Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Worth Fighting For

"Every society rests on a barbarian base. The people who don't understand civilization, and wouldn't like it if they did. The hitchhikers. The people who create nothing, and who don't appreciate what others have created for them, and who think civilization is something that just exists and that all they have to do is enjoy what they can understand of it-- luxuries, a high standard of living and easy work for high pay... Responsibilities? Phooey! What do they have a government for?
"And now, the hitchhikers think they know more about the car than the people who designed it, so they're going to seize control.”

My interest in politics has an unusual beginning. Sure, many people become interested by reading, but the book that fired my interest was the one I quoted above, a book called Space Viking by H. Beam Piper. Piper was a science fiction author who, like most do, used scifi to explore not the future, but the world we live in now. In other works Piper explored the nature of racism (Little Fuzzy), colonialism (Uller Uprising), and political transformation (Lord Kalvan). The focus of Space Viking was both more broad and more critical – civilization itself.

The dictionary definition of civilization is a rather bland focus on things. Conveniences, art, records, etc. This is also misleading; these things, and the wealth and leisure to create them, are byproducts of civilization. Civilization is shared values that lead to individual and community action that further the weal of the community and continues the propagation of those same values. The particulars of those shared values and the actions they lead to create the tenor of the civilization. Values which do not further the weal of the community cause that community to collapse – thus, they are not civilized. As the community as a whole prospers, individuals and groups within it gain the wealth and leisure to generate records, art, science, conveniences; all the things the dictionary identifies as civilization.

The world has seen a bewildering variety of civilizations; the Mayans, the Mongols, the Beaker People, the Egyptians. Some have been violent against outsiders, some have been inclusive, some have been both at once. Some have succeeded, most have faded or failed. Those that have succeeded can be said to be ‘better’ or ‘more successful’; after all, the goal of civilization is to improve the lot of the community and continue the core values that create the community in the first place.

The values of a civilization also allow one civilization to ‘judge’ another; if group action, communal living, a rejection of the individual, and selflessness toward the group work very well for one civilization, its members would rightly reject a different civilization that is highly individualistic and that touts the individual as so much more important than the group that the group should suffers as a whole before the individual. And, of course, vice-versa. The resulting ‘culture shock’ or ‘clash of civilizations’ can be resolved in a number of ways. Members of one side, the other, or both may drift between the civilizations; they may learn to co-exist; or, likely, they will attempt to absorb/eliminate each other, sometimes by force. Those civilizations that can coexist usually do so because they have a majority of similar core values and those values that differ do not result in direct conflict.

What are the core values of Western civilization?

The concept of natural law as defined by St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas
Human life is seen as inherently valuable, leading to a rejection of murder, suicide, and euthanasia
A devotion to the nuclear family
A focus on personal responsibility, personal honor, and personal shame
That idea that the freedom of the individual is a right that is important for its own sake and benefits the community
The idea that personal property is a right that is important for its own sake and benefits the community
Belief in the rule of law

The basis of the conceptualization of Western natural law is Greek philosophy (especially Aristotle) while Western ideas of codified law and property right are Roman. The evolution of these ideas over time is largely the result of philosophers, theologians, and statesmen working within the Catholic paradigm, which directly and explicitly refers to Aristotlean and Jewish concepts of rights, laws, and society. The result is that Western civilization is called a Judeo-Christian civilization with strong Greco-Roman roots. These core beliefs are, thus, essentially Christian beliefs.

The idea that human life is valuable in and of itself combined with the idea that all rights are natural (meaning inalienable) leads to Western civilization having a tendency to grant more freedom and rights to the individuals within it. The rule of law means that no one is above or beyond the law, a belief that condemns corruption, nepotism, and tyranny, making governments more efficient, accountable, and prone to respect the rights of its people.

One of the strengths of Western civilization is its focus on personal responsibility, property rights, and individual freedom. Combined with the legal position that all are equal before the law and the theological position that all are equal before God, the result is a drive to succeed and the common belief that any person may achieve personal fulfillment. This is the core of the American Dream – to live free. This also means that personal wealth or power is not the only measure of success; indeed, the goal of many who first came to America was not great wealth, but simply the lack of financial obligation to a noble class. If an individual in Western civilization defines his own success by other criteria, they are free to do so.

In addition to driving individuals to excel, these values of freedom, personal responsibility, and property rights also mean that ‘outsiders’ are welcomed as long as they accept the rule of law. This allows Western civilization to tolerate non-Western enclaves within their own societies and to dynamically interact with other civilizations in their own areas with a minimum of conflict.

The dedication to the nuclear family has historically led to a division of labor amongst men and women, usually as a result of nothing more than societal norms. As has been noted by researchers, societies with a dedication to the nuclear family and a sex-based division of labor (generally referred to as ‘patriarchal societies’ by modern academics) have strong advantages in economic and political growth over time. The tendency of such societies to value large, stable families (and the resulting stable societies and economic growth) can cause this trend to be maximized over time, resulting in such civilizations having immense long-term advantages over civilizations that do not share these traits.

Indeed, history has shown these values to be so powerful individually that they were referred to not as ‘values’ (more of a squishy, modern term that implies ‘I like brand x’) but as ‘virtues’ (meaning ‘something inherently good’). History has also shown that, when combined, these virtues create civilizations that both improve the weal of the people within it and spread their virtues in an unequaled manner. The Greeks embraced many of these virtues and in addition to their city-states being economic, political, and military powerhouses of their day, their influence is still strong over 2,500 years later. Roman society adopted many Greek virtues and added their own laws and virtues, creating a more stable and more expansionist civilization. The Roman Empire was so successful that the majority of Western social details (parliaments, military structure, language, laws, titles, etc.) are still modeled on their structures right now.

Of course, Sparta and Athens fell into decline until they became merely places where great ideas once came from. The Roman Empire likewise declined and fell before waves of barbarians. Will Western Civilization also decline and fall? Probably, almost certainly.

But why?

The key is what happened to Rome. With its huge territories, vast wealth, and incredible influence, only one thing could bring down Rome. Barbarians. But I don’t mean the Visigoths and the Vandals. Those wandering tribes were just other, formerly weaker, civilizations that took advantage of Rome’s weakness. No, I use ‘barbarians’ as the late Greek philosophers meant it – ‘those who reject civilization’.

The Greeks were sophisticated enough, and world travelers enough, to know that people that didn’t speak Greek and didn’t have triremes were just as smart and cunning as they, themselves, were. Thus ‘barbarian’ came to mean those people who rejected weal, who wanted the benefits of civilization without participating in the virtues that produced them. “Values” that are not virtues are vices (from the Latin word that means ‘defect’) and those that hold them are vicious (which means ‘vice ridden’). The absence of good is not nothing, it is evil. Likewise, the absence of virtue is not neutrality, it is vice.

Individuals that strive for and hold fast to virtues are said (well, were once said) to have a good character and such people were also once praised for their virtue. This is because there was a broad recognition that individuals of character were the driving force of civilization – they are the ones who improve the weal of all and spread the ideals that make that weal possible. These “pillars of society” are, indeed, the pillars of society. People who lacked the virtues were not considered to have no character, they were considered to have a bad character, to actively degrade the society they were in.

I hate to belabor this point, but it is critical. Our ancestors, the much-derided Victorians and Gilded Age members, those “repressed” people with their rather extensive families and quite direct letters recognized that the core virtues of Western civilization had made the West prosperous and secure. They also recognized that the rejection of those virtues would lead, inevitably, to the decline of their prosperity and security. In short, they knew what was good for them and their children and praised it while rejecting what the recognized as damaging to their future.

Over time, however, upholding the virtues that underpin civilization always seems to fall out of favor. It happened in Greece, Rome, the Persian Empire, Han China, Imperial Japan, and many others. It does so for two reasons. First, civilization becomes so ubiquitous that it seems to be the natural state. Prosperity and security have been had for so long that many people come to believe not only that they will not go away, but that they can not go away. The even more compelling reason is – virtue is difficult to cultivate. It takes self-discipline, self-denial, and strength. After a good character is developed individuals realize that virtue is, literally, its own reward; but until then, it’s a tough row to hoe. It seems far easier to ignore self-denial and self-control and just, well, indulge in just a little vice.

This can go on, sometimes for quite some time, because so many other people remain virtuous. The fact that some people are corrupt and are overcharging the government for work is not critical when it is one contractor out of a thousand honest ones. People who deceive charities and receive things that they do not need do not make a big difference when they are few in number and there are many donors to the charity.

Once those little vices are commonplace, however, more and more vices and more and more extreme vices become acceptable. Eventually, virtues are ignored or mocked and the foundation that civilization rests on begins to dissolve. Soon, the majority of the contractors are corrupt because the honest ones can’t compete with the widespread cheating and bribes. Charities have fewer donors and worry more and more that the truly needy are competing with the dishonest. The warning signs of such decline are easily observed; the Greeks decried the loss of virtue, as did the Romans – the prophets of doom were sometimes heeded, especially early, and virtue was returned to esteem. Over time, however, the erosion of character advanced further and further until it was too late..

Within any society there are people that reject character. These are the barbarians that H. Beam Piper wrote about in language more modern than St. Thomas. The barbarians that mock the virtues that built the society they live in and believe that their rejection makes them the ones most qualified to control the society. Where the virtues of temperance and prudence lead people of character to realize that no endeavor, even government or society, can ever be perfect, the vice-ridden love utopian visions of what might be, if they were just in charge. Where the just realize that any worthy endeavor is full of frequent struggle and occasional failure, the barbarian sees struggle as weakness and failure and condemnation. Where the courageous realize that a worthy cause makes a worthy struggle, barbarians want an easy path and condemn all suffering as evil. Where people of character realize that there are sometimes things worth killing for and certainly things worth dying for, the barbarian declares their rejection of civilization by saying nothing is worth dying for or their moral cowardice by declaring that nothing is worth killing or dying for.

What’s that you say? Why does the declaration that there is nothing worth dying for and nothing worth killing for prove that you are a moral coward, you ask? That’s actually pretty simple, I reply. Think of it this way – if someone were to attack you child with the intent to cart them off and torture them to death and the only way you could stop them was to kill them, would you? If you were the sonderkommando in Auschwitz, would you have risen up in rebellion in the face of certain death? As a prisoner of war in Bosnia, would you have participated in the torture of fellow prisoners, or refused and been killed? When the Nazis were attacking Europe, would you have enlisted, or not?

I am drawing a difference here between pacifists who choose death before violence and the barbarian. A rejection of violence in all circumstances, which is the implicit statement that nothing is worth the life of another, while accepting death means that you have decided to value some ideal, ideology, or the lives of others more than you value your own life. To accept the potential of killing without accepting the potential of your own self-sacrifice may mean that you value your life above the lives of others, or that you believe that there are ideals, or causes, that have a higher value than the lives of others, but not higher than the value of your own life. People who declare that neither is acceptable have no ideals worth sacrificing for and have no value on their life or the lives of others. They have literally nothing that they value highly; they have refused to make a moral choice. They are moral cowards. This refusal to decide is a de facto rejection of prudence, justice, and temperance as well as courage. A prudent man realizes a decision must be made; justice demands that some choices are right and that some are wrong; the temperate man realizes that the desires to avoid error and upsetting others are not as import and the need to take some action.

The refusal to make moral choices leads to a slippery, sneaky sort of attack on civilization. While building civilization requires moral choices, sometimes critical ones, the moral coward decries all decisions as immoral, or states that decisions cannot be made. No war is worth waging, no enemy worth fighting. Their refusal of justice means that when conflict does arise they decide whom they support not by actions, or moral grounds, or evidence, but by emotion. Their refusal of prudence means that they are easily manipulated through their emotions and allow their emotions to override their reason. And their refusal of temperance means that they become extreme in the reactions to conflict.

Thus you have; peace activists who support suicide bombers; pacifists that declare indiscriminate bombing an acceptable tactic by one force (their emotional favorites) while controlled counter attacks are decried as evil (by their emotional opponents); Students for Peace and Justice that wave toy assault rifles as they accuse the elected leaders of a democratic nation of being butchers for attacking the unelected heads of a terror organization that purposefully kills children.

These barbarians see no dichotomy between their words, or their actions. They have made no moral choice, only an emotional one, leaving them free to say and do pretty much as they please as long as they ‘stay true to themselves’ (i.e., feel good about what they are doing). These barbarians go further, however, by rejecting people who do make moral decisions that affect their emotions in a negative way. Since they are emotional, not moral, anything that impinges on their fun is ‘bad’. Since civilization is largely about controlling impulses that can harm society and rewarding impulses that are beneficial to society, they spend a lot of time upset with civilization. And with those who make moral choices.

They demand that others not judge them (i.e., reach moral conclusions about them), nor take away their freedom (i.e., impose limits on their behavior, regardless of its moral dimensions). At the same time, they try to impose their emotional rules on moral players. Any failure by someone who upholds morals is seen as horrific, even though they do not share in the morals. While prudence and justice requires that we understand that no one is perfect, and that anyone can fail, the barbarians point to any stumble as “proof” that virtues are worthless, or that the people who value them are hypocrites, or both.

As a result, the barbarians are held to the lowest standards (‘staying true to themselves’) while civilization and its defenders are held to an impossibly high one. They uphold the cruel and unjust while opposing those who seek justice. They elevate their petty desires over the needs of society. And all the while they deny that they or their actions can be judged as anything but good, regardless of the consequences, all while claiming to seek ‘justice’.

This attitude is so dangerous because it plays upon the emotions so well. Why? Because it is so similar to the attitudes of a child. A young child has not yet formed a good character; they lack prudence as they lack experience. Children lack temperance because they are just learning their desires. Children lack justice for they have yet to be taught empathy. And children lack courage because they have not yet been taught to face their fear. This is natural and part of life; it is the duty of parents and society to instill virtues into children so that they may mature into adults. It is also natural for mature adults to indulge children as they learn, to be gentle as they learn the parameters of civilization.

But these barbarians refuse to change, they have rejected maturity. The natural inclination of adults to indulge children is abused and twisted by the demands of adults that they not only be allowed to keep the attitude of children, but that others find them praiseworthy for doing so. As a society, we seem to have forgotten that adults cannot be allowed to act like children without consequences.

This trend is going on throughout the West; in France the young riot because they do not want the guaranteed employment laws to change – even if those laws mean many of them will remain unemployed and on the government dole. The French government responded by doing as the rioting children asked. The German government announces so many people are retiring early while others simply don’t work, forcing them to cut unemployment benefits and the German people stage riots demanding the right not to work – even if it means bankrupting the nation. The most recent May Day marches in Europe were focused on amazing demands; free housing, free transportation, free internet access, free downloads of pirated movies and music, and a 4 day work week - all while being guaranteed that they never need to work (generous, life-long unemployment benefits with no requirement to work) and (if they have a job) cannot be fired. Rather than being met with derisive laughter, these ideas are upheld by some as the ultimate goal of government and society.

At the same time, I fear that derisive laughter is the only negative response. While the goal of the barbarians is to enjoy civilization without the burden of maintaining it (well, except for the anarchists; or the primitivists) the result is the same; the degradation of civilization. Just as the welfare states of Europe are collapsing under the weight of non-productive people, so can civilization itself collapse under the weight of those who won’t contribute – regardless of their desires. The Roman elites who refused to serve in the legions did not make their decision in hopes of destroying Rome, they made their decision so they could remain in Rome and live well without worrying about hard work, self-sacrifice, the demands of military duty, or their civic responsibilities. The end result was still the destruction of Rome. When the Roman government demanded military service regardless of the desires of their people, Rome grew. When the government no longer demanded it, but society still pressured the elite to serve, Rome was maintained. When it was no longer ‘fashionable’ for men to do so, Rome declined, rapidly.

So we must stand up to the barbarians. We must judge their words and their actions, and they must pay consequences for their words and actions if they are deserved. We must reject moral equivalency and moral cowardice. We must continue to believe, say, and act upon the fact that some things are good, and others are evil. We must continue to uphold the family, personal responsibility, honor, shame, freedom, personal property, and the rule of law. We cannot do so quietly, nor secretly.

If we do not, we are letting the hitchhiker take the wheel.

No comments: