I never expected to have a ringside seat to the end of an order. Edward Gibbon live-streamed on YouTube; Cicero in 140 characters. “The enemy is within the gates; it is with our own luxury, our own folly…” You always read about the passing of things told in history books, ancient characters oddly dressed, high-English or rough translations accentuating the distance: how backward they were indeed. Stories narrated in documentaries with the glorious comfort of hind-site, safe and sterile and warm. Gracing the walls of my home I have full glossy pictures, printed on aluminum, of places old and once-powerful that have fallen away to become artwork well after the angst and the tragedy long ceased to elicit sorrow. Timbuktu, Tiwanaku, the Hagia Sophia now a museum, the ancient stone monasteries of Armenia that still host priests though the thousand year-old order that built them has long since become a part of the story of an ever-changing planet. Civilizations layered upon each other as they turn to dust and carbonize by the force and power of events.
Stress is not something we handle well as humanity, we are a panicky lot and prone to mob-mentality and herd-decisions. Toilet paper packed high into upon carts become battering rams to push through the melee; fortress-cans of beans and chili safeguarded in bunkers beside minute-rice and oil lamps over which we peer, rifles locked and loaded. And it’s never the enemy you expect. Nuclear apocalypse rained down from heaven; terrorist bombs bringing down great edifices – these are transient, ephemeral threats because they demonstrated not the weakness but the resilience of our order, carefully built as it was by the mighty; with clear roles on what we have come to expect from friend and foe alike, roles accepted by all. Yes even jihadi bombs are rational in their own way; because we may understand them. For there is nothing new under the sun. No, calamity does not just suddenly transpire; it must have its genesis in the tedium of daily affairs made safe by so great a prosperity; a mighty wellbeing that rendered everything inconsequential.
But as I watch the ticker spike, counting up and up and up in a relentless spiral of sadness, I wonder how did we arrive to this place? Surely these were signs along the path down which we sped; of which we are all guilty, until in panic we spotted something underlyingly rotten, crumbled or eaten through by termites unseen in the heady days of hubris. Because it is not a shock that lays waste to a world. A tsunami, and people rebuild. A civil war, and they reconcile. A pandemic; they bury their dead in sorrow, mourning their loved ones and a generation interrupted before setting again their shoulders to the plow.
Unless the shock reveals a system-wide malfunction; a crack from a faulty design which could not support the additional stress as layers upon layers were added to a building. Foolishness, banality, moral hazard. It is that silent, nameless anonymous foe which has proven more of a challenge, laying bare the soft underbelly of our world and challenging everything we thought we knew about our great order. Howard Roark’s perfect community-service building grotesque and contorted by one after another and another tiny modifications stripping the construct of its purpose; finally dynamited as the monstrosity no longer served its original function. Elections served up as punishment; hate and a special kind of Godlessness masquerading as ‘inclusion’; foolishness and an angry arrogance that states boldly, naked before history “We no longer need you, you who inhabit our past! For you have nothing to teach us.” But we are at last learning again…
“The end of history is upon us, and we are its champions!!” So the saying went by the oh-so-confident. “Strength, single-mindedness, national resolve. We need these not!”, as we descended into the tar-pits of our own design, bathing in the exquisite viscosity. No, history does not finish, there is no “happily ever after”; it is instead an epic constantly in the writing and what we are witnessing are simply chapters which, as all good novelists know, always end with a call to the reader to begin the next one: not “And nothing else mattered” or even, “happily ever after”; but instead perhaps with “however it was not to be.”