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When you were a kid, you may have been fortunate enough to have one ofthose tedious, blown-out old guys down the block who would always compareany current event to some distant dusty greyed-out happening in ancienttimes. "You know kid," they'd rasp in those death warmed over voices, "Every time they raise gas prices, it reminds me of the Punic wars!"
Your job as a child was to make fun of them of course. That's howyou do what all children need do, which is differentiate yourselffrom your parents, because this is how children become self-conscious.They need that self-consciousness so that they can master it, and ifthey go far enough, discard most of it except the useful factual parts.
When we learn things, we have to go overboard first, and then find amoderate ground, upon which we can then heap more learning. Crotchetyold men are on the far side of this cycle, which is that they sit on aheap of learning and are trying to remember back what it was like tobe trying to build that mountain of knowledge. They're upset you don'tunderstand how the Iraq war re-iterates things we in theory learnedas a species during the Punic Wars.
They're right but presenting themselves badly, because a raspy figureof death does not communicate reliability to the young. It communicatesfear. What is missed in this lost chance for communication is a building block of understanding your world so profound that it changesthe way you will view politics and society entirely. When children, weview our world like ourselves, as a linear history from birth to eventualdeath, and presume it to be inherent and unchangeable, a product of nature.When we get more experience, we stop seeing history as a timeline andstart seeing it as a cyclic process which occurs in the linear spacewe call time.
Much like our own lives have birth, life, and then death, history containssimilar cycles, but does not itself have them. Time is eternal. But for each entity in history this cycle persists. When we know this, we are nolonger fooled by the heady propaganda from our governments, media, and moronic social partners that we are somehow "evolving" as a society. Weare advancing through a lifecycle which ends in death. The only thing thatevolves is the design of individual humans and of course, the design ofspecific functions within a society.
Left to its own devices, the averagecivilization will cycle through its lifespan over a couple thousand yearsand then depart into physical, biological and intellectual ruins thatresemble the results of at least a thousand years of dumbing down,compromise, palliative social placation, and of course, commerce dominatingvalues. Is it any wonder the globe is covered with civilizations wheredirt-covered people labor in ignorance at the bases of vast, impressiveruins? The original inhabitants are gone, both departed and absorbedinto the remainder population.
This is what the old would tell the young if they could. It is also whatgreat philosophers have attempted to tell us for aeons. Before we begincongratulating ourselves on one mechanism or another we have adopted todeal with the ongoing decline, we should ask ourselves: are we experiencingdecline? Smart leaders and strong-willed populations can overcome thislife cycle or prolong it, just like smart human beings can exercise andeat right and not become walking ruins of humanity before their time todepart this earth.
In movies it is popular to zoom out of a scene, show its larger context,and then return, with the juxtaposition (a product of time) showing how thesmall events of our lives are both iconic indicators of the larger cycleand contributing to it. Now that we have zoomed out from the events ofour day, let us return to the Punic Wars, and the Blackwater scandal currently fading out in Iraq. What the media and government and well-meaningbloggers see is abuse of a system by a rogue mercenary company; whatpeople with historical context (zoom enabled) see is the inevitable productof a declining empire forced to rely on mercenaries, who by definition sharefew of its actual values.
The real transgressions of the Blackwater people, it turns out, are morethan one incident. Where US soldiers tried to blend with the population andreinforce a positive presence, for Blackwater, their contracts are a job andIraqis are just in the way. Think of the killing of millions of buffalo, thewholesale removal of trees for replacement by concrete, or the billions ofpounds of paper not recycled by businesses every year. When you're on a job,you tacitly recognize it's a form of control and resent it, because you're notthere as a result of agreeing with the mission. You are there for the moneyand because, since you're forced to get money, you picked the least offensivecareer for you. But resentment is the periphery of that focus.
People at jobs (in my experience) tend to carry that chip on their shoulderin a barely-hidden way that makes it even more present wherever they go. Theydo not act out overt aggression, but instead make thousands of tiny acts ofsabotage. They borrow your stapler and don't return it. They leave messesaround the office. They accomplish only what exactly is stated in detail forany assignment, and ignore obvious implications. Job-logic is what gets uspeople being wasteful, and then running home without a care. Job-logic iswhat causes sloppiness that reaches epidemic proportions at the bigcorporations.
Job-logic is someone painting a floor, then storing flammablepaint next to a water heater because it's conveniently close to the doorand no one told them not to. We joke at our jobs about how much we likeweekends and can't wait to escape, but under that joke is a simmeringresentment which expresses itself in, "I will do what you tell me to, andnot a god damn thing more," which creates a kind of obliviousness. Ourproduct works OK but breaks after a few months, or dumps oil on the floor?Well, we did what it said here in the Working Specification.
When an empire has to hire mercenaries to do the work that its Army cannotfor political or logistical reasons do, you know the end is peeking aroundthat next corner, and he's winking. You know the game, he says. You feardeath and death comes for you, but if you're so goal-directed andconscientious that you seek an ideal more than you fear death, death cannotcatch up to you until you are so old your body simply gives out. Our societyhas not found such a goal and has instead focused on making its memberscomfortable via material wealth and social esteem, which has made them fat,neurotic, emotional and ineffective. All they know how to do now is hire others to take care of them.
That old guy in the corner is telling you about the Punic Wars becausethe same thing happened to Carthage. While Rome was a virile and youngcivilization bustling with blondes and redheads and auburn-haired people,Carthage had become a marketplace for the dramatic international jet-setterswho follow money but have no use for culture. They were a Semitic culture,formed from the intersection of Berber and Asian and Caucasian societies,and according to some accounts dyed their hair and painted their faces toexcess. Carthage was like Los Angeles at its worst: ostentatious, but quickto humble someone else by pitying them and tossing aside a pittance of alms,and completely useless except for paper-shuffling, re-financializing moneyshuffling, desk-bound "earning money" without making anything better. In other words, a society in its final years, when it no longer has any idealsto live for.
Rome called their bluff. Unlike the Carthaginians, called Punic from theLatin term for Phoenician, the Romans were united by a common goal ofpower according to their ideal, and spreading that ideal through an empire.They were conditioned to practical labor as much as theory, and theirtheory was not landlocked by social constraints like marketing, as theCarthaginian theory was. They were rising, and Carthage was falling, and overthe next three Punic Wars they proved it to the world, eventually laying siegeto Carthage and literally erasing it from the map. Of course, that was beforetheir own civilization aged, lost its consensus of ideals, and collapsed.
Despite the cries of media charlatans, Blackwater's recent Iraq debacleis a small detail. Some guns for hire screwed up because in their job capacitythere is no requirement that they care about the broader implications ofwhat they do. So it is with all jobs, and jobs as labor without the contextof ideals are a product of dying civilizations. The media is performing itsjob by whipping a detail into a frenzy, and at the same time, overlooking theinevitable truth of our decline. We're all just doing our jobs, but no oneis watching the overall direction on which we're going. We can fool ourselves for a litle more time by calling this progress, and in that timewe can make some money and hopefully get away from the mess, so we will.
What it comes down to, when you look at civilizations as life-forms inthemselves, is that there are two stages of society. In one, normally theyouthful stage, the society is organic, meaning that consensus of valuesmotivates its people toward accomplishment in accord with the ideal thatrepresents the mental derivation that produced those values. In the otherstage, usually the later, the society has become self-conscious but hasnot transcended that self-consciousness, so it imposes Control upon itselffrom some presumably absent but always oligarchically-controlled leadershipfaction. Conservative societies rule with a top-down order, emphasizing theproduction of a leadership caste, and liberal societies rule with a bottom-uporder that seeks to neutralize leadership castes by empowering those atthe bottom.
Both are methods of control that because they are imposed,create a job-mentality, and so do not fit the bill for saving a civilization.If we want to thrive, there is only one way, and that is by starting at theorigin of leadership in a successful society, which is a mental and moralconsensus according to some ideal that transcends self-consciousness. We mustshoot for something that is not within the self, and is not defined withinthe society itself. It must be an ideal. Without such an ideal, we arelike the Blackwater people just fulfilling rather frustrating jobs, and sometimes we too will freak out and shoot up the innocent from what mightbe sheer boredom.
October 6, 2007