Don't count the West out yet

book review / commentary

W ithout the hope of immortality, we cannot bear mortality. So says David P. Goldman, a columnist who calls himself Spengler, after our most pessimistic historian. In a collection of essays titled It's Not the End of the World, It's Just the End of You, Goldman echoes other Cassandras and pessimists like Mark Steyn and Pat Buchanan in saying the West is in a terminal state of decline, both demographic and cultural. A major cause, they agree, is modernism's abandonment of religion.

There is an abundance of evidence for this theory, but it's worth remembering that America was also said to be in terminal decline in the years of Jimmy “Malaise” Carter. Yet Reagan and the collapse of Communism pulled us out, and things looked good until 2008 when government meddling in the housing market led to an economic crash.

Continuing economic problems have eclipsed demographic decline as a source of worry these days, but it's still happening, and consider: what factor most directly impacts a society's reproduction rate? Women. The Pill led to a revolution in sexual mores. But then the smart middle-class women flooded the job market and worked themselves into such a state of exhaustion that they stopped reproducing. Having kids is now one of the many things that Americans just won't do, so to keep our population up we import people from abroad like everything else. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that divorcing sex from reproduction would lead to a population decline.

Social conservatives warned us that bad things would happen. Maybe they weren't articulate enough, or maybe the social and demographic changes that resulted from The Pill really were inevitable. But demographic problems have killed many empires, and the Modern Empire is now facing the same problem. The question now is, what can we do to save it?

Goldman's book is a mixed bag. His opinions are sometimes insightful, sometimes simplistic, and occasionally callous. He hates the Southern states and their people. He talks a lot about bringing back the good old-time religion, but it's hard to imagine that being successful. Religion was founded on the belief that humans have a soul. Science has shown us that things are much more complicated. Given that some of our other traditional beliefs, such as the Christian cosmology, have also had difficulty reconciling themselves to advances in scientific knowledge, who would want to reinstate religion, only to risk having it fail again?

But Christians may have the last laugh. Goldman points out that the God of Christianity and Judaism promised eternal life to his people, and in a way he may have been true to his word: the individuals still die, but a nation that adheres to religion will have eternal life as a people. Goldman's idea is that religion provides immortality for a people by providing them with a collective goal, a soul so to speak. In its absence, the State may try to fill the vacuum, but a state, being a real entity, has goals of its own, the foremost of which is to perpetuate itself and to get bigger. Religion, whose deity has to control the universe while struggling with the challenge of non-existence, or having transcended it (as the case may be), has no such limitations. Only atheists can truly appreciate the irony of something that exists only as a cultural ideal being so much more powerful and vital than something real and tangible.

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Such is the power of its ideology that even though all twelve of the original disciples met violent deaths, Christianity went on to conquer Europe and much of the world. But building and preserving an empire takes more than just belief in the superiority of your own values. It also takes a certain ruthlessness. Uncertainty undermines ruthlessness, and the Europeans have achieved unprecedented levels of uncertainty and doubt which the Americans are only now beginning to catch up with. But this weakness is cultural, not genetic, and therefore superficial.

Europe today may look weak, but those ethnic groups that are alive today didn't make it this far by being wussies. There's good evidence that humans alternate between two distinct pre-programmed states: their current default state in which they are passive sheep content to die off as long as they can do it painlessly, and another state, currently dormant, where they fight for survival and invent tools like the battle-axe, penicillin, and the H-bomb that help them to win.

The environmental cues that trigger this killer instinct are not known, but it would be a mistake for any individual, or any civilization, to believe they are immune from them. Perhaps they surface after a period of hardship, such as the Great Depression that saw brutal fascist governments rise simultaneously in several countries. Or maybe there is another red line deep in our collective amygdala that is waiting to be crossed. In the USA after 9/11, there were many reports of New Yorkers suddenly feeling the desire to have children, as if a primal instinct to repopulate the Earth had been reawakened.

We are only beginning to understand the degree to which our behavior, like that of all other animals, is affected by pre-programmed instincts. But it is clear that whatever releases these dormant survival genes, those societies whose people lacked them are no longer around. When Europeans figure out that their survival is threatened, this instinct will reawaken despite their attempts to suppress it. Europeans are deliberately but unconsciously creating a situation that would activate this programming. Pay attention to how they do it: it will be a fascinating lesson in how the human brain is programmed.

may 04 2013; updated aug 01 2013