Signs of the Times
JUNE 01, 1981 by FRED DEARMOND
Mr. DeArmond has specialized in sales, writing and business consultation on personnel training. He has contributed to numerous periodicals and written several books. His most recent book, Empire of the Masses: The Decline of Taste in America, is available from Dorrance and Co., 35 Cricket Terrace, Ardmora, PA 19003; the 146-page hardcover at $6.95 is shipped postpaid if check accompanies order.
This age in which we are living has been described in a copious flow of superlatives, pro and con. To repeat from Charles Dickens’s well-known opening paragraph in A Tale of Two Cities, a novel of the French Revolution and relating to the European scene about 1789, would be understating the case for the 1970s and 1980s: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . . .”
Many of our top thinkers have tried to answer the persistent query: What principally does distinguish these times from all those that went before? One conspicuous answer was that of André Malraux, elderly French author and Minister of State for Cultural Affairs under President Charles de Gaulle back in the 1960s. His answer was reported and analyzed by journalist and theatrical manager Guy Suares in his book, Malraux—Past, Present, and Future (Little, Brown & Co., 1974).
Malraux said at that time that the first and most distinguishing mark of the existing Western civilization is “a violent sense of transience.” His second identification, “a civilization without recognized values,” is clearly related to this “violent sense of transience.” Values—moral, practical and intellectual—are subsumed in the new thought. That judgment has been echoed by many sources. Environmental changes are cataclysmic, involving mob psychology, erratic leadership methods, public administrative chaos, and arbitrary judicial processes. Pursued with misguided zeal, these aberra tions have fed the flames of transition through which the world is whizzing.
The courts, which should be a stabilizing influence, are in reality upsetting long-cherished traditions on the theory that law and government are constantly changing almost everything, %o keep up with the times.” The U.S. Supreme Court in an infamous eight-to-one decision reversed the trial conviction of a brutal murderer because there had not been, as the defense claimed, enough women on the trial jury to assure a gender balance. The same body legalized abortion and even ordered that pregnant women who resort to this procedure shall, if they are indigent, have the expense borne by the federal government.
That judicial colossus, through its district judges, presumes to direct a local school board far from the seat of authority how to manage its own schools. There is talk that the courts will force Amtrak to cancel its special low fares for children on the ground of discrimination. In the name of making every citizen equal in every respect—the one-man, one-vote principle—Washington seized controls constitutionally intended to be exercised by state and municipal authorities or by employers and state and municipal bodies.
The courts are now freely approving faked insanity pleas as excuses for the most flagrant crimes. Result: dangerous, mad-dog criminals released to make the streets and roads unsafe for honest citizens. A Congress that had condemned a President for his candor in private con versations, as recorded on confiscated tapes, fails to impose a penalty on certain of its own members convicted of accepting bribes from a foreign government.
A Mobile Population
More than forty per cent of Americans are said to change their place of residence annually—another form of transience. Many of the names on world maps have been changed by the dictates of politics, until any world atlas as much as twenty years old is quite out of date.
In his epochal books on economics, John Maynard Keynes attempted to contradict and subvert the basic truths of economic life. Dr. Karl Menninger, riding on a wave of popularity as the people’s psychiatrist, preached that the punishment of crime is itself worse than the actions for which criminals are punished. Two educators of some note lent themselves to the authorship of a book, one principle of which is the silly assertion that the ability to read well is not essential to a liberal education (Postman and Weingartner, The School Book, Delacorte Press, 1973).
There are foreboding signs in the Judeo-Christian world of the abandonment of the Ten Commandments. This would be in the presumed interest of keeping up with progress. Reservations are needed, we hear, to construct a platform broad enough for any religious man or woman to stand on. It might change No. 8 to, “Thou shalt not steal from a poor man.” You may be sure that some “improvements” in the interest of liberal “realism” would be edited into No. 7, which prohibits adultery, in order to assuage the consciences of impious but uneasy moderns.
Americans and some other contemporaries seem to be wholly obsessed with the notion that all change is necessarily progress. They blandly assume that individual freedom can be realized only in a democracy, and that a pure democracy is the standard system of approach to perfection, regardless of the stage of civilization reached by a populace.
André Malraux believed there is a third distinguishing factor in the present Western civilization. It is “a civilization cut off from the cosmos”—from all that has gone before us. We have inherited so much from earlier ages that our leading minds seem incapable of assimilating it all. Have we gone as far as science can take us? We have walked on the moon; now what is next—to jump off into suicide?
The Greek civilization was linked to the past by its gods. While Christian civilization “at its height provides strong links between man and the Christian Cosmos,” our culture has culminated in Marxism, according to Malraux.
Although not named in the Suares interview, it appears there is another distinction that especially marks the times in which we live. That is the supreme ego of the dominant generation of today. In no earlier annals of the past that I have scanned are found the condescension of assumed superiority manifested by most spokesmen of our times.
Modern Prophets Much Indebted to Pioneers
To read or listen to the modern prophets in a believing spirit is to view our contemporary scientific, philosophical, and literary giants as the voices of a new and greater race of the genus homo. Usually they make little or no acknowledgment of the enormous debt owed to the pioneer thinkers going back through Herbert Spencer, Petrarch, and all the others even to Aristotle. Ein stein’s “discovery” of relativity was made from his perch on the broad shoulders of Galileo. The recent squad of physicists who saw and demonstrated the awesome possibilities in splitting the atom had for their start the work done by John Dalton, Hendrik Lorentz, and a long catalogue of others. Even Lucretius, the Roman poet of the first century B.C., knew about the atom and something of its potential for good or evil.
There are palpable signs in the United States of this increasingly “violent sense of transience.” They are more visible to the elders who have lived long enough to appraise soundly the mental balance of maturity. An example of change in the right direction is the current recognition of Alexander Hamilton, subject of a recent new biography by Forrest McDonald (Norton). More than any other thinker of his time, Hamilton conceived the enormous potential of his country as a vast industrial world force. This recognition is all the more remarkable in that such insight comes notwithstanding the doom chorus from wordy liberals who never have understood the America conceived by Hamilton, Madison, Franklin, and their associates in our national Hall of Fame.
Change is inevitable, although aggravated by that old, hungry, egalitarian urge that tends to distort human motives. The ideal in government, industry, family life, and “the pursuit of happiness” generally is collective stability. The best signs of these times are those that point toward restoration of that essentially stable society, the framework of which our late 18th century wise men provided. The United States is tough and can take punishment. It can realize the thwarted hopes of the best minds of 1787 through the present exercise of restraint, balance, and some timely sacrifice.