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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Post-Civilization

Paul Ehrlich, David Gergen, and Francis Fukuyama

ALL CREATURES GREAT AND SMALL. Today's InstaPundit links to a Charles Krauthammer column exposing ex-neocon Francis Fukuyama's convenient memory about how he initiated the conversion that has made him a darling of the anti-war left. Then the Blogfather proceeds to add a comment of his own and some updates:

(T)hat's just the beginning of a rather serious takedown. Not that his history of being wrong about, well, pretty much everything has hurt Fukuyama's career so far.

UPDATE: Ron Butler emails: "Francis Fukuyama, the Paul Ehrlich of geopolitics?"

Pretty much.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Byron Matthews emails: "His peculiar talent is to sense the intellectual tide and quickly ride it, which makes him the David Gergen of geopolitics."

Ouch.

This got me thinking about a perennial problem in public affairs and history. There are always highly credentialed people on the scene playing important roles in policy and decision making. In the positions they take, they are right or they are wrong, and it seems there's no good way of determining which is which until long after the fact. There can be great men who are wrong about important matters, but most often the leaders who are dead wrong are not great but small men, whose powers of vision, discernment, and judgment are simply inadequate for the challenges they face. How do we recognize the pygmies before they do us irreparable harm?

The haphazard lumping together of the three men cited in Instapundit's blog represents an interesting point of departure for examining this question. Of the three, only one has so far been exposed as a gnat squashed in the flywheel of history. While many conservatives have already consigned Gergen and Fukuyama to the limbo in which the midgets of human experience reside, it's still possible that they are right and we are wrong. It will probably take decades to obtain a clear verdict. But it was Paul Ehrlich who gave us the fantasy of the Population Bomb that would drive us to worldwide starvation and exhaustion of natural resources in his own lifetime. It didn't happen. With regard to western civilization, the converse has proven to be the real crisis -- diminishing birthrates that threaten to degrade Europe and the rest of the developed world into neo-barbarian enclaves of Islam. Thus, Ehrlich is now destined to be a minor footnote of the twentieth century.

What's interesting is that he does not conform to many of the criteria that might appear to be indicative of the Small Man. He did not work his way up to a position of power for which he was unqualified like, say, George McClellan. He did not ride the coattails of a popular/populist wave of sentiment that happened to be stupid, like a William Jennings Bryan (Fukuyama?). He did not subordinate common sense to a vain belief that he could rationally stage-manage irrational forces of history, like Neville Chamberlain. He did not succumb to simple weakness of vision, intellect, or character, like Jimmy Carter or von Hindenburg, And he did not merely feather his own nest as a clever operator in thrall to those who could grant him power and praise, like Albert Speer, Vidkun Quisling, or Aaron Burr (Gergen?). In fact, he was learned, original, dedicated, and a tireless fighter for what he believed in. He began his public life as a mere college professor without any kind of official power and attracted considerable attention to ideas that turned out to be entirely erroneous.

Some might say this nominates him as a great man, but it does not. Great men do have great achievements, whether they also exhibit great weaknesses or not. Paul Ehrlich is, on the stage of history, a mediocrity, a failure, and a man singularly devoid of accomplishment. He was completely wrong about his life's work.

What can we learn from his example? Underdogs aren't necessarily right just because they're underdogs who succeed in creating a stir. Outstanding educational credentials don't necessarily translate to true brilliance. Integrity of intellect doesn't necessarily prove rightness. So how are we supposed to arm ourselves against the seemingly brilliant true believers, especially when they come into conflict with more ordinary-appearing men?

Using the Ehrlich model, for example, how might we have decided that Winston Churchill was a great man back in the days when he was a maverick Parliamentarian opposing the consensus foreign policy of all the countries of Europe because he saw a Chaplin-lookalike chancellor as a stake in the heart of civilization? Underdog, yes, but it doesn't matter. Beautifully, classically eloquent, yes, but it doesn't matter. Absolutely sincere, yes, but it doesn't matter. How might we have known that he was as right and implacable as Lincoln, who was in power, pitifully uneducated, and derided on all sides as a stumblebum political hack?

To get a clue, I think we need a new cultural term. Intellectually, philosophically, and artistically, we live in an age that has been named "post-modern." The use of a prefix in a term that is supposed to characterize one or more generations of thought and aspiration is suggestive. It is suggestive of being at least one remove from what is genuinely original or vital. The post-moderns are "post" a lot of things -- post-Christian in faith, post-rational in thought, post-nationalist in politics, post-innovative in the arts. Their only philosophy is collage, a pasting together of discrepant styles, cultures, belief systems, and folk traditions in ways that can be taken apart intellectually but are considered inviolate with regard to their equivalence in moral terms. It is the time of the great leveling -- everything can and should be a patch in the tedious stitching of the human quilt.

When it comes to how leaders in all ages act, I believe post-modernism has always been with us in one key respect. This is that the complexity of contemporary life has (habitually) reached a point which can no longer be dominated by human will, either in the singular power of human individuality or the united spirit of a single community. It must be compromised to keep the impending catastrophe from doing us all in. We must, at last, begin to embrace the status quo, settle for less than our boldest dreams, initiate a process of self repudiation in recompense for the grievances of others, or even deny (or doubt) our own human right to survive. We become so supremely civilized we forget that survival is always at risk and always worth fighting for.

It's contemporary bias which blinds us to the fact that this is a recurring phase in human affairs. Every civilization has fallen, after all. Notably, the fall of every civilization has also been stage managed by small men in the grip of the syndrome I choose to call Post-Civilization. The fall always begins at the point when the supposedly wisest and smartest decide that the best days are behind, and the future can only be negotiated successfully be aiming lower, accepting more of the demands of opponents and enemies, and accepting the possibility that their most deeply held traditions may be flawed or defective. If a civilization were a human body, this would be a period of bleeding out, the slow numbing of limbs, the dimming of self-consciousness, the fading of strength, resignation to a death only faintly anticipated.

Most small men are simply flawed and, well, undersized, readily accepted by the hordes of like-minded comrades who are also self-righteously fixated on doing what seems easy right now. Sometimes, small men can even be courageous, as when they they defend the broken barricades of bad ideas their egos can't live without. The dangerous small men are those who possess enormous talent but approach their challenges with a post-civilization mentality. They seek to shepherd us gently into that good night where all journeys end. Their only ideal is the zero-sum game, because they are realistic, pragmatic, and wise. Paul Ehrlich is an archetype of Post-Civilization Man.

Great men come in all flavors and from all backgrounds. What distinguishes them is their vitality, their absolute determination in pursuing a better outcome than repeating the fancied high points of the past. They believe that the price we pay today and tomorrow to seek brand new accomplishments in the future is worth even their own humiliation and ruin. Their style is not to regulate or diminish, but to lead and inspire and challenge the very best in each of us, asking whatever sacrifice and pain are required to keep the human destiny looking up to the stars rather than down to the drab prospect of accommodation and retreat.

Now if you think that the small men really are wiser, name some names of the great small men who supervised the terminal stages of every great civilization.

I thought so.







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