selves. They are less free to be their best, because instead of liberating them, the social order has facilitated their enslavement to trivia, distraction, and to the lowest part of their animal natures.
Criterion (3), that the new situation must be more “beautiful” than the old one, relies in part on a subjective judgment about what is beautiful. I would argue that beauty is:
- Aesthetically pleasing (this has some complicated aspects).
- Organized in a clear and obvious way (not merely organized according to any rule).
- Morally, spiritually, and psychologically uplifiting: encouraging the best aspects of human nature instead of the worst.
By those criteria, our new social and cultural order is neither more beautiful than the old, nor is it beautiful at all. It is ugly.
From my viewpoint, therefore, the destruction of Western civilization and its replacement by a narcissistic culture of “freedom” to live one’s life in the lowest, the meanest, the vilest, the most degraded way, has no redeeming features. It’s not creative destruction at all: it’s just plain destruction.
A few people are trying to preserve our history and culture. They are the heroes who will carry our civilization forward when the current era passes away, as it will.
Copyright 2009 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL (http://www.ashesblog.com) are included.