Friday, October 10, 2008

Would-Be Statement Regarding the Great Issue of the Moment

The great issue of the moment having apparently no substantive force or reality in my imagination however compared to movies made in 1962 or histories written in the 1840s, I find I cannot write about it in a direct or serious way. So I have scrapped the article I was laboring on it. My main point was that I thought people, even if they were not technically overstating the scope of the problem, were still overreacting, that their perspective was not right. I have demonstrated on numerous occasions both on this site and in real life that I have very little feel for the drift of the future, so in all likelihood we are facing an imminent breakdown of our civilization, with violence, anarchy, severe food and energy shortages, and a general return to conditions last seen on such a wide scale during the Thirty Year's War, if not the heyday of the Vikings, as so many people, especially on the Internet, seem to believe. I won't say that this scenario is impossible, but I do say there is no reason why it should happen, or why anybody should expect it to happen. The strong and intelligent part of society--and we know it is there, right?--has to display more psychological fortitude and leadership to adjust to these crisises and muddle through them without the kinds of horrors one sees predicted being unleashed. Isn't that supposed to be one of their primary responsibilities? It is evident that a good many people have absolutely no confidence either that we have a society capable of coping with the slightest hardship or disruption without going berserk, or in their own ability to influence or direct events by their own steady example and exhortations. That to me is the most disturbing revelation which has come out of the last few weeks.

To give one example--one of many, by the way--from my own generation of the extent of the pessimism, here is a 36 year old woman, married with 4 children, who has moved to an organic farm in upstate New York to grow soybeans, keep chickens, homeschool, and otherwise avoid the fallout from the disintegration of industrial society as much as possible. Now after I read over a couple of her posts I was pretty certain that this person was "insane" (by which meaning that she shows strongs tendencies towards being delusional). Yet she has attracted a large readership for a blog--50-70 comments for every post, most of which seemed to be in agreement with her views, many with even more certainty and militancy, while many others indicated that their authors had adopted or wanted to adopt a smiliar lifestyle. She has also made something of a little profession out of her relentless and humorless doomsdaying and negativity, with academic positions and conference invites and published articles and books that appear to be highly respected among the however-many-hundred people who follow this movement. I confess to searching for a picture of her to see if her person was as unattractive as her view of life, and, not surprisingly, I found that it was indeed so, though I felt rather less sated in the confirmation of my suspicions than I thought I would.

This is the more left-wing, hand-wringing, anti-consumption and exploitation strain of this school of negativity; the other, far more entertaining one, at least to read about, is the angry, culturally dislocated white male revelling in fantasies of anarchic conditions where their expertise with guns and tools and other traditional practical skills will give them the upper hand over lawyers, liberal academics and other modern pantywaists who are utterly lacking in any such useful knowledge. A typical theme in comment boxes on the various doomsday sites involves the contemptuous, well armed commenter magnanimously stating that while he will do his best to protect and take care of as many defenseless suburban wives and children as he is able when the SHTF (from what? starvation? being taken as concubines or forced into prostitution?), neither he nor other men like him will be able to carry and support the masses of useless men our society has produced over the last several generations; these will have to fend for themselves, he warns darkly, and--he will not mince words--most are likely to die by one means or another within a couple of months. Personally I am sure the lawyers at least will be fine, even in the unlikely event that our society is about to dispense with all need for their particular expertise. Much is made among survivalist types about how no one will have the slightest idea how to field dress big game or construct a hut or a canoe out of logs or preserve enough food to survive a long winter in isolation and without access to electricity or natural gas, but I suspect anyone who is reasonably strong and has the will to survive would be able to pick these skills up more quickly and naturally than is commonly supposed. In truth since in my community at least the lawyers are in the habit of taking over and running everything important, I would expect in a crisis that the would-be warlords will, with a few exceptions, more likely find themselves acting under the direction of the lawyers than vice versa before they realize what has hit them. I make no such claims for the liberal academics however...

My other point was that I thought it unlikely that the United States, a nation in which supposedly the vast majority of the available intellectual talent is single-mindedly devoted to wealth creation and the advancement of material comfort, was really likely to become poorer, and to function at a lower overall level, than the likes of Cuba, a nation where for half a century one of the main functions of the authorities has been to stifle any potential outburst of individual economic initiative. Yet even in Cuba my impression is that there is not a high degree of starvation, or anarchy, whatever other deprivations exist there, and even these conditions--housing, mobility, etc--don't seem as bad as what some of the doomsdayers are predicting are going to befall us. Even given energy shortages, does it seem plausible that we will not be able to maintain a 1920s level of production of food and other goods, an era which again, obviously did not offer the scale and variety of good and services to which we have become accustomed, but which I should think most people would be capable of tolerating? I hate to always be boring people with my old Czech stories, but when I was in that country the per capita income was around $4,000, few people had cars, and most lived in small apartments in rather dingy and lifeless apartment blocks. Now I do not want to play down the real problems that afflicted the citizens of this country, though if exposure to the lifestyle available in Western countries and the possibilities of emigration to these did not exist most younger people especially would have been able to bear the life there all right. Opportunities to make any kind of real money were very limited. The choices available in such things as food were equally narrow, though this was in part compensated by the circumstance that the five or six basic things that were eaten nearly every day--beer, bread, cabbage, bread dumplings (knedliky), pork, cheese and an array of sauces--came to be made expertly, good enough that someone like me whose palate was not overly refined, or spoiled, in youth could go a month without tiring of them and craving something else too terribly. Indeed, though impecuniousness in itself is not pleasant, especially to contemplate, there was much about leading an impecunious way of life--at least in a city both with a good level culture and where almost all of the other inhabitants are equally poor--that I found very pleasant, though a) I know these conditions are unlikely to be reproduced in many places in America, and b) like a good American I fretted over whether revelling in and glorifying economic stagnation rather than attacking it with all one's might was ever acceptable. Still, I think if the smart people can keep their heads, trust in their inner resources as constituting the real substance of life even though diminished materially, embrace the social possibilities that hard economic times may bring--with limitations on the ability to spend a lot of money individually, outings and excursions, for example, may need to be undertaken more in small groups or replaced by more socializing in the home, both of which were the norm for most educated bourgeois types until the last 30 or so years anyway.

By the way, my wife has a garden with pumpkins, cabbages, broccoli, tomatoes of course, corn, funny round watermelons that are able to grow in northern climates and that have a million seeds in them, and she has often expressed a desire to live on a farm, though I think her idea of a farm is something with hogs and cows and a silo--this kind of thing--and that does not double as a political statement, and I live in an extremely stable and civilized, if rather boring, area of the country that will probably be one of the last places to succumb to anarchy if it comes, so I guess I am already half-living the life of the societal dropout/refugee anyway, though I had not exactly planned on it.

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