Historian’s Corner: Civilizational Death or Renewal?

Knossos palace at Crete, Ruins of Minoan Civilization
Image by Vladimir Timofeev @ Getty Images

Victor Davis Hanson // Private Papers

History is replete with examples of societies in crises that either imploded or were destroyed, through internal and external forces—as well as those that met such dangers and endured. 

Life or Death?

Controversies remain over why the Western Roman Empire broke apart by the end of the 5th-century AD, while the Eastern Empire at Constantinople would survive and persist as what became known as the Byzantine Empire for 1,000 years as Christendom’s outpost in the East. Certainly, Rome had a less defensible border than did Constantinople, which was ringed by sea and whose geography served as a valve between the Mediterranean and Black Sea. 

Religious schisms and heresies were perhaps more common in the West than in the East. And at least until the rise of Islam, the fury of marauding northern and northeastern tribes—Huns, Goths, and Vandals—were greater threats to Italy than to Asia Minor. The Greek-speaking Eastern empire had for centuries been revered as the older, more learned, and richer region of Mare Nostrum than the later western North African and Western European additions. Perhaps “rigidity,” greater adherence to tradition, more uniform religion, and a garrison culture after the fall of the West all proved more viable than Western ecumenicalism.

Sophisticated but top-heavy hierarchical societies—the Near East, Minoan Crete, Mycenaean Greece, or the New World Aztecs—were especially vulnerable to outside challenges whether natural or human. Whenever elite knowledge in science, government, agriculture, shipping, and administration is not widely dispersed, or when a middle class is stagnant or nonexistent, then such civilizations are especially vulnerable to decapitation. Take out the ruling clique at Knossos, Mycenae, Pylos, or Tenochtitlan, and it is perhaps comparable to smashing the head of an octopus and watching his directionless tentacles go limp.

The Many and the Few

We all worry that we are becoming overly centralized. There are only about 10 million of 330 million Americans who ensure our scientific, engineering, medical, and economic preeminence. Most now not only do not know who they are or what they do, but also assume their own lives run on autopilot without appreciation of the few million in the shadows upon whom America’s safety and wealth sometimes hinge. 

When I read of the tragedy and civilizational illness of 700 annually murdered in Chicago, I usually also think of thousands who also enter the emergency room and are saved each year, by brilliant surgeons, technicians, and nurses of all races and backgrounds, at great cost to the city, state, and country. These are the sorts who otherwise in calmer times would be written off as nerds or preyed upon as the weak by the very patients they save.

At many times in our history, especially in 1861-5, 1929-38, 1941-5, and 1967-71, there were doubts about the survival of America, whether due to the internecine butchery of the Civil War, the Great Depression, the unpreparedness of the US facing deadly Axis enemies, and the cultural revolution of the Sixties. I would now include the woke epidemic of 2020-1—so far less violent—as comparable at least in danger to the state, to the chaos at Corcyra of 427 BC, or the civil violence at Constantinople during the Nika Riots and put down, or the Jacobin Reign of Terror in 1793-4.

We are not just in a political but rather also a cultural revolution that seeks to destroy and replace our foundational date, our foundational documents, our foundational icons, traditions, and customs largely on the premise that although we are the freest, fairest, most prosperous, and leisured civilization in history, we are still flawed and not perfect, and thus not good—as if our morality of 1776 should have been as sophisticated as our technology in 2021. 

Yet, the most dangerous of all developments is the current regression to tribalism. So far we have seen it largely as a new rejection of Martin Luther King’s dream of an integrated and assimilated society, where race became irrelevant, at least in comparison to the individual “content of our characters.”

Same old, same old: From slavery to Jim Crow to Affirmative Action to Woke

How odd that the party of the dêmos, the Democrats, between 1860 and 1970, was the promulgator of racial tribalism (as in the insidious manifestations of Woodrow Wilson’s racism or its extreme ugliness of George Wallace and Lester Maddox). Then between 1970 and 2020, for the next 50 years, Democrats became almost as fixed on race, as the linch-pin to the Great Society. 

Affirmative action insisted that race, not class, would be the great requisite to federal reparatory action. Democrats invented the modern version of proportional representation and disparate impact. These were the weird ideas that if a coveted profession or university admission policy did not reflect the racial makeup of the country at large (everything, however, from the postal service to professional sports would be exempt from such edicts), then racism was implicit and remedies were required. 

And now in our woke revolution, all that fifty-year effort is also deemed a failure and once again by Democrats. To stop racism and become an “anti-racist,” now one must become just as fixated on race and thus become a racialist. Proportional representation has given way to reparatory action. Colleges now are not expected to admit African-Americans of any and all classes and family incomes as just 12 percent of their incoming classes, but perhaps as 15-20 percent to “make up” for the discrimination sired and fueled by largely their own party for much of its existence. 

So will we survive wokeness? Not if racial tribalism reverts to the norms of the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda. Not if merit is written off as rigged racism. Not if enforcement of the law is contextualized by the race of the criminal, and not if 30 percent of the population that controls academia, entertainment, professional sports, major financial and corporate boardrooms, along with traditional, social, and internet media, the foundations, K-12, and the government bureaucracies—all strangle public opinion and stifle popular expression.

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