The Fragility of Civilization

Ancient Egypt is a canonical example of an early culture considered a civilization.

My last post summarized Paul Rosenberg’s article, “Impeachment as a struggle to save democracy — from the pathological cult of Donald Trump.” Here are my thoughts on it.

This is one of the most chilling pieces I’ve read recently. I’m unsure how accurately the map Rosenberg, Hughes, and Mika have drawn corresponds to our situation. Perhaps there are powerful forces that will successfully resist the growing fascism in America; perhaps the situation isn’t as grave as it appears. Still, the article expresses an educated, sophisticated view of our potentially deadly situation—we disregard at our peril.

Yes, our problems are systemic—vast inequality of wealth undermining democracy, a media landscape that systematically lies to a public who can’t differentiate fact from fiction, minority rule in Congress, a ridiculously bloated military budget, voter suppression, gerrymandering, greed, racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, and on and on.

But I can say this confidently. A society increasingly run by psychopaths and other disordered individuals, along with their supporters and enablers, cannot end well. Plato taught me long ago that a good life depends in large part on living in a good society, which in turn depends on having political power in the hands of the morally and intellectually virtuous. It is almost impossible for a person to live well if their government is bad. Power in the hands of the worst—kakistocracy—spells disaster.

It is easy to forget that civilization is extraordinarily fragile and that people can quickly revert to barbarism, as modern psychology reveals. Civilization is a high achievement. But when autocrats assume dictatorial power, when they ignore the foundations of democratic government, when they direct foreign and domestic policy on ignorant whim with cruelty and stupidity as defining features, when they enlist subordinates to do their bidding, and when they use propaganda to manipulate and control their supporters … then we are all in for sustained suffering.

As I have been arguing on this blog for the past 3 years, we now stand on a precipice.

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2 thoughts on “The Fragility of Civilization

  1. ” people can quickly revert to barbarism, as modern psychology reveals. Civilization is a high achievement. ”

    Though it might appear pettifogging, an open question is: do we even live within a civilization? My take is that what we term civilization is more accurately controlled barbarism; however it is a case of half full v half empty glass. Optimistically we could write that the glass is half full of civilization or, alternatively, half empty. Half barbaric- half civilized.

    My conjecture is that if something intangible is damaged, it takes a commensurate timeframe to un-damage. In the five decades since Vietnam + Watergate, democracy was frayed due to mistrust of government. If the Vietnam War had never happened, it would be extremely unlikely a Trump would have been elected half a century later.

    That is to say: it will take another 1/2 century to recover from the damage of the last 1/2. But then it has always been so. In 1911, 50 yrs after the Civil War ended, America was still doing Reconstruction. What is new (as you need not be told) are the threats to the biosphere– in 1911, few thought much about the biosphere. Today, ridiculously bloated military budgets, voter suppression, gerrymandering, greed, racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia may be Nothing next to the dangers to our substrate.

    Perhaps the very worst problem in politics is how citizens are loathe to admit their mistakes. We saw such during Watergate: members of the electorate who voted for Nixon and Agnew did not want to admit the two were felons nor how re-electing them was an error. Too embarrassing.

    Many in the GOP (obviously) wanted their votes in the 1968 and ’72 elections to be validated; so when they were disappointed, they went on the defensive. And the GOP’s best defense is the Offense.

  2. The word ‘kakistocracy’ inspires a bumper sticker:

    “President Trump is a kakistocrat.”

    Dumb people will assume that it’s a compliment, and smart people will have a good laugh at their expense.

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