A Last Look at The West That Was

Sputnik 1 was launched in October, 1957. I remember exactly where I was when the news story broke on the radio. My friend and I were being driven to a high school football game by his father, an aeronautical engineer at one of the largest manufacturers of helicopter rotor blades in the world. News of Sputnik was so important that he pulled the car to the side of the road so the three of us could listen to the lengthy newscast without distraction.

The following year in 1958, at the height of the Cold War, an unknown 23 year old American pianist won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Despite the tension between the two countries, the Soviets treated him graciously before he returned home to a hero’s welcome. A fine example of the “promotion of world friendship through the universal language of the arts”, which was a sentiment inscribed prominently at the venue where I met Van Cliburn less than a decade later.

At age 11 I joined the Boy Scouts. Our troop was led by an exceptional man, kind, strict, and strong, who believed that the best way for boys to learn was by doing. Every three weeks during the school year, we went on a weekend camping trip. Good weather or bad, we went.

Building fires, we were each allowed one kitchen match, whether the firewood was wet or dry; whether it was windy or not. Success was anticipated, and so usually internalized. Failure meant (marginally) good natured jeers from the others, and the next boy would test his skill and try his match.

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Occasionally on a moonlit night we’d be awakened at 1 AM, and told to collect a compass, matches, canteen, and flashlight, as we were going on a hike. We’d be led along a river or road for a ways, and then led off into the woods on one side or the other. After a kilometre or two of fast walking away from the road through the bush in the dark, we’d be broken into groups of 3 or 4, with one being an older boy. The group would be told to wait for 15 minutes, and then find its way back to camp. More experienced groups would be led farther on and told the same. Other than illuminating the compass from time to time, use of a flashlight was discouraged, and shouting was strictly forbidden. We learned to keep calm, and realize that all we had to do was use our compass and common sense to intersect the road or stream, which would then lead us back to camp. Sounds easy now, but when you’re 12 years old it was less so.

On one winter trip, a mildly retarded boy seriously froze both feet, resulting in his having some toes amputated. It was sobering for all of us to realize that we were a team and part of our responsibility included looking out for one another, particularly one having a disability. We had failed, but we learned, and with our encouragement the boy continued with the Scouts.

Breaking camp meant forming a line an arm’s length apart and walking slowly to pick up everything as small as a matchstick. Anything overlooked and we’d have to repeat, only on hands and knees. Leave no visible trace. And we did not.

I had just entered high school when JFK was elected in 1960. Sputnik had been used to leverage fear of the USSR for the purpose of increasing defence spending, but it had also given rise to an overhaul of the education system. For anyone showing an interest in science or engineering, like me, the result was as if a red carpet were rolling out just ahead of us. An advanced program was set up. My class was the first. We had dynamic teachers, new laboratory equipment, and a new physics curriculum created by physicists from the US and Canada, the Physical Science Study Committee, PSSC.

The thousand days from 1960 to 1963 now seem like magic. Of course we were all aware of problems, but there was also an indescribable feeling of confidence that the problems could, and would, be solved. I know how today’s high school age Russians feel – the same as we felt nearly 60 years ago. Vladimir Putin must be every bit as inspiring to them as JFK was to us.

In high school English, we read a ridiculous play by Sophocles – at least at the time it seemed ridiculous. I was far too young to be reading it, but later realized that it was introduced not for immediate consideration, but as a seed that might possibly germinate later. And it did.

These are Sophocles’s words in the tragedy Antigone:  “Evil appears as good in the minds of those whom the gods lead to destruction.” That, written over 24 centuries ago, describes exactly what is happening today. What was inconceivable in 1961 is ubiquitous in 2018.

Sputnik launched on a Friday in 1957. On another Friday in 1963, JFK was murdered in a coup d’état during my final year in high school. As with Sputnik, (and unlike Mr. George H. W. Bush) I remember exactly where I was when the news broke.

For a time, it seemed like we coasted emotionally and intellectually. No one I knew understood the gravity of what had actually happened. Everyone initially believed the government’s story. Most continued to believe, but for some, elementary laws of physics soon made the government’s version preposterous and ominous.

In any case, it was becoming clear that JFK’s administration, perhaps including a holdover, his audacious Project Apollo, marked America’s apogee during my lifetime.

Even with JFK gone, a positive feeling remained briefly at the large state university where I studied engineering. Cracks began to appear as the Vietnam War ramped up. The pointlessness of a war against a country that in no way threatened the United States also initiated a more general awareness of futility and unsustainability.

Once on an early morning flight, as we took off, we flew over endless lines of headlights and taillights of cars driven by the thousands of salesmen peddling Twinkies, Playboy Magazine, and B-52 bombers, all using the four-lane highway to get to “work”, then eight hours later reversing direction to return home, only to repeat the next day, and the next. That awoke a realization that this ongoing waste of resources, both human and material, on such unimportant, and even destructive pursuits could not last. This must go, I thought. In my naïve mind I imagined a return-to-Walden-Pond kind of transformation.

I was right, the current expression of Western Civilization does have to go, but what did I expect? That the Deep State would suddenly become rational and quiescent? The Empire will not quietly revert to Walden Pond. The shell of it has become ever-more monstrously violent as it approaches collapse.

Now:

The company manufacturing helicopter rotor blades where I grew up no longer exists – the original patents for the numerically controlled machine tools that had been invented there expired years ago.

Van Cliburn passed away in 2013 – a truly gracious, humble, and talented human.

PSSC physics is no longer widely taught – “It’s too difficult for students and teachers.”

Sophocles is no longer widely taught in high school – “It’s irrelevant.”

The skilled and successful are no longer singled out for commendation; participation alone is now sufficient to merit an award – “Here’s a lighter and a can of starter fluid to start your fire. Now isn’t that a lot more practical?”

Boy Scouts can no longer engage in the same activities as in the 1950’s – “Abandon them at night in the woods? Are you mad? It’s far too dangerous.”

Boy Scout leaders are more difficult to find today – they’re rightly worried about being falsely accused of pedophilia.

Our scout leader, a fine and generous man, would be sued into bankruptcy today had a boy frozen his feet on his watch. Our leader felt terrible about the incident and took full responsibility, although we knew it was as much the responsibility of us other boys as it was his. Everyone, including the boy’s parents, realized that it was a terrible error – and there was no lawsuit.

What’s happening?

Evidently it’s not hard to collapse a civilization. It’s done from within, gradually, where amazingly, it is not generally perceived as the decay envelops.

Art has been said to be the augury of civilization. If that’s right, it’s not hard to appraise our civilization’s health. Modern visual arts have gone from having become disturbing about a century ago to now being merely silly or irreverent. The only relevance now of such “art” is serving as a harbinger of our decline.

“The true work of art is but a shadow of the divine perfection”, said Michelangelo. If that’s right, where are the true works of art today? And what is our perception of the Divine?

Listen to any fine arts radio station for a day. Most of their programming will comprise Baroque through Romantic music, spanning approximately three centuries from about 1600 to the early 1900’s. What’s happened to serious music over the past half century? Which compositions, if any, will still be performed a century from now?

What can be done?

We need to embrace truth, which is not so easy. Here’s what the 19th century American author, Stephen Crane, says about truth in “The Wayfarer.”

The wayfarer,
Perceiving the pathway to truth,
Was struck with astonishment.
It was thickly grown with weeds.
“Ha,” he said,
“I see that none has passed here
In a long time.”
Later he saw that each weed
Was a singular knife.
“Well,” he mumbled at last,
“Doubtless there are other roads.”

How might the embracing of truth appear?

If the National Endowment for the Arts wanted to stop Civilization’s decay, “Piss Christ” would not have been a winner in the “Awards in Visual Arts” competition in 1987, but would rather have been simply thrown out with the trash.

If the Corporate Media wanted to stop Civilization’s decay, Sophocles would be discussed, rather than Stormy Daniels.

If the Justice System wanted to stop Civilization’s decay, Elizabeth Holmes’s fraud would be judged by the same criteria as “Pharma Bro’s” fraud.

If the Financial System wanted to stop Civilization’s decay, the “Too Big to Fail” would be allowed to die.

The most significant ideas and events are ignored while the most trivial are exaggerated. Outrageous claims and accusations are routinely made with no proof whatever. A few protest, but even those protests are often muted, thanks in part to the efforts of Messieurs Brin, Page, and Zuckerberg. Most citizens seem nonchalant about the Empire provoking major nuclear powers in their name.

Instead, other matters beckon.

In February teenagers were excited about “Taking the Tide Pod Challenge.” Teenagers, who didn’t bother sharing disturbing historical photos in remembrance of the Dresden Holocaust on its 73rd anniversary on Ash Wednesday, February 14, were that week instead enthusiastically sharing videos of their vomiting friends eating Tide Pods.

Then in March, teenagers excitedly demanded that the government abridge one of their civil rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights – the right of personal self-defence. Such are the demands made by teenagers who have essentially no knowledge of history, literature, philosophy, or science.

But they are teenagers and so are to be pitied more than censured, for their environment generally does not foster such study. As with the boy having frozen feet, the responsibility lies more with others.

Their parents and teachers have not read about the Frankfurt School and so do not recognize its ghastly outcomes currently unfolding, as they might, had they also studied the Weimar Republic.

Their parents and teachers have not read Solzhenitsyn, or they might realize that sometimes governments turn violently against their own citizens.

Their parents and teachers have not read Sun Tzu, or they would want to know all they could about the “enemy”, which would lead them to study the philosophers often quoted by Vladimir Putin, such as Ivan Ilyin and Vladimir Solovyov. If they ever did choose to read them, they’d be astonished.

Their parents and teachers have not studied the effects of nuclear weapons on living things, and so they are unable to imagine themselves, their friends and relatives, together with all their belongings one day immolated in a flash of fire, as happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

And finally, almost no one bothers to read Vladimir Putin’s speeches, instead relying on the highly edited and intentionally distorted summaries and interpretations presented by the Corporate Media.

The Empire has truly descended into madness, and for us on the outside, it’s almost unbearable to watch, containing as it does, the remnants of our Western Civilization.

So, Saker, in response to your article’s rhetorical question, yes, this really is the end of it all. The mechanism of the collapse is repugnant, but end it must and end it will.

But when? If the decade 1960 to 1970 (to include the JFK legacy flight of Apollo 11) marked the American apogee, what decade will mark its perigee? With humanity having never having faced this particular set of circumstances before, it’s not possible to know, but based on experiences from the 20th century, persistent and unsubstantiated vilification of a designated enemy is a good predictor of an impending hot war, and the intensity in the Corporate Media has been rapidly increasing. “Hot” warfare, used as a distraction, often coincides with a financial crisis, which may also be imminent, given recent important events regarding the Petrodollar. We will likely soon know.

However:

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire would have seemed like the end of the world for those living in Rome in 500 AD. But Civilization did not die; it slept fitfully throughout Western Europe, before finally awakening abruptly and unexpectedly with the Renaissance. Suddenly art, music, literature, architecture, and science all began to flourish together, a heartening example of regression toward the mean. All that latent talent and insight, sequestered in the population for nine centuries was now being released. And it has continued to flourish, with blemishes, for six centuries.

The situation is different now, with the dangerous very long-term effects of nuclear weapons, but it is still possible that Civilization will not die but rather hibernate as before. Even more likely is that Russia will next carry Civilization, for Vladimir Putin clearly understands what is required to make Russia great again.

Finally, here are encouraging observations that have been left to us by two diplomats, one American, the other Swedish.

The first is from George Bancroft:

It is when the hour of conflict is over, that history comes to a right understanding of the strife, and is ready to exclaim: “Lo! God is here, and we knew it not.”

The next is from the personal diary of Dag Hammarskjöld, the second Secretary-General of the UN, not long before his 1961 death in Africa. This diary was not written for publication, and was published posthumously:

The road,
You shall follow it.
The fun,
You shall forget it.
The cup,
You shall empty it.
The pain,
You shall conceal it.
The truth,
You shall be told it.
The end,
You shall endure it.

It is likely that we also may need those words.

And may God help us all…