As we all learned in grammar school, we’re coming up on the day when we show our gratitude for all the blessings God has showered upon our country. If we had good teachers, we learned to think of more than just the natural resources and easily conquered lands, and more than a blandly defined “democracy.” If we had the right mentors and read the right books (such as Russell Kirk’s The Roots of American Order), we learned to think more deeply, to treasure the “ordered liberty” which America’s founders constructed out of the best elements of Anglo-Saxon political history—a liberty whose roots lay deep in the medieval, Catholic common law.
Since this is a harvest festival like Bavaria’s Feast of St. Martin, marked by the hearty consumption of “comfort” foods, our thoughts also turn to abundance. As the Puritans were grateful that they could scrape a living out of their chilly New England settlements, the immigrants who came later were thankful for the vast farms full of rich black earth which they could own outright (unlike their peasant parents in teeming, feudal Europe), for the new industries exploding with productivity and the bold new cities like Chicago and Detroit that emerged to dwarf the settlements in the Old Country. We have longer lives and better health than even our parents, and the leisure to wring our hands about how to fund 15-20 years of healthy retirement. (When Social Security was set up, the average life expectancy was right around 65—in other words, it existed to support the Methusalehs among us. Now most of us live long enough to collect for many years—a very good problem to have.)
Which leads to ask, why exactly:
- Are our public parks full of angry, scraggly young people, pounding bongos and complaining that our “system” has cheated them, that we’ve bargained away their future, and allowed a tiny fragment of society to soak up an unprecedented percentage of the wealth?
- Do Tea Party activists in odd, tricornered hats warn that the government is becoming the enemy of its people?
- Was was Patrick Buchanan able to make a solid case that we are engaged in (as his new book’s title says) “the suicide of a superpower”?
- Is our Congress—faced with spiraling deficits that threaten our nation with debt default—completely unable to impose modest tax raises and deep cuts in unsustainable social and military spending?
While Americans once laughed up our sleeves at the squabbling, socialist Europeans with their cheese mountains and their general strikes, their oily corruption and Communist trade unions, we now face a very similar fiscal crisis. The Europeans aren’t even bothering to ask our help, but are going hat in hand to our largest creditors—the Chinese, whom we are busy provoking by placing U.S. Marines in Australia. (Who is else is that aimed at containing—head-hunters from New Guinea?)
Where did the West go wrong? The tragic flaw we share with our cousins over in Europe is not so much political or economic as cultural. You see, Marx was wrong: Economic reality is not the DNA that forms the social organism, dictating which poems will be written and which constitutions amended. Marx’s vulgar materialism, predicated on an a priori rejection of God, refuted itself over seven blood-soaked decades from Königsberg to Cambodia, as the world re-learned this truth: It is culture that drives politics, and the dance between the two that produces the kind of economy which emerges from a country. Leave aside “black swan” events like the Potato Famine or the Black Death, and you can trace a people’s economic fortunes to the social values that motivate them, and the institutions these values have built. The hyperinflation that ravished Germany in the 20s and paved the way for Hitler was caused by the debt and reparations incurred during World War I—which the Germans launched after some 90 years of post-Napoleonic romantic nationalism and militarism. The stagnation and instability that pervades the Islamic world can be traced straight to their credal rejection of reason and even causality in understanding nature. (A rock falls not because of gravity, but because God happens to will it—and it’s perfectly possible that any given rock might hang in mid-air forever, should He wish it.) I could multiply instances all day—but like you, I’ve got some turkey sitting here that’s not going to eat itself.
What shared cultural illness, then, explains the current crisis all across the Western world? Is it, as those who occupy Wall Street would have us believe, a failure of the free market system? Is it the fault of government gone wild, printing money to fuel “irrational exuberance” and fund folks on food stamps buying investment properties in Nevada? Is it the flight of American factories to former Third World countries, where people are willing to hazard long hours and harsh conditions, sacrificing their present for the sake of their families’ futures? Yes, yes, and yes, but these are all symptoms, like that extra pants size you gain after six months of sedentary snacking. There is a common cause underlying the national bankruptcy that faces our nation—and the nations where most of our ancestors came from. Crony capitalism, nanny-state socialism, fat welfare states where postal clerks retire at 58, colleges full of whiny, indebted students majoring in sociology and women’s studies—these aren’t an unconnected grab-bag of “leftist” and “rightist” ills, but the symptoms of a fundamental Western illness:
We live now for ourselves, and for pleasures in present or future. Our culture, and hence our economy and politics, now stand for absolutely nothing else. To cite the old Seinfeld line, we are now a “civilization about nothing.”
Our forefathers may have lapsed from time to time into foolish, self-destructive acts of hedonism, but the culture in which they lived and the faith they followed called things what they were: They knew sin as sin, and knew the need for repentance and reparation. These people knew that we live not only for ourselves, but at the very least for the sake of our children. Italians planted olive trees which their children would some day profit from; now they have ceased even to plant the children, attaining one of the lowest birth rates now on earth. (They compete with the Spaniards and the Quebecois for that honor.) Even American big-government, free-spending Democrats like Franklin Roosevelt built their policies on the assumption that the basic unit of society was not the individual but the family. As Allan Carlson documents in his classic The American Way, for all the flaws of the New Deal (it centralized power in Washington, wasted money, starved the private sector, was largely unconstitutional and probably prolonged the Depression), at least its policies were driven by a deeply wholesome agenda: to let men be the breadwinners for their families, so women could raise healthier, smarter, more productive citizens. That common-sense, instinctual principle is now considered so radically retrograde and offensive, simply stating it is enough to drive a politician out of public life. (A fine book Sen. Rick Santorum published asserting such things, It Takes a Family, probably helped him lose his seat in the Senate; a recent Republican governor’s candidate had to disavow an academic thesis he’d written long before along these lines.)
Since the Sexual Revolution and its ugly stepsister, feminism, overturned our assumptions about what sex means and what it’s for, we have almost forgotten how to form families, or what they are. Divorce laws have made the contract of marriage laughably easy to escape from, even as we have tightened up bankruptcy laws and canonized student loans as sacramental covenants. Voters—not just judges, real live American voters—have redefined marriage in several states to include homosexual unions. Single people can adopt children, and couples can cook them up in petri dishes, discarding the “surplus” embryos or sending them up to Harvard to be cannibalized for parts. What agenda is served by all these bizarre acts of rebellion against the plain nature of things and the immemorial structure of human society? Nothing so elevated or insane as Marxist-Leninism. Nothing so cool and mathematical as capitalism. The philosophy underpinning our current crisis, which explains our Keynesian politics and addiction to credit card debt, Europe’s falling and our own flat birth rates, our willingness to tax our children (via deficits) instead of ourselves, is a simple creed known to every teenager: “We want the world and we want it now,” in the words of Dionysian rock-god Jim Morrison, who died a bloated shell of a man at age 28, leaving behind no acknowledged children, but at least 20 paternity suits filed by women he had abandoned.
Repulsed by the gray “organizational men” who toiled without credit or creativity inside massive corporations, the young (who are now middle-aged) took as their creed a vulgar hedonism, papered over for some by New Left politics. Even when hippies cut their hair and got “real” jobs, the creeds they had popularized changed our economy and politics, all across the Western world. Gone was the stern frugality of the Depression generation, the optimistic fecundity of those who birthed the Baby Boom. In its place came a cleverly calculating Epicureanism, a breed of men who lived for pleasure but knew how to avoid overdoses and V.D., who relied on now-legal abortion to clean up the unintended consequences of pleasure, who looked to vacant New Age spirituality, or endless acquisition for its own sake, with endorphin rushes from risk buffered by the certainty that their banks were “too big to fail.” When the focus of life becomes not pursuing the Good, or even transmitting life so someone else has the chance to, and descends instead to the accumulation of diverse, amusing experiences, man as an organism ceases to function as he was built to. His machines, lazily tended, break down and fall apart. His governments, overburdened and underfunded, welsh on their debts. His countries are either depopulated or colonized by fertile foreigners. He looks around, and he shrugs. If he majored in English, he might use the line, as he shuffles offstage: “Not with a bang, but a wanker.”
If we are to restore effective government and prosperous economies throughout the West, the first step will have to be averting our gaze from the funhouse mirror into which most of us have been staring for much of our lives. We must start to think as members of families first, and individuals second. We need to see our fertility not as a toxic waste that sometimes spills, but a primary purpose in most of our lives (celibates excepted). Leave God out for the moment; our parents made the sacrifice to put us on this earth. The least we can do is to pay it forward, and replace ourselves. (Those of us whom faith has taught to see life as a gift will surely wish to do more, where it’s prudent.)
But there is the rub. Having children is ipso facto proof that each of us is replaceable—for here are the little ones ready to replace us. That means we are mortal. And who wants to admit something like that?