Our current moment as the stewards of Western civilization affords us a glimpse at something no previous human beings ever had the chance to observe. We get to see what effect unprecedented comfort, convenience, abundance and, indeed, opulence, have on the human character.
The Renaissance revived the West’s core preoccupations, namely, the relationship between the state and the individual, and the exact nature of God. The Protestant Reformation, the surge in scientific inquiry, invention and art, and the rise of global exploration reawakened a robustness of spirit that had characterized ancient Israel, Greece and Italy in their respective heydays. That period in turn led to the Industrial Revolution and the previously unavailable option of continuing to work the land or moving to the city and learning a skilled trade.
To be blunt, the world has never seen anything like the pace of advancement that the West made possible for humanity generally from the 1500s until recently. That period is a sliver atop millennia of people inhabiting the earth.
Since the United States came into existence, it has led the way. Founded as it was on an idea — indeed, one that combined the West’s two central themes, individual sovereignty and humanity’s relationship with God — it was uniquely poised to be an incubator for material progress on an entirely new scale.
Not even its exhausting participation in two world wars dimmed its leadership role. Indeed, its greatness reached its crescendo in the immediate aftermath of the second such conflict.
Say what you might about rock ‘n’ roll history as a subject fit for academic study, it affords us the opportunity to look at the entirely new circumstances of adolescents in late 1950s America. They were flush with spending cash from after-school jobs and allowances, and makers of the products of popular culture such as food, phonograph records, cars, clothing and telephones quickly became savvy about marketing to this burgeoning demographic.
Not that Mom and Dad were living in scarcity. Incomes were rising, paid vacations increasingly became the norm, and health insurance became increasingly tied to one’s relationship with one’s workplace.
Since the end of World War II, the United States has basically carried Europe. Having rescued it from the Axis menace and repaired its ravaged cities, we continued to protect it from the subsequent Communist threat.
The fact that Europe basically quit going to church, enacted cradle-to-grave state coddling for its citizens and lost all sense of governmental solvency is no coincidence. Neither is the shriveling of its artistic life. Again, to be blunt, it was absolved of responsibility for its basic survival.
A comfortable America thought the European flirtation with nihilism was rather clever. Again, rock history tells us that the British Invasion, with its celebration of youthful zaniness, had a profound impact on the American character that lasts to this day. Other manifestations, however, played their part: fascination with existentialist philosophy, post-moral film and literature, and challenging of basic notions about gender and family.
Now we’re all in hair-raisingly perilous levels of debt. We engage in identity politics, whining about the supposed disadvantages of various demographic groups, some of them quite outlandish and invented out of whole cloth.
We embrace a solipsistic “spirituality” that cares not a whit to take heed of our civilization’s heritage of religious thought and teaching. We don’t even invent much beyond ever-fancier smartphones anymore.
There is much at stake in the upcoming U.S. election, but a larger question looms: Is anyone up to the Herculean task that faces us? It is so very late in the day, and we are wholly unprepared.
Barney Quick is one the Republic’s community columnists. All opinions expressed are those of the writer. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.