In her fascinating book, Dark Age Ahead, journalist and urban studies specialist Jane Jacobs writes about great cultures that come to a defeating and devastating close. The Roman Empire is an obvious example and she writes eloquently about its sad ruin. Her big point is that cultures die, even great brilliant ones, from what she calls “mass amnesia.” Meaning, the people of that culture just stubbornly forget the beauty of what they had created and trade it for something sinister, ugly, selfish and inferior. She writes, “Many subtractions combine to erase a previous way of life, and everything changes as a richer past converts to a meager present and an alien future.”
Ms. Jacobs’ important book is a warning to Americans to beware of succumbing to “mass amnesia” and losing what was once a culture of genius, inventiveness, humane compassion, acumen and skill.
Today we are getting a startling look into sections of our society that are seemingly unaware they are forgetting these very things that made this country truly a great nation. We have allowed angry irrational radio and TV pundits to influence our thinking in defeating and destructive ways, goading us into being sneering, petty, self-centered people. We have swallowed the lies that make us distrust the good our government has always done for the least of our fellow citizens, and frankly for all of us, and it has diminished us as a people, made us flippant, autocratic, cold-shouldered and callous.
Other nations and cultures once enviously looked to us because we made unimaginable things. We achieved impossible tasks. We conquered unsurpassable challenges. They saw us as innovators, scholars, assiduous workers, undeterred farmers and ranchers, devout serious minded citizens, people who survived the worst of things and lived to make life better for those who followed.
Remember that? Or have we already yielded to mass amnesia?
Ms. Jacobs reminds us that Dark Ages in history are times when cultures like ours dead end. They cease to be great and good because the people in them simply get complacent, mentally lazy, and indifferent. The destruction starts from within and almost always ends from some force from without.
The magnificent Roman Empire collapsed from within, horribly toppled upon its own gorgeous brilliance through social ignorance, religious superstition, and cultural decay; and then its people were destroyed by furious tyrants, crude warring mobs, endless disease, chaos and fear.
Out of the miserable Dark Ages came eventually the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason. What a marvelous change that period provided a broken and wasted Europe. The Enlightenment represented what philosopher Immanuel Kant called “man’s emergence from self-imposed immaturity.” Kant saw the Enlightenment as a time for humankind to think for itself and to grow up. It gave people the freedom again to investigate, analyze, and evaluate ideas and not just follow in lock step with self-defeating notions of self-interest, violence, rude behavior and hate promoted by failed leaders. Absolute authority could be questioned without punishment. Religion could be rationally challenged and outright rejected without shame or alienation. Politics was transformed so that government was driven by the consent of the people and not by a wealthy class or a controlling power group. Reason and education became the necessary tools for the creation of a good and functioning society for individuals and the nation.
It’s not too late for us. We still could bypass another Dark Age of misery, ignorance and defeat.
British sociologist Barbara Wooton has written, “The sordid and savage story of history has been written by man’s irrationality, and the thin precarious crust of civilization, which has from time to time been built over the bloody mess, has always been built by reason.”
Reason and smart thinking cannot be lost in our country. We are though in danger of it happening day by day in a society that is quickly, disastrously forgetting who we are as a culture and a people.
© 2015 Timothy Moody