Sunday, April 22, 2007

Space Men

Is America a "sick society?" I am inclined to answer yes, that Western Civilization as a whole is sick and has been for at least as long as I have been alive. But I'm willing to consider all points of view. Last week, just after the mass murder at Virginia Tech, William Bennett entertained the question and said:
We’re talking about yesterday in Blacksburg. Some people, it hasn't come up on this show, because this audience wouldn’t dare bring it up, but there'll be people saying, "Well, it’s a sick society. You know, it’s just a crazy, wigged out, sick society." I’ve got a book coming out today, not the best timing for a book, it's all right. It's a good book, America: The Last Best Hope, Vol. II. And at the very end of the book, I recall a speech that Ronald Reagan made in 1974 . . .

But here's what Ronald Reagan said at that time . . . "We are not a sick society. A sick society could not produce the men who set foot on the Moon, or who are now circling the Earth above us in the Skylab . . ."

It really makes one think, doesn't it? Of course, what Reagan via Bennett makes me think is that argument is the most ludicrous one for American societal health that I have ever heard.

The space program? Ignore for a moment that a couple of days after Bennett quoted this wisdom, a NASA employee took hostages and then committed murder because of a bad performance review: what other country in the fifties, sixties and seventies was shooting men, dogs and other of God's creatures into space? Why yes, it was the Soviet Union--the healthiest society ever! Reagan didn't know in 1974 about the coming ignominious end to Skylab. The infamous space station fell from space and crashed around Esperance in West Australia.

A couple of decades ago Walker Percy, apparently unmoved by the greatness of Skylab, gave a talk at Cornell; reprinted in Signposts in a Strange Land as "Diagnosing the Modern Malaise." In it, he said:
To state the matter as plainly as possible, I would echo a writer like Guardini who says simply that the modern world has ended, the world, the world, that is, of the past two or three hundred years, which we think of as having been informed by the optimism of the scientific revolution, rational humanism, and that Western cultural entity which until this century it has been more or less accurate to describe as Christendom. I am not telling you anything you don't already know when I say that the optimism of this age began to crumble with the onset of the catastrophes of the twentieth century. If one had to set a date of the beginning of the end of the modern world, 1914 would be as good as any. . .

Of course, Percy, if still alive, wouldn't dare utter such calumnies on Bill Bennett's Morning in America program.

1 comment:

Grant Gould said...

It is a fascinating fact that most animals in the wild carry nearly the maximum load of parasites that they can metabolically sustain. Critters are so crawling with germs and worms and bugs that even the healthiest are only one infection away from death (indeed the parasites take a leading role in fighting off other parasites for just this reason).

The same, I suspect, is true of societies, and indeed of all systems of organization. Health is not an equilibrium point, not stable, not a normal condition. It is normal and natural for a society to be sick. Indeed the strongest societies are likely the sickest, as the equilibrium number of parasites is greater. We should measure a society's strength not by how healthy it has managed to be but by how sick it can stand to be.

Democracies are very sick, colonized by gutter populism and political elites and their parties. Free societies are very sick, preyed on by all manner of criminal and quasi-criminal enterprises. Market economies are notoriously infected with corruption, monopolization, and corporatism. But these are measures of strength; contrariwise, the means of social health -- electoral reforms, speech restrictions, heavily armed police, economic regulation and redistribution -- are signs of social weakness, temporary measures to which the parasites easily adapt, and which will themselves soon be parasitized.