I find myself wondering at the gloom that has insinuated itself into
Western culture. It must be liike what the German Romantics called Weltschmerz
at the end of the 18th century: lots of guilt, lots of anxiety, much
bad feeling about the future. But instead of feeling enervated as
people did then, most of uis are all pumped up and running as fast as
we can, running like there is no tomorrow. Or running like there's
plague pursuing us.
Marketers would call it a trend, Hegelians a Zeitgeist. Both can point to comparisons
between our moment and earlier ones for proof.
They can investigate our sense of peril. They can compare the conflicts
the West has with the other: North Viet Nam,
Red China and the Soviet Union a few decades ago, and
radical Islam. In that first conflict American legislators sent boys to Asia
for reasons that were patently false, racist, and frequently idiotic. The boys
laid waste to the place, but in the
background, opaque and armed to the hilt were the Soviets: zombies, dismayingly
supported by many amongst us. Yet how would one typically characterize the
overall culture of the west forty years ago? The music was great. The girls
wore short skirts, the boys wore tight pants. And there was lots of dancing.
Today in Iraq
there’s lots of horror but certainly no more than there was forty years ago in Vietnam.
The stakes are no higher, and, while the reasons for the conflict are
still foolish and racist, the
legislators seem no more dishonest; they're almost certainly not cynical. In
fact, if anything, they have been naively idealist. All told Iraq
is hardly more of a fiasco than Vietnam
was. Moreover, lurking in the background is not a gang of zombie militarists
armed with nuclear missiles, but a bunch of medieval religious loonies. And the
people who think they’re cool are not influential academics, intellectuals, and
trade unionists, but a bunch of callow boys in Mississauga
or Scarborough or the two Birminghams (U.K.
What's it like out there today? Well, the music is more
aggressive and mechanistic. Sexuality is mechanized, too, and Eros has been
sterilized as though he was a virus. And the kids have guns.
Trend spotters, Hegelians, and cultural theorists find
evidence of our infirmity in the ongoing contest between humanism and
”intelligent design”. During the Enlightenment people in the West were
enthralled with their newly-discovered capacity to reason and the potential it
held for liberation from religious dogmatism.
Today, religious dogmatism is not passed over as archaic and silly, it
Today despite the fact that there has never been a period
in history when aggregate wealth has increased by more than it has over the
last ten years. India,
China, Vet Nam
and even parts of Africa are the benign culprits. Yet despite the fact that a huge percentage of earth's
human population has been liberated from economic misery, that we have learned
to live longer and are able to communicate with one another with dazzling
facility, progress is a quaint notion and we in the West can celebrate human
achievement only parochially – like when one of us or our kids manages to pull
off a score. Collectively we’ve come to fear and loathe the effects—accomplishments—of
our species, environmental degradation
above all. Many see human beings as creating a gathering hell. Some
paradoxically acknowledge that we live longer while at the same time pointing
out that we are managing it in a cancerous soup. Others think we are already mutants. Parents, meanwhile, rob their kids of the
adventure of walking to school on their own for fear of sexual predation.
Professionals define relationships as “toxic.” The watchword of the day is
“community” because community's absence is rued like love lost: we talk about
what we don’t have.
In sum, our Paris, our Los Angeles, our Toronto, our New
York Times, our cinema, our architecture, our economy, our West–the West we’ve
inherited from Spinoza and Huygens and Elvis and Aristotle, is tinged with
anxiety, desperation, sadness, and fear of loss. It is this that I wonder
about, and why it is this way.
Information has multiplied because of
distribution-channel growth and because censorship has changed from being a
social to a commercial protocol. People complain of being “over-informed” as
if, like elderly patients at the mercy of hospital staff, they are being
overmedicated against their will. Especially in the case of fearful parents
this diagnosis is accurate. The profusion of stories about a few tragic victims
has obviously turned them and their children into victims.
Likewise, news about the environment is equally relentless
and depressing, equally pervasive, and so pious that it itself has become its
own form of environmental degradation.
Still, to assume that information itself is the cause would
be an error. Popular media is a product that merely articulates an unconscious
appetite for rarefied content. Maybe—especially
within the Anglo-American ambit—we’re anxious because we've never had it so
good, and therefore fear a lacerating regression to the mean. The recent growth
of global wealth has done wonders for a good chunk of Westerners. Residential
real estate values in major Western cities have jumped an average of 7% a year over the past 5 years, and the MSCI
Barra world index of stock market returns – the benchmark index comprising, on
a weighted basis, the returns of stock markets in the 19 largest western
economies plus the markets of Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore – have 5-, 3-,
and 1-year returns of 12.25%, 15.11%, and 26.83% respectively*. Not only have many people grown
wealthier, they have grown wealthier while the prices of food, computers,
t-shirts–nearly everything except for investable assets–have held steady or
declined. The only people who have found that the stuff they want to buy
has gone up in price are, in a sense, the very wealthy. It has become more expensive to be rich
recently. This ought to please the majority of merely-much-better-offs, or MMBOs,
but it doesn’t seem to register at all.
So is the West's anxiety the result of an inversion of the
second line of Pope's famous couplet “man never is but to be blessed?”—a reflection
of the fact that what's coming must, in all probability, be a financial
conflagration? It's unlikely. Only the most experienced and best
investors manage to rein in the euphoria that naturally attends prosperity.
Most of the MMBOs are, by definition, new to the game. They should be singing
in the streets. Instead, they're isolating themselves in gated communities
ruing the loss of communities few of them have ever experienced.
No, the fundamental reason for the West's sense of anxiety
and sadness must be demographic. Unlike Africa, much of Asia,
and the Middle East, an inflated and growing part of the
West's population is aged, and aging. My friend Gunnar Heinsohn of the
University of Bremen has pointed out (most astutely in Babies Win Wars:Entscheidet
die Demografie über Europas Zukunft?) that youth bulges have their own
problems – nasty wars fueled by a surplus of males being the worst of them –
but age bulges are merely cultures suffering sore knees in the morning, poor
digestions, and drastically diminished libidos. It would not be unreasonable to
bet that a majority of the demographic majority in the West hasn't had sex for
a year. It might not even be unreasonable to bet that a sizable minority may
not have had sex for a decade.
Classical music stations that broadcast traffic and
weather reports every ten minutes soothe their physical and psychic pains and
lend them the sense that at least some key issues can be known and controlled.
Their energies must be devoted to maintenance, not joy. Those who are
un-coupled — and probably having sex–either have surgery to make themselves
attractive, or work so assiduously at the gym that their behavior can read as
defiant or even downright heroic. But it also reads as desperate and unseemly.
Aging has a profound aesthetic implication. Think of the
way the aged present. Forty years ago the streets blossomed not just with mini
skirts and tight pants, but with radiant hair and skin and teeth and easy
smiles and gliding walks. The parade on the street today is different, defined
by droopy and pale skinned men and women dressed in oversized pastels,
perambulating in wheelchairs, or clinging to walkers. Is the current obsession
with architecture and design a sublimation of the fear of or disgust at the
aging feel at their own and own another’s bodies?
The enlightened amongst us may be inspired by the sight of
so many aged people capable of contemplating the arc of their individual
lives—and maybe the objective arc of being itself. Such contemplation invokes
wisdom, an excellent faculty, but ultimately, a faculty less salubrious than
what the disproportionate percentages of young people inspired forty years
ago—and inspire today in Africa, Asia, and much of the Middle East: desire,
I wonder at the phenomenon. I don't decry it. Aging is
organic, natura naturans, (nature
nurturing) to use Spinoza's perfect description of the process. Properly
understood as sub specie aeternitatas, it is
as beautiful as anything and everything else, even ourselves when we were
young. But we don't see life sub specie
aeternitatas. We see life from the perspective of the finite modes that we
live amidst. And for that, we in the West are anxious and very sad.
October 12, 2007