Published since 1966November-December 2007
Volume 41, No. 6

A magazine of forecasts, trends, and ideas about the future.

Whither, Western Civilization?

Is Western civilization bound for collapse? How apt are comparisons between the U.S. and the Roman Empire in its final days?  In the November-December issue of THE FUTURIST, we broach the issue with celebrated editor and historian Lewis Lapham.

FUTURIST: Needless to say, our civilization faces a number of very real dangers, global warming, resource exhaustion, threats to safety and security.  Yet, one could argue that we are also well poised to address these issues.  We produce tremendous amounts of information, technologies already exist, and are well known, that could ease our transition to a more sustainable economy.  More people than ever before are finding ways to collaborate and solve the major issues of our day like meliorating poverty, advancing education, addressing global health problems.  And much evidence exists to suggest that they are meeting with some success. Yet, a sense of despair and looming catastrophe seems to permeate much of our cultural life at the moment.  Why does the idea of civilization collapse hold so much allure, particularly right now?

LL: I wrote a couple of good pieces about this years ago, one of which was called the "Death of Kings," and the other one was called the "Longing for Armageddon."  I'm reminded of the great speech in Richard II, it starts, "Of comfort no man speak.  Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings."  It's a very self-pitying speech. This fascination with civilization decline is an American narcissism. I'm not sure you'll find the same moaning at the bar in the Chinese press or the Indian press, or even the French press. It's not new either.

In the twenties and thirties World War I, had shaken people in New York.  The young men in the evening clubs with slicked-back hair were all very hard on themselves.  They talked about how the times were going from bad to worse; these were men in the Plaza hotel posing as the "Lost Generation." Bernard De Voto, who wrote for Harper's magazine in the twenties and thirties, to my mind, one of the first-rate American writers of the twentieth century, wrote that he was sickened by this spectacle because he remembered how at the end of the civil war, the defeated armies, both those of the south and of the north, left the battlefields in many instances barefoot but then built a great, industrial colossus. 

Much of this current fascination with decline is wallowing in self-pity. You'll find it in our media elite. They go to a conference, spend a couple of days on the golf course drinking high-end white wine and then deliver Jeremiahs. There's something very comic about a preoccupation with self like that.  If you're in Los Angeles, in Brentwood say, and you're sitting around the pool, you're likely to hear different versions of the same conversation; the world is going to hell. It's not what it used to be. America is past its Zenith.  The sun is setting. The Chinese are rising. On the other hand, if you're in the Mexican part of Los Angeles where people are working hard, low-pay jobs in order to make for themselves a better future, you get a completely different future.

That having been said, there is also the sense that, over time, a complacent oligarchy goes rancid in the sun like cheese.  And you end up with people who think that they're so rich they don't have to pay attention, which is what you have with the fatuous dreams of empire that have been coming out of Washington, really, since, the early 1990s. Then you have people who embark on a truly foolish war for a number reasons, not knowing anything about the geography, or the cultural history, or the language of the desert on which they are about to descend. And that's a form of folly.

Barbara Tuchman wrote a wonderful book called The March of Folly some years ago in which she compares our little adventure in Vietnam with the British loss of the colonies in the 1770s. Prior to the American Revolution, no British member of parliament or the aristocracy bothered to come to America. They knew almost as little about America as we know of Baghdad. She also tells of the medieval Renaissance Christian church that becomes so besotted with its own dreams of grandeur that it can't really look at its own behavior. The next thing you know, you have the reformation.  So there are forms of self-destruction. Usually they take the form of willed ignorance.

FUTURIST: Thinking of Cullen Murphy's book "Are We Rome?" Do you think drawing a parallel between our own culture and Rome in decline can be helpful?

LL: I read Cullen's book. I thought it was fair-minded. Not a lot of 'oh woe is us' and rending of garments and so on. He's very fair-handed in discussing the different approaches to the idea of Rome. It's not the presumptuous, puffed-up Charles Krauthammer kind of argument. And, as I recall, at the end of the book he has a couple of suggestions for how to address the future to try to identify the real problems, to lower one's expectations, to essentially join the human race, and also to know that America has remade itself over the course of the last two-hundred years, and we're likely to do so again. We have that energy which was not there in 2nd century.  

FUTURIST: What can we do to tap that energy and use it constructively right now?

LL: You see the example of Gates, Buffet, Soros, you see 120 billion dollars a year raised in charity to build hospitals, do medical research, improve our educational system, and alleviate the hardships of the poor in various parts of the world. There's a lot of free-floating idealism in the United States. It tends to take smaller, local, more specific forms. Nader's point was a very good one when he was writing in the election in 2000. He said that we can remake this country if a million people in the United States would spend 100 dollars a year and work 100 hours in some form of public service. That, to me, seems the simplest, most direct answer to the question of how do we make our society stronger. Whether your working for the environment, health, or education, it doesn't matter so much as long as you're working at it. The great resource of any country is the energy and intelligence of its people. That's where the investment of money and thought ought to go, and that's why the war is such a criminal waste.

About the Interviewee
Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham's Quarterly. He also serves as editor emeritus and national correspondent for Harper's magazine.

This interview was conducted by Patrick Tucker.

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