Thank you for the opportunity to deliver today’s “commencement address.” To sum up the next half hour in a phrase: those of you who are sitting here today are a generation of pioneers. Even if you don’t want to be.
When we think of pioneers, we tend to conjure up images of scruffy families, aboard covered wagons, with ragged little ones in tow, making their way, on open stretches of prairie, across the Great Divide. Or we imagine a stockade of wary Pilgrims, in their pilgrim hats and black coats, keeping watch with their muskets at the ready lest the Indians come stealing through the woods to attack them unawares.
But pioneers come in all shapes and sizes, wearing all sorts of outfits, journeying in all manner of transport, across all sorts of terrain; and they become pioneers not because they want to be pioneers but because pioneering is what history imposes on them.
I’m going to throw some names and dates at you. You can’t build a house without laying a foundation, and you can’t get a feel for the future without having a sense of the past. If you’ll stick with me, you’ll see what these names and dates have to do with your pioneering mission to raise up the phoenix of a new America from the ashes of the old.
So let’s go back thirteen-hundred-and-forty years, to the year 632, at the dawn of modern times.
In 632, the Prophet Mohammad passed from the earth. You’ve heard of Mohammad. Mohammed was a businessman turned prophet who founded a religion whose followers we call Muslims.
Not long after Mohammad passed from the scene, his followers came storming out of the Arabian heartland to sweep as far to the north and east as modern-day Pakistan and as far to the west and south as modern-day Morocco, spreading their faith and culture to encompass a region larger than Europe. Eighty years later, in 711, Muslim forces crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to establish, on the Iberian peninsula (modern-day Spain), the Caliphate of Al-Andalus. Fast forward twenty-one years to 732 when Muslim armies, vaulting the Pyrenees (the mountainous border that separates Spain from France), invaded the lands of the Franks. The Franks were the largest and most powerful confederation of German tribes whose territory included modern-day France, Germany, Northern Italy and a portion of the Balkan countries. It was there, at the village of Tours, on the banks of the Loire, in the wine country of what became west-central France, that Charles Martel, the leader of the Frankish forces, beat back the Muslim advance in a battle that may have saved the life of Western Christendom.
Charles Martel died in 741. Eleven years later, in 752, Pope Zachary crowned Charles’ son, Pepin the Short, King of the Franks. Pepin expanded the Frankish realm by annexing Aquitaine (modern-day southwestern France) and Burgundy (the overlap between modern-day southeastern France and northwestern Italy). Pepin died in 768, and his son, Charlemagne (Charles the Great), came to the throne.
Charlemagne further enlarged the Frankish kingdom until he became ruler of all Western and Central Europe. Grateful for Charlemagne’s support, Pope Leo III, on Christmas Day, in the year 800, crowned Charlemagne emperor of what came to be known as the Holy Roman Empire, an alliance of European ethnic groups that, for nearly five hundred years, had been ruled from Byzantium (the Eastern branch of the Roman Empire and the forerunner of the Eastern Orthodox Church that included much of modern-day Turkey, Greece, the Middle East, Armenia, parts of Russia and the southern Balkans). The Byzantine empire was now headed by Empress Irene whose authority Pope Leo refused to recognize because, as he saw it, there couldn’t, by definition, be an empress.
When Charlemagne died in 811, his son, Louis the Pious, came to the throne. Louis had four sons who fought constantly among themselves. The kingdom that Charlemagne had united was torn apart by these fraternal quarrels. The Treaty of Verdun, in 863, ended the quarreling, but the Frankish kingdom, war weary and weakened, never recovered. Twelve years later, in 875, Louis’ youngest son, Charles the Bald, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor only to die, two years later, in 877.
Charles the Bald’s son, Louis the Stammerer, became King of the Franks but not Holy Roman Emperor whose crown, in the year 881, went to Louis’ cousin, Charles the Fat. Charles the Fat’s cousin, Charles the Simple, became King of the Franks to be succeeded by his son, Louis the Fourth, who, in turn, was succeeded by his son, Louis the Fifth who, dying childless in 987, was the last Carolingian king: “Carolignian” from “Charles.”
The Carolingian dynasty lasted 255 years, from Charles Martel’s victory over the Iberian Muslims in 732, to Louis the Fifth’s death in 987.
While the Carolingians were consolidating what became modern-day Europe, modern-day England was in the making. In 732, the year that Charles Martel halted the Muslim advance in Europe, there were four major Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and no less than fifteen minor kingdoms. These kingdoms were forever at each other’s throats, though they managed to combine forces and cooperate when it came to battling the Vikings who, in the seven hundreds, were harrying their coastlines and rivers.
The most prominent Anglo-Saxon king, in the mid-700’s, was Aethelbald of Mercia who was murdered by his bodyguards in 757, whereupon Offa, the self-styled Magnificent, came to the throne to rule until his death in 796. Remember Beowulf and those dark, firelit halls, with the spears and shields hanging on the walls, where people ate with their fingers because they didn’t have knives and forks? That’s the time period we’re talking about.
A hundred years later, in 871, Alfred the Great came to the throne to become king of the Anglo-Saxons. Meanwhile the Danes had settled in the eastern part of the country. For the next hundred years, the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes jockeyed for dominance until, late in the nine hundreds, during the reign of Edward the Elder, the Danes and the Anglo-Saxons merged to create modern-day England.
What do these names and dates tell us about pioneering generations and the missions that history has given them to accomplish?
There’s a pattern to the eight generations of the Carolingians who created modern-day Europe matched by the eight generations of the Anglo-Saxons and Danes who created modern-day England.
A once vibrant dynasty begins to falter. In its twilight, a vigorous challenger rises up to defeat the ailing champion and become the founder of a new dynasty. The next generation solidifies and the third generation expands upon the gains won by the first generation. The decline begins in the fourth generation and takes four generations to end in collapse. The number of generations may be fewer or greater than eight, but this eightfold pattern, in Western history, appears to be the rule.
Eight generations from rise to peak to fall. Then comes the ninth – the pioneering – generation to begin the cycle again.
How might this eightfold generational pattern play out in our American experience?
Let’s say that, on average, a generation’s pre-eminence lasts fifty years. The first colonial settlement that survived in British North America was Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607. Count forward eight generations. That takes us to the year 2007. That was only five years ago.
169 years separate the founding of Jamestown in 1607 from the Declaration of Independence in 1776. 236 years separate the Declaration of Independence from the current year (2012). The mid-point of these 236 years is 1896.
What’s so special about the mid-point year 1896?
During the first half of the post-colonial American experience, beginning in the year 1787 when the Constitution was ratified and the United States was born, America fought three wars of note, suffering defeat in the War of 1812, achieving victory in the Mexican War of the 1840’s and experiencing neither victory nor defeat, some twenty years later, in the bloodbath of “civil” war. During the second half of this 236 year period, America has been involved in two major wars (World Wars I and II), four lesser wars (the Korean War, The Vietnamese/Indochinese War, the Gulf Wars I and II) and now the “War on Terror.” In addition to these wars, there was the pivotal Spanish-American War, the seed of which sprang in the mid-point year, 1896, when the Cuban Revolutionary, José Martí, sought to win Cuban independence from the declining Spanish empire.
The Cuban revolutionaries of 1896 drifted into the countryside to begin a corrosive campaign of guerilla resistance aimed at toppling the ruling Spanish land barons. Spain responded by cracking down on those suspected of aiding the revolutionaries. Enter Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The plight of the oppressed Cubans roused American sympathies and sold newspapers. “Yellow Journalism” was born as the media published lurid accounts of the brutality that the Spanish padrones were allegedly inflicting upon the Cuban campesinos. Meanwhile, American shipping and produce interests, suffering financial losses as a result of Cuban instability, pressured Congress to take the matter in hand. As the 1890’s drew to a close, negotiations with Spain resulted in a declaration of Cuban autonomy to begin on New Year’s Day, 1898, Cuba to remain an independent but affiliated Spanish possession in the increasingly American sphere of Caribbean influence.
On January 11, 1898, in response to civil unrest in Havana, President McKinley dispatched a large battleship, the U.S.S. Maine, from its port in Key West, Florida, whose task was to protect American interests in Cuba. A few miles into the harbor, a massive explosion erupted below decks. The ship sank, and two-hundred-sixty-seven crewmen perished. The media cried sabotage. The President asked Congress for fifty million dollars in war appropriations. Although it turned out, upon investigation, that the explosion was due to engine malfunction, media accusations of Spanish perfidy stoked the furnace of war fever egged on by the alleged atrocities that the Spanish were committing in Cuba, tales that later proved to have been fabricated by the Hearst press, the ruse captured in Hearst’s famous comment to his photographer, Frederic Remington, “You furnish the pictures; I’ll furnish the war.”
On April 20, 1898, the White House delivered an ultimatum to the Spanish government: accede to Cuban independence or else. Spain stood fast. On April 25, Congress declared war on Spain. Cuba was the pretext. The Philippines was the prize.
The phrase “Manifest Destiny,” coined by editor John L. O’Sullivan, first appeared in the July/August, 1845 issue of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review. The phrase echoed the belief, widespread at the time, that America had a providential mission to annex the Republic of Texas, which had lately won its independence from Mexico, and to extend American sovereignty in the Northwest and so to possess and govern the midsection of the North American continent “from sea to shining sea” and, across that shining sea, up to the gates of Old Cathay. Although the term was no longer in vogue by the time of the Spanish-American War, the belief that America had a divine mandate to extend its power and influence at home and abroad was very much alive as the country cast its eye westward across the Pacific.
While the contest for Cuba was underway, a similar thrust for independence was taking place in the Philippines. The eclipse of Portuguese colonization in the Far East had “opened the door” to efforts by the Western powers, including Spain, to succeed to the Portuguese largesse. On May 1, 1898, the American fleet defeated the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. Within the week, American forces had captured Manila, making the U.S. master of the Philippines. With Samoa having been occupied, the seizure of Guam quickly followed.
Meanwhile, an American invasion of Cuba was taking its toll on the Spanish defenses. The most dramatic confrontation between the American and Spanish forces, rising, in time, to the status of legend, took place in the battle for the city of Santiago de Cuba, when the “Rough Riders” of the First Volunteer Cavalry, under the command of former Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, stormed the Spanish emplacements on San Juan Hill. Though the Americans suffered a slew of casualties, the Spanish lines were broken, and the defenders were forced to flee. The image of Tough Teddy (for whom the cuddly Teddy Bear was mischievously named) was instrumental in T.R.’s rise up the political ladder until, in 1900, he was “kicked upstairs” to become President McKinley’s second term, Vice-Presidential running mate. When McKinley was assassinated the following year, Roosevelt found himself a surprised occupant of the Oval Office.
On the heels of American victories in the Philippines, Samoa, Guam and the all-but-certain outcome in Cuba, Puerto Rico fell easily to the force of American arms.
Spain, defeated, sued for peace. On February 6, 1899, the U.S. became an internationally recognized empire, including, among its possessions, a lease, in perpetuity, of the naval base in Guantanamo Bay at the southeastern tip of Cuba. In 1901, in a reversal of the principles laid down nearly two centuries earlier in the Monroe Doctrine, Congress passed the Platt Amendment, stipulating that the withdrawal of American forces from Cuba would be contingent upon American management of Cuba’s internal affairs, a policy that lasted 58 years, until 1959, when the Castro-led Cuban revolution effectively negated the Amendment’s provisions.
Four generations, beginning in 1787 when the U.S. was born, takes us to 1987, a scant two years before the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union fell. Two generations from 1787, the halfway point between the birth of the U.S. and the fall of the Soviet Union, takes us to 1887 and the start of the “Gay ‘Nineties,” the era that set the Western world ablaze with the ferment of Impressionist painting, the Birth of the Blues and the new literary realism of Ibsen, Chekov and Henry James.
The transition from republic to empire has often been the turning point in a culture’s journey from rise to peak to fall. The transition from American Republic to American Empire, on the heels of the Spanish-American War, may have been the cresting of a wave that, when the history of post-colonial America will have been written, may prove to be the tipping point.
Rise. Peak. Fall. Then the ninth generation: the pioneers who bring about the re-birth.
79 years, from 732 to 811, spanned the interval beginning with the Frankish victory over the Muslim invasion of Europe and ending with the death of Charlemagne, at which point the Carolingian dynasty tipped into a decline that took 167 years to complete: from 811 until, in 987, the dynasty went out of existence. Likewise, 310 years spanned the interval between the murder of Aethelbald of Mercia, in 757, and the coming to English shores, in 1066, of William the Conqueror. Alfred the Great died in 899. By then, the decline of Anglo-Saxon dominance in what was to become modern-day England was well underway. If that decline began roughly in 875, when the “Danelaw” firmly established itself on Anglo-Saxon soil, it turns out that 118 of these 310 years were a period of cultural rise while it took 192 years for that rise to peak and fall. In the Frankish case, four-fifths of the period of rise and fall (82%) may be accorded to the fall. In the Anglo-Saxon case, two-thirds of the period of rise and fall (63%) may be accorded to the fall.
It took Rome, the mightiest of empires, 525 years to decline: from Julius Caesar’s coup d’etat in 49 B.C. until the deposition, in the year 476, by Odoacer, a German chieftain, of Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor. Rome’s history spans some 1230 years if 753 B.C. is taken to be the date of Rome’s founding. Rome’s rise accounted for 58% of its existence. Rome’s fall accounted for 42% of its existence, a length of rise before the fall that may be unparalled by any subsequent Western empire. If 1896 is the current mid-point of America’s post-colonial existence and if the final five years of the nineteenth century will have turned out, in history’s reckoning, to have been the transition from American rise to American fall, we’ll have reached the apex precisely at the halfway mark.
To place these remarks in context, let me quote from an essay written by John Whitehead of The Rutherford Institute. Mr. Whitehead is much concerned about the future of people like you and speaks with a prophetic voice whose timely warnings, as time goes by, might hopefully be heeded:
Living under the threat of zero tolerance policies, tagged and tracked with surveillance devices, and facing exorbitant fines and jail time in cases of truancy, America’s youth are now finding themselves in a protracted battle brought about by those whom they are supposed to trust: teachers, police officers, and courts of law. Tasked with protecting young people, these once-trusted figures and institutions are instead serving the interests of the state, which is less concerned about educating the next generation, and more concerned with encouraging obedience and extracting wealth.
All the while, America continues to find itself ranking the lowest among developed nations in terms of quality of public education. Despite an array of standardized tests meant to boost student performance, young people are not taught higher-level thinking skills, putting them at a distinct disadvantage upon entering college or the workforce. It’s a dire situation made worse by the profit-over-people, total-security mindset that has overtaken our governing institutions and undermined our freedoms.
– John Whitehead
The Rutherford Institute
I recently attended a sixth grade graduation at one of our local public schools. The graduates sat proudly on stage, basking in the glow of their achievement. As part of the ceremony, the school’s principal read from his book of “prophesies,” foretelling the way in which each of these talented graduates would make their mark in the world of media, sports, academia, business, government and as stewards of the environment.
It was fun, these glamorous pronouncements, but expensive fun. No matter how intelligent, charming, ambitious and hard working these sixth-grade graduates may be, their futures are to more likely involve them in grease and grime than shimmer and shine as is typical of pioneering generations.
The ninth American generation – that’s you – is coming of age at a time when “sustainability” has become the watchword. Sustainability connotes a plateau following an ascent. More than that, the term implies the need to conserve at a time of diminishing resources to consolidate on the heels of an exhausted expansion.
When the states ratified the Constitution, Benjamin Franklin is rumored to have said to his younger contemporaries, “We leave you a republic if you can keep it.” America kept its republic, by force if you take account of the Civil War, for a 111 years, from the ratification of the Constitution in 1787 until the outbreak of the Spanish American War in 1898 when, at the turn of the twentieth century, the American republic gave way to the American empire. Republics that evolve into empires, tend, in their declining phases, to become aggressive and repressive. German National Socialism, Italian/Spanish Fascism and Soviet/Asian Communism – the trio of aggressive/repressive regimes with which we’re familiar by virtue of their prominence for much of the past century – sought to counter their decline by attempting to instill, in the hearts and minds of those who were in thrall to their regimes, loyalty to an ideal: the race, the state, the collective. Multi-national corporocracy, born in America and gone global, proposes loyalty to no such compelling ideal; and may, on that account, be somewhat more benign.
History suggests that these aggressive/repressive tendencies eventually destroy the culture in which they arise. The agent of that destruction is the bureaucracy that the empire creates as its instrument of domination and control.
Here’s an example of the way in which this destructive process works:
A seventh-grader at our local middle school recently showed me one of the practice problems assigned to his class in preparation for the upcoming standardized math exam. He and his classmates are tested several times during the year. Most of their classroom instruction is geared to prep for these tests. The distance between New York and Chicago, for purposes of this example, is eight hundred miles. A train leaves New York traveling west at fifty miles an hour. At the same moment, a train leaves Chicago traveling east at seventy miles an hour. At what mile marker, between New York and Chicago, will the two trains meet?
You can find the answer by manipulating a fraction. Nonetheless, said my young friend, it’s a silly question. I asked him why it was a silly question. “Because there are hills and valleys and towns and farms along the way. The trains speed up and slow down. What if there’s a cow on the tracks? What if there’s a blizzard? You can’t tell where the trains are going to meet. It all depends.”
I asked my young friend if it troubled him that he was being asked what he took to be a silly question. No, he said, it didn’t. I asked him why it didn’t. Because, he said, the important thing was to do well on the test.
My young friend articulated an important principle of social existence. The point was made explicit by a teacher at his school, who said to me, on one occasion, “The purpose of education is to enable young people to succeed in the world they’re going to live in, not the world we might like them to live in.”
The lesson that one learns from such problem-solving exercises, in the seventh grade and, indeed, at a much earlier age, is that the meaningful and the meaningless are equivalent alternatives when it comes to gauging the value of thought and action. If the meaningless, as a practical matter, achieves the better result than the meaningful, the meaningless is to be preferred. In the moral sphere, Hamlet, prevaricating with his friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, summed it up when he observed, facetiously, that ”nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so.”
Bureaucracy requires adherence to procedure. Information needs to be gathered, sorted, tallied and dispensed. Policies need to be articulated and implemented. Rules need to be fashioned and followed. A culture, an organization, any group must govern itself by some reliable means. Yet there comes a point at which bureaucracy, feeding too voraciously on the time, talent and treasure of the culture, organization or group it was created to serve, becomes parasitic on the body of that culture, organization or group. In time, the parasitic action of bureaucracy, via the gratuitous requirements of useless and redundant activity, saps its host and, as it does so, brings about social, psychological, political and spiritual breakdown.
Here’s an example of the way in which this process works:
The basement of my house serves as a studio apartment. There’s a living/kitchen area, a bedroom and a bathroom. To go from the bedroom to the living/kitchen area or vice versa, you have to pass through the bathroom. I wanted to put a door in the wall between the bedroom and the living/kitchen area to eliminate the need to pass through the bathroom.
The town’s building code is extremely detailed. As I sifted through its array of rules and regulations, it became clear that there was no way, given this height restriction, that width restriction, this distance restriction, that jamb and threshold restriction, that I could legally install a door in the wall between the bedroom and the living/kitchen area. But nothing, apparently, prohibited me from inserting a window. To satisfy the requirements of the building code, if I were to follow through with my plan to avoid passing through the bathroom back and forth to the living/kitchen area, I might, instead of walking through a door, go from the bedroom to the living/kitchen area or the other way ‘round by stepping on a stool, swinging my leg over the sill at the height of three feet, climbing through the window and gingerly letting myself down on the opposite floor. (It seems I’m not obliged to install a pane in the window.)
Granted the illustration is baroque. But it’s precisely because of its baroque nature that we’re able to see, in such an example, the way in which the parasitic nature of bureaucracy operates. The building inspector isn’t looking to impose nonsensical requirements for the sake of any pleasure it may give him. But he has rules and regulations to enforce whether or not, in a given instance, the particular rule or regulation makes sense and whether or not he may personally approve or disapprove of the rules and regulations he’s obliged to enforce. Though we may grumble if and when bureaucracy’s rules and regulations strike us as perverse, there seems to be nothing we can do about them, no way to hold bureaucracy accountable for its perversity. So we gradually accommodate to life in a perverse environment. Passive, cooperative and non-resistant, we give up the fight for personal empowerment – what previous generations called “freedom” and “liberty” – and resign ourselves, with a grin or grimace, to the forces that rule us.
If that’s all there was to it – the ability of an aggressive/repressive regime, via the instrument of bureaucracy, to rule a populace rendered powerless and not caring or even noticing that it’s been rendered powerless – we’d be living in an Orwellian world in which independent thought and action would instantly be detected and crushed. But even as bureaucracy and its agent, the regime’s police power, achieves an ever more comprehensive domination and control of our lives, it fertilizes the soil of its eventual extinction.
Here’s a trivial example of the way in which this fertilization occurs. That the example is trivial demonstrates the process more vividly:
I recently had some dental work done. I have a modest dental insurance plan that will pay a portion of the cost if I obtain the plan’s approval in advance. I submitted my request for approval. The request was turned down despite the fact that the plan explicitly covers the procedure. After several phone calls and faxes in which I pointed out the provision of the plan that covers the procedure, the procedure was approved. The plan would now pay a portion of the cost, leaving me to pay the balance. I had the work done and paid the dental clinic my share of the bill.
Along with my initial request for approval, I submitted to the insurance company a dozen or so pages of material to specify the details of the procedure and to verify that my plan, covering the procedure, was in force. When the insurance company finally approved the claim, I re-submitted the paperwork, this time to the clinic, along with the approval form from the insurance company that indicated that the insurance company would pay what the plan said it would pay. The dental clinic submitted the claim, with the paperwork attached, the paperwork that the insurance company already had but requested nonetheless. Since that time, for a total of several hours, I’ve been on the phone with the dental clinic, the insurance agent who represents the insurance company and with customer service at the insurance company, attempting to get the claim paid. The billing person at the dental clinic tells me that she, too, has been on the phone, with the insurance company, attempting to get the claim paid. In addition, there’s been a great deal of faxing of material previously faxed. Months later, there’s no payment in sight. The clinic tells me that if it doesn’t receive payment soon, it will turn my account over to “collections” whose agents will harass me until I or the insurance company pay the plan’s portion of the bill. If the plan refuses to pay its portion of the bill, I’m out of luck. The plan will pay or not pay as it pleases.
The people at the insurance company with whom I’ve dealt are patient, helpful and understanding. They tell me there’s nothing they can do except to refer the problem further up the line to whomever will then refer the problem yet further up the line.
The lady at the dental clinic, who handles the clinic’s billing, tells me that this rallentando goes on all the time. Claims always get rejected the first, second, even the third time around. Eventually claims are paid or not paid. I asked what will happen if the insurance company doesn’t pay and, despite being harassed by “collections,” I don’t pay. She shrugged. Her job is to submit and re-submit claims, photocopying and faxing, generating the bills and statements that she mails to patients and copies of which she inserts into patients’ charts. Somehow the money needed to keep the clinic in operation comes from somewhere. I asked her to estimate the amount of time she’s spent on processing my claim, which has yet to be paid. Several hours, she said. How many more hours does she estimate she’s likely to spend? A few, a lot, who knows.
The point of this example is not to say, “poor me” nor is it to complain about the ways in which corporate entities – in this case an insurance company – can make good on their obligations or not as they choose, nor am I looking to make a surreptitious pitch to reform a poorly managed health care system administered by some combination of brisk and lazy bureaucrats. The point is to illustrate, via this mundane example, in contrast to the previous baroque example, that bureaucracy will eventually cripple and finally kill the culture it was ostensibly created to serve. People will be remarkably busy, slaving away, from dawn to dusk, yet no productive work will be done and impoverishment will result.
Only military adventures abroad and police repression at home facilitate a culture’s demise more rapidly than the cancerous growth of capacious bureaucracy. With the exception of Byzantium, during the first half of its thousand year existence, every kingdom, country, nation, society and culture in the Western world that has seen a growth of bureaucracy has simultaneously witnessed a debasement of its economy and the enfeeblement of its social structures and political institutions. The growth of bureaucracy, in America, has passed the point at which its debilitating impact can be reversed. The result will be the material impoverishment of many members of your generation, and, forgive me for saying so, but you would do well to prepare for it. Ultimately, a multiplicity of contradictory rules, regulations, policies and procedures makes it nigh on to impossible for the ordinary person to obey bureaucracy’s increasingly senseless, wasteful and indecipherable commands and requirements even if you might sincerely wish to do so. The result is gridlock, paralysis and, in the end, breakdown.
History is bunk!
– Henry Ford
The technological revolution that promised a limitless, Star Trek future of unbridled affluence has enriched a small minority at the expense of the large majority. The so-called “one percent” isn’t a new phenomenon. The “one percent” has been dominant since ancient times. Yet, within that dominance, there are periods of cultural ebb and flow. From our current period of decline, there will likely emerge a re-flowering of what’s best in American culture even if the hierarchy of status distinction and social stratification should remain a fixed feature of American existence.
In that spirit, I suggest that there are three portals through which the members of the ninth American generation will pass on your pioneering path to a cultural, economic, social, political and spiritual renaissance.
First portal: the middle and working classes – which is to say the mass of the American people – have seen their day as a social, political, economic and cultural force. We’re witnessing the emergence of the New American Peasantry from the chrysalis of the lost war for middle and working class survival. Individual members of these vanishing classes may do very well, but the middle and working classes, as collective entities, are finished.
Second portal: the vast majority of our people may be disinclined to face our reduced circumstances and may do little to try and ameliorate them; rather, we may respond to the bitterness and resentment occasioned by our reduced circumstances by feeling a mixture of rage and resignation interrupted, by attempts on the part of various communities, constituencies and special interests, to gain purchase for themselves at the expense of their equally struggling neighbors, aggravating divisions of race, gender and similar criteria by which an older generation has consented to be divided and ruled.
Third portal: the increasingly aggressive/repressive regime, weakened and fatigued in consequence of the material and spiritual impoverishment that its forces have unleashed, will, with nary a whiff of protest from a tired, discouraged and powerless people, run out of fuel and sputter to a halt. Then, if the ninth generation accomplishes its pioneering mission, comes the risorgimento though not without a large measure of sacrifice. To be optimistic, the mythology of Western culture – mythology being the expression, in image and narrative, of history’s themes and lessons – points as unerringly as the seasons of nature to the rebirth that follows death and dissolution.
Since this is a venue that promotes alternative approaches to teen education, and since you’re among the relatively few teens who’ve chosen to opt out of the school environment, let me share with you a brief reflection on the nature of institutional education, the dominant culture’s primary means, in tandem with the church/ temple/mosque, of conditioning young people to endorse the dominant culture’s legitimacy and to promote its norms and values.
School does best when it fosters conformity, standardization and obedience to authority. To be sure, being “well-adjusted” can be a source of happiness, comfort and contentment. But when the times are urgent and a culture’s conventions prove inadequate to ensure its survival, school has run its course and retards rather than advances a culture’s well-being. The best that school can do, under the circumstances, is to impart, to the best of its ability, the social, political and vocational skills necessary for individuals to compete successfully for a diminishing supply of opportunity and advantage.
In this light, consider an incident that recently took place at a Metro-Boston public school. A parent took umbrage at the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, believing that his children’s school ought not endorse what he regarded as an idolatrous form of state worship. He also didn’t like it that his children might be ostracized by their classmates should his children, in line with their – or his – principles, refuse to participate in the exercise. Other adult members of the community rallied to the Pledge. Of note was the response of one of the rallying parents. If you don’t go along with the majority, of course you’re going to be ostracized, she explained. And the virtue of ostracism is the opportunity that ostracism affords the ostracized to develop the strength of character necessary to hold, under duress, to an unpopular view.
Think about that. The virtue of ostracism is the opportunity that ostracism affords the ostracized to develop the strength of character necessary to hold, under duress, to an unpopular view. That is to say: a preferred way to build character – one that exhibits the virtues of honesty, integrity, compassion, self-reliance, inner strength and a willingness to hold oneself accountable for one’s actions – is to subject people – young people, at a tender age – to exclusion, ridicule, banishment, the adversity of shame, humiliation and discouragement, in a word, to moral bullying. This parent’s piquant view of school, as a pedagogic model of life in community, points up institutional education’s role, despite the best intentions of sincere and hard-working educators, as the primary enabler of America’s cultural and spiritual decline and fall.
The transformation of the American middle and working classes to the status of a disenfranchised peasantry would reverse an historic trend that began in the fifteenth century at the birth of the modern age. The defining characteristic of a peasantry is lack of ownership of (i.e. possessory rights in) land and capital, what, in the past, was called the “means of production” and now, with financial assets comprising the greater part of the non-residential wealth of the middle and working classes, the fruits of production. The fact that most Americans, particularly comfortable Americans, don’t believe that they might ever become impoverished, having had no experience of poverty, makes this expropriation the more easily accomplished.
The devolution of the American middle and working classes to the level of the threadbare poor would go hand in hand with a manorial system of ownership of land and goods vested primarily in the hands of a wealthy elite. For example, according to Forbes Magazine, a prominent business publication, the wealth of the six heirs of the Walton (that is, the Wal Mart) family fortune is greater than the combined wealth of the bottom one-hundred-and-thirty-million Americans; and, according to the same source, the four hundred wealthiest Americans have greater wealth than the combined wealth of forty percent of the American population. And, beginning this year, in excess of one million schoolchildren, in the United States, are officially designated as homeless.
This small, ultra-wealthy elite and its armed retainers (the military and the police) wouldn’t, in the manner of medieval feudalism, require the corvée labor of a mass of impoverished serfs. An economy that can supply, from formerly “Third World” peonage, the material wants and needs of a small, ultra-wealthy elite wouldn’t have need of the services of millions of unemployed Americans. Not only would the majority of the American labor force be surplus; it would be superfluous. There would be no reason to sustain its existence. In the past, such surplus populations have slaughtered one another in wars, decamped, as immigrants, to other lands or, as invaders, have sought to oust the native population. The strangulation of famine, disease and violent crime, sufficiently quarantined, could turn out to be an equally effective means of “demographic cleansing.”
If poverty were to sweep the land, a politically powerless, socially disorganized, economically devastated peasantry might find itself inhabiting, as squatters, vast estates that encompass many square miles, private preserves similar to the Roman latifundia of the three- and four hundreds, something akin to our government-owned parks and reservations: tracts now set aside for conservation, for timber harvesting and mineral exploitation, for Native Americans. Federal, state and local governments, no longer able to extract more than a trickle of wealth from an impoverished peasantry, may all but cease to function. Communities would emerge ex tempore, composed of families, friends, colleagues and neighbors. What exists in the way of civil government may then be makeshift, ad hoc and adapted to the needs of the moment. People will create out of chaos what order they can.
This is the context in which to view the prospects of the ninth American generation. A culture’s demise doesn’t happen overnight: it customarily takes four generations, possibly five, as we saw when we looked at the dynasties that brought modern Europe and Britain into being. Every generation is both a first and a ninth generation. As the ninth generation, you’re bearing witness to what may be the descent from an American peak that arguably began at the turn of the twentieth century. As a first generation, you’re the pioneers whose historical task may be to initiate the rise that comes after the fall.
What will likely determine the success or failure of your pioneering venture?
That will largely depend upon the way in which you thread your way between the twin snares that lie in wait for you: on the one hand, the tendency to lapse into passivity, indifference and self-indulgence in view of what may seem overwhelming odds stacked against a generation called to live through the final phase of the culture into which its members have been born; on the other hand, the tendency to look out for Number One and to adopt the attitude of everyone and every group – every race, gender, special interest – for him/her/themselves. If these outlooks become the prevalent view and motivation of your generation, the resulting cynicism and opportunism will thwart your mission to raise the phoenix of a new and better culture from the ashes of the old and dying one. In that case, some of you will do well in government and corporate service, the two having become one and the same, but most of you will eke out a subsistence living, if at all, as internal migrants of the been-and-gone economy.
But this “history lesson” has in mind teens like yourselves who, due to the quality of your gifts, talents, psychological temperament and spiritual makeup, are not apt to exploit, to your illusory advantage, the temptations to self-advancement at others’ expense that a disintegrating culture makes available to the smart, the shrewd and the savvy; which is to say, that success in the pioneering endeavor will ultimately be gained by persons and communities of courage and character, those who are likely to treat one another with care, courtesy, compassion and respect.
What kind of community might your next generation, the tenth American generation, create as its young people one day look to you for inspiration and guidance?
Picture, if you will, the campus of a private boarding school or college. The buildings, re-possessed years ago by a financial institution that took title to the property and promptly forgot about it, have fallen into disrepair. The campus now stands rotting and neglected, resembling the ruins of a bygone era. The landscape, too, is bereft. Weeds and brush abound where once there were teas and cotillions, attended by graduates, their dates and families. A tribe of wandering young people, smartphones and ipads a distant memory of a vanished past – the internet requires a grid; a grid calls for power; power is the provenance of those who can pay for it; those who can pay for it are few and far between – stumble upon the crumbling remains of this once bustling but now defunct institution. Having nowhere to go and little to do but scrounge for their dinner, they take over the place. In time, these young people say, “Let’s start a school.”
A school. The notion sounds quaint. Schools were places that, in a previous age, sought to guide young people, first in assembly line fashion to prepare them for “jobs,” then in ambient ways better suited to the plasticity of their intermittent periods of uncertain employment, through the perils of adolescence to the safe harbor of adulthood. Mentors and role models in the form of “teachers” specialized in this occupation. Parents observed the process as an auxiliary of commentators, cheerleaders, critics, helpers. Some of what went on in these schools made sense; much of it didn’t. The schools went broke because their patrons and sponsors went broke. Few of these schools were self-sustaining. They grew no food. They spun no thread. They chopped no wood. They drew no water. They were “learning environments” in which the learning consisted primarily of the acquisition of the skills required for the manufacture of the images and the cultivation of the personal styles and political contacts that made it possible for students and graduates to make their way in a doomed and collapsing world.
The socially perverse stage of life called “adolescence” has departed along with the schools that promoted this cultural curiosity during those intensely troubled times. The teens who now live among these vine-clustered remnants are not adolescents. Many of the young women are bearing children at the age of thirteen and fourteen as did many of their ancestors. Many of the young men have begun putting their hand to the plow at the age of eleven and twelve. These young people are taken up with matters of material survival which preoccupation, ironically, has prompted in them a desire for spiritual nourishment. Having never heard the term nor been exposed to the concept, they create, spontaneously, from the workings of forces within themselves, the Sabbath, a time of rest, reflection and recuperation in lives that, as the Shakers once put it, “give hands to work and hearts to God.” Slowly, with whatever sources of adult help they can muster, they rehabilitate these careworn structures in an effort to make them, once again, a place of living and learning, the one no longer divorced from the other. As for practical skills: they need to eat, to make and wear clothes, to keep warm in winter and cool in summer. They need to become artisans and farmers, teamsters and merchants, scholars, administrators, technicians, healers. And they need to see to the well-being of the next generation. The curriculum lays the clock of discipline on the hours of daily life as a tablecloth is laid upon a table. School serves the function it always has. It socializes the young by making a time and place for the young to socialize themselves.
The day came when God was so distraught with his creation that He shouted from on high, “I know I said I wouldn’t, but I’ve changed my mind. A week from today, I’m going to send a flood to wipe you all out!”
The priest got up and called on the people to confess their sins.
The minister got up and called on the people to repent of their wickedness.
Then the rabbi got up and said, “Okay, folks, we’ve got seven days to learn how to live under water.”