In Between Times

Some time ago, I read a book that talked about the feminism of Afghanistan in the period before the rise of the Taliban, and the way that a progressive society in Kabul was wrecked by the rise of reactionary Islam from the countryside areas that were immensely hostile to what was viewed as decadence and corruption in the cities.  To be sure, this is not an isolated phenomenon.  There is no triumphal march of progressivism that can be assured of wiping out its foes, as a great many societies that viewed themselves as progressive and enlightened found themselves ultimately brought to destruction by those who viewed–not without reason–that flowering of high culture and tolerance and social change as corrupt decadence that deserved to be destroyed.  Just as being progressive tends to carry with it a tendency to hate and look down on the squares who live their lives according to our understanding of what is godly and proper, and are viewed as hopelessly out of touch and behind the times, so too a fierce loyalty to tradition and old ways carries with it a fierce hostility to those who corrupt people by seducing others to view those ways with contempt and rejection.

We ought to remember that there is no inevitable ending of culture wars.  It is easy for cultured and sophisticated elites to look down on traditionalists, but as sophisticated and elite ways are often directly hostile to life and fertility, they frequently find themselves outbred and outfed by those whose surplus populations and farming are depended on even where the traditional ways that encourage the life abundant are looked down on by many.  Likewise, those who spend all of their efforts on dealing with the interior debates between those who want to accelerate cultural change and those who want to slow it, stop it, or reverse it altogether may be quick to forget that we live in a dangerous world, and a society that loses its edge and its ability to deal with harsh realities will soon find itself dealing with the harsh reality of being ruled by brutal and not very sophisticated barbarians.  That was, after all, the fate of the Roman Empire and of many Chinese dynasties whose fall led to invasions by Turks and Mongols and others of similar levels of bloodthirstiness and primitive backgrounds.  Even as the wealth and standard of living of decadent societies such as our own as a magnet to envious poor masses around the world, so too the decadent ways associated with them are an immense provocation.

How are we to deal with such in between times such as the ones in which we live?  It is important to recognize that the state of conflict and tension that now exists between different worldviews and approaches and mindsets is not permanent.  Sometimes hidebound traditionalists lose–witness the fate of the South during the Civil War when a society based on the unjust institution of slavery found its plantations and cities burned, its slaved freed by force, and its political dominance ended within the United States.  Quite often decadent progressive cultures find themselves eliminated by either internal or external enemies.  Witness the corrupt Weimer republic being replaced by the terrors of Hitler’s Germany, or the weak Song Empire of China falling under Mongol domination, or the morally corrupt late paganism of the Roman Empire being followed by the domination of Germanic tribes whose neglect of the cities led a once free people to be replaced by masses of unfree serfs and villeins throughout Western Europe.  Freedom is not inevitable, and societies that are culturally advanced but militarily weak often find themselves drastically transformed by those who are stronger if less sophisticated and cultured.

Yet to view things according to this perspective is not enough in order to gain insights into the nature of conflicts and what it was that finally ended the state of tension within societies.  In the Europe of Late Antiquity the barbaric rule of Germanic tribes that took over existing Roman governmental institutions was itself moderated at least in part by a superficial mainstream Christianity and efforts on the part of those same elites to co-opt existing Roman elites as a way of keeping some aspects of that civilization alive.  Gregorian plain chant and the copying of books kept culture alive during centuries when there was little in the way of original poetry or creative writing in general, until some cultural sophistication became widespread once again.  The United States’ time of tension regarding slavery was ended when slaveholders unwilling to accept the criticism of their way of life preemptively rebelled at the election of a Northern sectional candidate who had received no support in ten states whatsoever, leading to their calamitous debate.  And China’s Song Dynasty, which had long been in conflict with the Jurchen of the Jin, foolishly adopted a policy of letting barbarians fight barbarians and supporting a stronger one, just as they had done before when they allied with the Jurchin in the first place against a previous barbarian dynasty, only to be overcome by their erstwhile Mongol allies who were unwilling to consider the Song as equals and partners.  Sometimes conflicts and tensions are resolved by the two parties in conflict themselves, and sometimes when a third party intervenes to crush both sides, as took place in the Levant during the eighth century BC when first Assyria and then Babylon and Persia dominated the area consecutively for about 400 years.

Let us therefore keep ourselves from despair.  Regardless of what side of particular cultural conflicts exist, we ought to remember that there is nothing inevitable in demographic trends that portend victory or defeat.  Birth rates can rise or they can calamitously fall.  Immigrants can prove to be unpredictable in their political loyalties.  The domestic and international political scene can change dramatically either in our favor or against us.  We may find ourselves lacking the strength to stare down evil or we can find the reserves of virtue that others thought entirely missing.  We should therefore neither crow about how we are destined to prevail nor be despondent as if we were preordained for failure.  We do not know how the future will turn out.  All we can do is do the best we can with what we know and with what we have, and trust that either we will be vindicated in how things turn out here and now or in the world to come.  As for the rest, where there is no foreknowledge nor control, we must seek to be and act as wisely as possible; all else is impossible to know in advance.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to In Between Times

  1. Catharine E. Martin says:

    Yes, there is a difference between “enlightened” and “tolerant.” Unfortunately, as you stated, history shows that the two adjectives are thrown together as an often decadent “progressive” society. Our own country is fighting an internal war between the traditional values vs. progressive worldviews, but we must continue to fight the good fight. Civil wars aren’t civil at all.

    • No, Civil Wars aren’t civil at all, and I seem rather haunted by the thought that we will experience it in the not-so-distant future, and so it is a subject that frequently comes to mind.

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