Civilizations fail, and then they fall. That is the natural order of things. They fail because their ideas buckle; their discipline withers away; their common culture becomes brittle – an adhesive which no longer binds. Then they fall, a crash heralded at times by a natural calamity which lays bare the rust beneath the glistening façade. An earthquake, a drought, a pandemic. The malinvestment which robs the society of what it needs to weather the common struggles; empathy of common cause sapped by identity politics and the great revenge of the vote.
Seasons after the fall, the ruins take on a haunting beauty. The cadavers of what has been, stripped of the flesh which made them stink and offend and set in our imaginations in a distant time which our nostalgia has polished into grandeur, in the moonlight of passing glow look mighty.
That’s how the California will look, in the future, when the modern madness is stripped of its vitriol and that golden coast will come again remind people from far and wide of the days during which it hosted a great civilization, before it fell away.
We who have the privilege of travel often look down in satisfaction at the ruins of ancient places. Greece; the Parthenon lit up in blues and greens. The acropolis. The Coliseum in Rome. We walk through the dusty streets of Timbuktu and gaze in wonder at the old mud mosques as we reflect on when these places had energy and purpose. They are not sad musings, for those of us who are tourists. Time has polished over the disaster. Now all that is left are magnificent old buildings that tell a story of when things were remarkable – not of how they quietly fell away. “There was no reason, not really,” we tell each other as we disembark our air-conditioned buses. “These things just happen. Nothing is forever; and nobody is at fault. It’s just the way of the world,” we repeat as we caress our plastic wine glass. Time ebbs and flows, slowly wearing away the foundations of a civilization until it falls in upon itself – at least that’s what we say to comfort ourselves. There’s nothing to do about it. These things can’t be stopped. They just are.
This is what people will say in a hundred years, a thousand years about Los Angeles. Or San Francisco, or San Diego. Those powerful American cities with their refrigerated theme parks and super-highways and skyscrapers and colossal stadiums. When the archeologists of tomorrow dredge the coastal waters of Laguna Beach and find the remains of sunken boats; putting them on display in futuristic museums to tell of the time when this place had hosted a civilization. Ruins of great malls filled with water and crocodiles – maybe the ocean has retaken Sea World, and the octopi have made a dwelling in the ancient aquariums; maybe the cougars that stalk the mountains will have made their abodes in the once-opulent homes of the oligarchs – covering the tiles and marble with the bones of their prey. “There was nothing that could have been done,” the futuristic tourists will also say. “These cities, this place declined – and vanished – it’s the way things go.”
We tourists are wrong.
I know, because I am not only a tourist. I have with the futility of the hopeful tried to stem the tide of suicide in more than one place: Mali and Nigeria and Uganda and Venezuela, places which at one time or another also hosted civilizations, through they are now silent and miserable. I read – Gibbon and Tolstoy and Rand and Kaplan, hoping to make sense of the mayhem, to situate it in the grand narrative of history. Above all, and with the common sense of the domino-watcher, I have catalogued the signs – tribal warfare, groups siphoned of empathy attacking each other on media no-longer social until the online violence no longer satisfies, spilling now onto streets of once-glorious cities where the celebrities walked. It’s California’s turn, and that place is slowly, and very publicly, dying; an act that has spanned more than fifteen years. To watch that extraordinary land, so much at the center of our national imagination, kill itself is not something lightly considered. For civilizational suicide it is not something that happens often; and then never quick, and clean. In ignorance, one presumes it would be fast and brutal and striking – like the Rwandan genocide or Vesuvius covering Pompeii. You expect to see bodies of mothers clutching protectively their young; carbonized by the force or preserved on the glossy side of pictures. But those aren’t the occasions that promote civilizational suicide. After those events societies recover – people recover. They rebuild, they reconcile. They forgive.
No, civilizational suicide is a much longer process – not product of any one moment, one decision. But instead one bad idea, upon another, upon another and another and another and another and the great gears of industry and finance and business begin to grind slower and slower; rust covering their once shiny facades. Revolution, cold and angry. Hate, as a political strategy. Law, used to divide and conquer. Regulation used to punish or worse, the tools of the powerful to raise the ladder as they so rapidly ascend. Elections used to cement privilege and protect the few. Ideology, vitriol served with the hamburgers and poured into the wine and painted across the wooden-floors and manicured fields of the champions – efforts all to recruit and train and deploy an army of insurgents at the behest of those who consider themselves our betters and against anything that would threaten their privilege. Straw-man ideas so delicate, so fragile that all winds of debate must be stopped lest they blow away revealing an unbecoming nakedness of mind.
All this, bleeding out the lifeblood of civilization in drips, filling the buckets of a successive line of activist-bureaucrats before their pet projects are abandoned and their single-issues are discarded, only to be replaced time and again. Directives, parameters, instructions turning into orders – forfeiture to feed the ravenous fairy of unworkable ideas. This is what is remarkable for me about California. In my defense – weak though it may be – I am not Californian. I’m a citizen of the petrified neighbor state, watching in horror as our house prices skyrocket and the flight by the unable-to-manage-any-longer brings the tidal wave of stupidity closer to my home. For we, from the free cities of Tucson and Gilbert and Flagstaff are not land-locked, we are California-locked; fighting the madness as best as we can; our tiny voice, our tiny vote. Yet it is a hard battle to fight. Like Dagny Taggert I have found there is really nothing to push against – it was all a gooey mess of resentment and excuses. “You shouldn’t do that.” They have been told. And again, “That law will not work,” and “what you plan will not bring prosperity – and the only equality you will find will be in the bread line.” And finally “This election that you so desperately prosecute will bring no freedom.” So I watch, powerless, as the suicidal tendencies spread like gangrene down the superhighways, trickling even into the sunny peaceful neighborhood lanes of Gilbert in the form of wealth taxes and re-education committees and street protests the stifling totalitarianism of ‘equality’. In the early morning over coffee I open my computer to document, if only for myself, the apparently bottomless well of nonsense. I chat with my friends, who continue to try and explain to the mindless why their misery is a direct result of one bad idea built upon the last in a great edifice of stupidity. Good men and women who are stuck in a hundred-year-old debate from which there appears to be no escape. I say silent prayers for people in harm’s way – not perhaps at risk of having their heads separated from their shoulders, for the new Robespierres are more cultured than that, more suave and sophisticated. But the end of a job, the bankrupting of a livelihood, the decimation of a reputation – the silencing, that is what the great suicide might be called, quiet and afraid. I look at photographs of places that I knew – streets down which I have sauntered or restaurants that I frequented; covered in garbage or boarded up and stinking having been burned out by the latest in the long line of culture warriors and their vandalism. I watch the videos of the nightly sacking of supermarkets, gun battles raging in cities which once hosted fancy nightclubs – men masked now, disease proffering a perfect anonymity. The fall of our bronze men – for the murder of our past is not subject to censure.
Tonight the fires burn, product of those who think that nature requires no management, that ideology has no repercussions. Whole villages of vulnerable, in Africa we would call them ‘camps’ have sprung up between the millenarian mansions of the oligarchs in Malibu or down the storied walks of Hollywood, emptiness in the eyes of people eaten away by drugs and despair in a place that forever had been the land of opportunity. Like the Starnesville of Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, the motive power of the state was voted away by that ancient lie “To each according to their need, from each according to their ability.” They blame the weather – the culture-warriors do – like the tribal shamans of old who made sacrifices to the gods in the hopes of an intervention. There is no electricity, and they have ‘blackout hours’ on the hottest days, telling people to cool off in the yard with the hose. Except there is no water to catch the breeze, much less fight the fires burning out of control. They tell the people to hold on, that another stimulus is coming as they appeal to Washington for the ever-greater handouts and bailouts, charity from more prosperous lands who still see reason. Quietly, then loudly, then quietly again darkness falls over a feral land. The marathon of destruction is well advanced; the lifeblood of that beautiful civilization is chasing the gangrene to Colorado and Arizona and Nevada, leaving only the camps and the activists-warriors beneath the great abandoned buildings which once hosted Ronald Reagan. No, there is nothing heroic or epic here; ruins in the making are sad affairs – bereft of the comforting mantle of time which lends intrigue and inevitability. And watching it has, for me, been one of life’s great tragedies.