“Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to a society’s decline from cultural vigor. Someone has aptly called self-imposed isolation a fortress mentality. Armstrong describes it as a shift from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit, ‘always…seeking to know more and to extend…areas of competence and control of the environment,’ to mythos, meaning conservatism that looks backward to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.
A fortress of fundamentalist mentality not only shuts itself off from dynamic influences originating outside but also, as a side effect, ceases influencing the outside world.
Jolts from inside and outside are not basically different. What is lost from Jared Diamond’s (author of Guns, Germs and Steel) erstwhile science of human history when we factor in human decisions in the aim we had in creating a genuinely hard science. Bringing in human decisions, as he did and as we must, changes the science itself, from a hard science to a soft one.
Some people think optimistically that if things get bad enough, they will get better because of the reaction of beneficient pendulums. When a culture is working wholesomely, beneficient pendulum swings – effective feedback – do occur. Corrective stabilization is one of the great services of democracy, with its feedback to rulers from the protesting and voting public. But powerful persons and groups that find it in their interest to prevent adaptive corrections have many ways of thwarting self-organizing stabilizers – through deliberately contrived subsidies and monopolies, for example.
The human causes of Rome’s collapse have been studied minutely, and one thing that can be learned is that everything is connected with everything else, not only in its consequences but also in its causes”.
Jane Jacobs, Dark Age Ahead
Jacobs is one of my favorite critical writers. Reading her book I am struck by references she makes and parallels she draws between collapsed former empires, and what I take to be a warning to the United States and to some extent Western culture (this includes Canada and Western Europe). It is hard not to see the relevance and connections between her critique of fundamentalist tendencies, the dangers of such isolationism and the impact it can have on a culture and a society.
In my studies of demographics, I am sometimes stumped and at a loss to explain certain numbers. At the end of the day sometimes statistics prove very unsatisfying explanations. The fact is a statistic is more of a end result than an explanation of the circumstances that lead up to the outcome. And for someone who is deeply interested in human behaviour and the causes that create certain dynamics, statistics can prove very unreliable sources of explanation. Demography is a science of human history that sometimes omits what Jacobs describes as the behavior of human beings. In her eyes such an omission is absurd. For her it is a limited description of what is going on within a culture, and I tend to agree with her.
Her words serve as a bell toll. Much in the same way that the film An Inconvenient Truth, and Why We Fight , try to alert us to the breakdown in a culture that denies the truth of what is going on, that takes liberties for granted, and that thwarts the truth by shifting focus to a very narrow view of the world. I am afraid for our culture. I don’t see us doing enough to reverse what appears to be the crumbling of our most significant pillars; family, community, higher education, science and “self policing by the learned professions”, as Jacobs lists them in her book. I am reminded of the Challenger mission back in the eighties. I am also reminded of Enron. People within NASA were so intent on getting the shuttle up into space that they disregarded clear signs of trouble in the mechanics of the ship. I can’t help but wonder given all the tell-tale signs whether we are not doing the same.