The Sky is Not Falling
James Hall, From the Left
Those who prefer the past to the present
are often pessimistic about the future, too. I’m not. I don’t see any sign of an imminent cultural collapse. Change,
yes, but the sky is not falling, Chicken Little.
Sorry SARTRE, cultures always change. Cultures are created by the actions of people, and people grow and die and are replaced
by their children. The death of an entire culture is extremely rare. The Mayan culture passed, most likely a self-induced death caused by the destruction of its environment. Ditto for Easter Island’s culture, which created the great stone faces that
stare out to sea.
Other cultures have been destroyed when
they come into contact with larger, more capable opponents. They were overwhelmed
the way that the Greeks were overcome by the Romans, the Incas by the Spanish, or the native American Indians by European
So when SARTRE laments the destruction
of our own culture, I wonder if he believes we are going to destroy our environment, like the Maya, or if we’re going
to be conquered by the technologically or numerically superior culture of some modern-day Cortez or Pizzaro.
With global warming in full stride, the
first is at least a possibility; and should China continue to grow in power, our children may well grow up to speak Mandarin. But I believe that SARTRE’s beef is something far simpler: he’s sorry
that the good old days are gone. Because things are not to his liking today,
there must be a villain, and that villain, according to SARTRE, is a fast-growing secularism.
His evidence? The Oscars awarded to Hollywood movies that don’t support traditional values. Making movies about gay cowboys has done in the West. Rappers
winning Oscar gold spells the demise of our society into SARTRE’s ‘gutter culture.’.
Pardon me for being unimpressed with
that argument. I didn’t see any of those movies this year; nor do I listen
to rap music. Most Americans didn’t and don’t, either. I do remember that in my youth Elvis Presley was the Devil and James Dean the Rebel. In my dad’s youth it was jazz and the jitterbug bringing down civilization; in my grandfather’s
day, flappers and bathtub gin.
So Hollywood’s a bastion of secularism? That’s a newsflash. It’s
been that way since its inception, with a few exceptions. Hollywood is about
money and entertainment, which makes it as American as apple pie. The same can
be said for most other forms of popular culture. Nothing new here except that
one has more choice of his or her secular fare these days—along with more religious channels, too.
When SARTRE said that our culture comes
from the Good Book, he only got it half right. Our Western Judeo-Christian values
have always taken place in the context of the Greco-Roman culture that is also part of the cultural mix. These Classical ideas include our philosophy, science, law, economics, and politics---all largely secular
America is a republic based on constitutional
ideals and limited government, right? These ideas stem from our culture’s
secular side. The Bible is full of rule by absolute kings and priests. The Good Book deals in theocracies, not democracies; in leaders who are anointed, not appointed by the
people. It was the theological notion of divine right of kings that our American
forefathers explicitly rejected when they adopted this form of governance, a secular government devoid any religious tests
for its citizens.
Our economic system is clearly secular
in nature as well. Our economists talk about market forces, not God’s Will,
effecting change and growth in the economy. Adam Smith never connected the Invisible
Hand to the Celestial Body. And clearly the goals of capitalism are about accumulating
capital in this world, not in the next.
Among its other faults, SARTRE would have
us believe that secularism has led to a decline in what has been called the ‘culture of life.’ But abortions are actually in decline, while techniques to save the lives of premature infants have advanced,
and more people are saved from heart disease, bacterial diseases like cholera, and cancer than ever before. Technology to serve the disabled has improved, and laws that provide them with the right to a dignified
living have been enacted. A ‘culture of life’ is alive and prospering.
Social Security and Medicare have made
it possible for a generation to live longer and with more independence than their fathers and grandfathers knew.
Granted that today’s pace of change
is rapid, and SARTRE shows his pessimistic nature when he declares that change is more often chaos than progress. But in reality, great progress has been made this last century in medicine, science, agriculture, and in
the expansion of human rights and democratic institutions. We’ve averted
nuclear war, ended colonialism, and have all-but-destroyed Communism. In a few
hundred years, we’ve moved from the Middle Ages, through the Industrial Age, and into the Information Age. All this is progress.
SARTRE, I’ m sorry that you yearn
for the good old days, when liquor was banned on Sundays and they rolled up the streets at seven p.m. Those were the days,
weren’t they? Unless you were black and had to drink from the ‘colored
only’ water fountain, or were a woman with an ambition to be something other than a nurse, teacher, or homemaker, or
a kid infected with polio or tuberculosis.
I’ll take the present, and the future,
thank you. Don’t be chicken: the sky is not falling.
Of Straw Men and Secularism
Let’s begin with SARTRE’s
straw man argument: secularists saying “all is right with the world.” Secularists are no Pangloss; they acknowledge the world’s problems, and I have
already mentioned a few problems in my first response. No few of these concerns,
by the way, are due to religious extremism, not secularism. Think of al Qaeda
around the world, the Iraq civil war, and the Christian/Islamic conflict in Darfour, North Africa, all hot spots attributed
to religious conflict, not secularism. What I DO say, as an optimist, is that
all problems are capable of solutions.
Addressing the rest of SARTRE’s
misapprehensions is equally easy. Take pornography, for example. Here I’m no expert, and will have to yield to SARTRE’s knowledge of this area. Still, history shows that lust is part of human nature, and pornography has been with humankind forever:
it’s been found in the ruins of Greek and Roman cities, in the practices of traditional Japanese culture, and in ancient
documents like the Kama Sutra—and, yes, in the Good Book (read the Song of Solomon, for example). It’s accompanied the armies of the world as a camp follower.
So do the availability of the Playboy channel and Pay-Per-View today signal the imminent destruction of Western
Culture? If so, it will make a most interesting footnote in the annals of world
history. But one can think of pornography as mankind’s constant vice, a
vice that drags down men of the cloth as readily as secular men. Think Jimmy
Swaggert, Jim Bakker, or of Catholic priests who couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. No one, secularist or not, is immune from temptation.
What of ‘open borders,
then?’ Is this a secular v. religious issue at all, or just another complaint
from SARTRE’s lengthy laundry list? I don’t really think immigration
policy is a cultural issue, but let’s say it is, for SARTRE’s sake. Who supports open borders, then: the secularists?
Isn’t the current status of our immigration policy largely due to the efforts of pious President Bush to make
‘guest workers’ a feature of our national economy? And aren’t
Mr. Bush’s most dependable supporters likewise followers of the Good Book? Hasn’t
Catholic Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles and other churchmen taken a defiant stance against attempts to register illegal immigrants
in this country and deny them charitable benefits?
This leads us to SARTRE’s
final point: his call for a revolution to overthrow secularism. As usual, he
is less than specific about the details of his remedy. Is he calling for the
complete destruction of all secular institutions, including our law, science, philosophy, governmental, and educational institutions? Does he desire the creation of a theocratic state like John Calvin’s Geneva
Republic on the shores of North America? Does he favor restrictions on popular
culture, like music, movies, and cable t.v. entertainment? Shall America create
an army of cultural censors like Communist China has done, or establish a ministry of religious propriety like Saudi Arabia’s? Shall we join the President of Iran in the wholesale condemning of Western music,
movies, and television?
How is SARTRE going to encourage
‘self-restraint on perverse behavior?’ If his encouragement is through
personal example or persuasive argument, then I wish him well. If he chooses
to move beyond self-restraint to calling for social and legal forms of coercion, then I remain his steadfast opponent. History shows us that blue laws, Prohibition, and Victorian measures that attempt
to suppress human nature simply drive the behavior underground, inflicting it upon the weakest and most helpless members of
The acclaimed American novelist
Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter and Young Goodman Brown, understood something that SARTRE does not. In
his remarkable portrayal of New England’s overtly religious Puritan society (of which he was a part), Hawthorne argues
that the outward appearance of propriety, especially when enforced by the community, is no guarantee of inward purity, or
even of self-restraint. Evil is committed in the dark and out of sight behind
closed doors. The ‘beast’ lies within each of us, and no secular
or religious message will penetrate to stop it if we lack the self-knowledge of our inherent weakness and the self-discipline
to resist that weakness. That knowledge and discipline depends not so much on
one’s religious or secular beliefs, but on one’s strength of character.