Tuesday, January 03, 2017

Dark Age Ahead: Choosing Ignorance

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) is rightly remembered for changing how influential people thought about and designed cities, particularly in North America, because of her original and persuasive writings and activism.

But in this culture people get a single label, which is probably one reason that her last book, Dark Age Ahead was praised and ignored when it was published in 2004.

Another reason is that such a subject (a coming Dark Age in America) is hard to think about: difficult because it is complicated, difficult because it requires shedding habitual categories and ways of thinking, and difficult because it is emotionally huge, and invites displacement and denial.  The mind just can't get itself around it, while the emotions blur the brain and suggest sweets instead.

But at this cultural moment, as we really need to be clear on what's going on and what it may portend, this relatively short book may help focus observations and analysis, getting us beyond the usual paths that so many are now taken in trying to explain what's happened, and more importantly, what to do about it.

There is some agreement that this is part of a trend--not the only one, but a powerful one--that has been building and consolidating over years and likely decades.

There is perhaps less agreement that, as I believe, this is not a mere political problem, let alone an accidental outcome.  Though electoral margins were slim and there's the counter-evidence of the popular vote--and clearly the culture is divided-- the failure of the political system (including media) was so total that it more than suggests a larger cause.

In retrospect, for example, we can see the political and economic causes for Hitler's rise in the 1930s.  Something like it was in the cards at the close of World War I and the harshness of the Versailles treaty.

But that doesn't really explain Hitler.  C.G. Jung, who was in neighboring (German-speaking) Switzerland throughout this period--from before World War I until well after World War II--felt strongly that there was a mass psychological component that transcended politics and economics.  It continued to obsess him for years after.  Judging from the monstrousness of what occurred, I am persuaded he's right.

Jacobs doesn't get into the psychological realm, which I believe is part of the story today, and I believe it is directly related to the prospect of the climate crisis.

But Jane Jacobs also looks beyond ordinary politics and economics, though she includes them in her synthesis.  I approach her book now, determined to go through it carefully.

I begin reading with one of my questions in mind: has any civilization, prosperous and powerful and with domestic tranquility relative to many times and places in the past, actually chosen ignorance and thereby self-destruction?

In the early pages of the book, Jacobs cites two strong cultures that did themselves in: Mesopotamia (much of what we call the Middle East) before the Christian era, and late medieval China.

"The difference between these failures and those of conquered aboriginal cultures is that the death or the stagnated moribundity of formerly unassailable and vigorous cultures is caused not by assault from outside but by assault from within, that is by internal rot in the form of fatal cultural turnings, not recognized as wrongful turnings while they occur or soon enough afterward to be correctable. Time during which corrections can be made runs out because of mass forgetfulness.

The initial cause of decline in Mesopotamia was environmental degradation: they cut down their forests.  In China it was the result of a bad decision made by the head of an all-powerful--totalitarian-- central government, that turned the nation inward.

But at some point they made everything worse by choosing ignorance. “Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to society’s decline from cultural vigor. Someone has aptly called self-imposed isolation a fortress mentality," Jacobs wrote.

The fortress mentality conjures up the inevitable image of walls.

Jacobs quotes historian of religion Karen Armstrong analyzing the Mesopotamian decline as continuing because of a shift "from faith in logos, reason, with its future-oriented spirit" to a "conservatism that looks backwards to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview."

At its height, medieval China had huge fleets of ships capable of exploring the world.  The decision to destroy the fleets eventually led to government officials destroying all the records, designs, navigational charts, maps and findings associated with the fleet and these voyages.  Centuries of knowledge were lost.  Ignorance was chosen.

Jacobs quotes a vice president of the War Ministry for China of the period as denying the fleet was ever large and impressive, or that the voyages brought back anything of value.

This reminded me of a talk I watched on YouTube by science fiction author and thinker Neal Stephenson who suggested that today's minority views could become predominate, so that in a matter of decades in America it would be generally believed that the Apollo moon landings never really happened.

(By the way, what might have happened had China continued to explore is explored in Kim Stanley Robinson's alternate history novel Days of Rice and Salt.) 

Jacobs adds another interesting comment:

“A fortress or fundamentalist mentality not only shuts itself off from dynamic influences originating outside, but also, as a side effect, ceases influencing the outside world.”

Reading about what could be causing the onset of a Dark Age is not the most pleasant--it can't be called diverting.  So I'm enforcing my reading by committing to writing about Jacobs' book in this space for the next few weeks.

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