Comparisons, as we have been taught, are often odious. Usually, when we start comparing ourselves with someone else, it is for one of two disreputable reasons. Either we feel hurt and want to convince ourselves that we are not inferior to someone we think unjustly favored; or, like Shakespeare, we begin envying this man’s art and that man’s scope, and wind up most discontented with what we most enjoy. Any way you look at it, such comparisons are a proven recipe for a troubled spirit.
But occasionally, comparing ourselves with someone else is an exercise in realism. Maybe the world is not so capricious. Maybe, a daring thought, I am not even in as bad a state as it seemed.
The value of comparison struck me as I was looking through some foreign newspapers lately. It used to be that American Catholics, seeing yet one more sign of social decline, fantasized about flight to some cleaner society. For a long time, the West of Ireland loomed large among my friends. Others, less suited to parts foreign, took up Walker Percy’s hint and imagined hunkering down in Lost Cove, Tennessee, to wait for the End.
From what I can see, however, the jig is up on fleeing to some better place. It’s not just that countries like Ireland are now allowing divorce and threatening abortion and all the other modern corruptions. Or that satellite dishes have come to Lost Cove. Early this century, Charles Peguy observed that not only are we all at the front lines of a titanic spiritual battle now, but that the front line is everywhere—in families, jobs, entertainment, journalism, not merely in politics. As we can now see, his words are a simple statement of fact.
I used to think there was enough peasant sense left in the Italian people that some kind of refuge might still exist among them. But for some time now, the news has been quite different. Just the other day I was reading about a pregnancy in Rome involving five parents. Yes, five. Follow closely: a surrogate mother agreed to have the baby of a couple who provided both sperm and egg, but could not have the child themselves. Somewhere along the way, another embryo, the product of the sperm and egg of a second couple, was also introduced into the womb of the surrogate. So, on delivery day there will be three mothers and two fathers involved in the happy event. Stories like these are not uncommon in today’s Italy: I keep hoping they will not be reported here lest we feel licensed to follow suit.
The south of France used to be a favorite fantasy for a certain kind of American. Peter Mayle wrote the operator’s manual for that dream. But I’m afraid the dream cannot long survive. The south of France is reeling from North African immigration and is turning toward hardline nationalists. Furthermore, France and all the countries of the European Union are losing their independence. When French President Jacques Chirac announced the other day that he intended to reduce the value-added tax on CDs and other popular entertainment items to stimulate sales among young people, his staff had to remind him that he could do no such thing unless he got the permission of all fifteen members of the EU. It’s no wonder that while our unemployment rate hovers around 5 percent, Europe’s, even in Germany now, is in double digits.
But perhaps the most bizarre thing I have seen in the foreign press lately comes from Japan. Now, Japan does not strike many people as a plausible refuge from our own disorders. The culture is too different. But in the new global environment what happens there has a way of affecting what happens here, and the Japanese have created something that does not bode well.
One of the biggest rock stars in Japan today is named Kyoko. Kyoko is not just any kid. She is a virtual “idoru” or idol, also know as Dk96 (Digital kid 1996). It was bound to happen, I suppose. Even leaving aside cyber-pornography, a world of virtual idols lies in the near future. Kyoko already has pen pals, even though they know she’s not “real.” Her first hit, “Love Communication,” informs teenagers that love is communicated “through your computer, it’s something that links you and me.” Kids respond on the ‘Net confiding their secrets and asking advice about love problems.
So compared with all this, it may be that America, for all its flaws, remains a relative haven for the moment, by world standards. We may be rapidly tearing up our social fabric and blackmailing one another with multiculturalism, but it may all be as nothing compared with the very near future.