We don't give a lot of thought to civilization in America. It is something we mostly just take for granted as simply an integral part of our lives. As a nation we are a long way from frontier outposts and forts built to keep the Indians at bay. We have roadways that take us pretty much anywhere in the country, our accepted method of exchange in the form of money and credit cards is universal anywhere we go in the country and most of the world. If something goes wrong, we can call 911 and generally get a relatively rapid response. In spite of the endless news reports of rioting and violent crime, those incidents happen almost exclusively in a few urban zip codes and are restricted to a small slice of the American demographic. We can go to church mostly unimpeded, at least until recently. Our biggest food worry is having too much of it. For 150 years since the end of the Civil War we have had an unbroken string of peaceful elections and transfers of power.
Our experience in America is a historical anomaly. Even Europe, the cradle of Western civilization, has barely managed to go for any length of time without a major war or some sort of upheaval. From the Protestant Reformation in 1517 to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Europe was roiled with one conflict after another. Russia is still recovering from nearly a century long Dark Age under Communism. Asia has similarly had major conflicts throughout history. China and North Korea still stubbornly cling to Communism. Japan has been mostly peaceful for 75 years but they had to be nuked into submission first. India and Pakistan still hate each other and border conflicts spring up all the time, the only thing keeping them from outright war is ironically the presence of nukes in both countries. South America has experienced upheaval after upheaval, revolutions and coups one after the other. Some nations like Uruguay are fairly stable now but Venezuela is a mess and Central America is a violent hellhole. Africa? Please. What civilization that existed was in the north and is now subsumed by Islam. Sub-Saharan Africa has only ever had the vestiges of civilization when controlled by a European power. Australia has been mostly immune to the worst of the cycles of history thanks to being a former penal colony geographically separated from the rest of the world but there are only 25 million people in Australia, a nation of almost 3 million square miles.
America alone stands as the most stable significant nation on earth. Our currency is the world's currency of choice. English is taught in most civilized non-English speaking nations so they can do business with us. Our military might keeps the sea lanes mostly clear and acts as a check against despots invading their neighbors.
Today that lofty perch is threatened as the cultural rot and demographic displacement started decades ago is finally coming to a head. Many people now are starting to give serious consideration to the very concept of civilization, perhaps for the first time in their lives, and not liking what they see.
There are generally two schools of thought that have dominated Western understanding of history and civilization.
One, especially in the latter 19th and early 20th century, saw mankind's future as a steady progression of improvement toward an eventual utopian society, one without want or hatred or war. You can see this vision in the original Star Trek series which offered a vision of humanity reaching for the stars after reaching a point of harmony in human relations. This vision, bolstered by the optimistic Christian post-millennial theology dominant in mainline Protestant denominations, took a pretty significant hit after the two world wars but following the fall of the Berlin Wall it achieved a short renaissance. Writers like Francis Fukuyama suggested we were at the "end of history" in his wildly popular 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. He argued that liberal democracy had won and we were in a new era when squabbles over things like communism and fascism were at an end. Full disclosure, I didn't read his book although you would think that it would have been required reading for a political science major in school at the time it came out. Obviously that vision didn't last and if anything liberal democracy is on the ropes and statist authoritarianism is ascendant.
The other popular school of thought is the cyclical view. This is popularized recently in a meme of all things, using The Course Of Empire paintings by Thomas Cole as inspiration creating something like this:
Hard times force the rise of hard, strong men who overcome adversity. The stability provided by strong men creates stable societies and good time but invariably those good times and stability lead to men becoming weaker. Weak men cannot sustain stable societies and so hard times return and the cycle starts over. This is very popular for obvious parallels many of us see in our own society as the once great American empire is on the verge of collapse. Many people believe we are about to slip into here....
While I have some affinity for the second model, and none for the first, I don't see it quite capturing the state of civilization and the nature of mankind.
Civilization is not an endless path of progress, a linear advancement in human achievement where each day brings us further from chaos and closer to a utopia where all of our problems are solved and mankind will live forever in harmony with one another and nature itself. Nor is it an endless series of boom and bust cycles.
Rather, civilization is the endless task of manning the bulwarks and holding back the savagery and barbarism that is humankind's natural state. There is never a moment when society can rest, either it is actively pushing back against barbarism or barbarism is encroaching on society.
The average American and European man today is domesticated and passive. We don't have to be hardened because we live such easy and effortless lives. Sure there are men in great shape and that are "strong" in the sense of being able to lift weights but they are mostly soft where it counts: in their hearts. Because of this we tend to forget our history. Our ancestors figured out how to explore the globe and then, as humans have done since there were humans, we conquered wherever we found something worth conquering. From the Roman legions to the armored knights to the British Navy to the Wehrmacht to the modern American military, no one has made war better than we have. At one time, the British Empire spanned the globe and bragged that the sun never set on her empire. In America we decimated and then pacified the various Indian tribes as we crossed the thousands of miles from the east coast to the west. Because of this it is easy to forget human nature and that we are descended from the best warriors the world has ever known. Having forgotten who we are, we are now seeing all around us the wilderness and barbarism creeping back in. It never went away, it has just been waiting for an opportunity to find cracks and weak points to exploit.
We have always had the lawless among us, people who refused to play by the rules. Our popular culture is replete with stories of cowboys with black hats, the mafia and bootleggers, the Tony Montana drug kingpins and the street gangs. Mass murderers and serial killers, the exploiters of women and children and even horrors like cannibals. Yet we have also had the men who hunted down these monsters living among us, men like Elliot Ness and hundreds of thousands of lawmen with names we don't know. For almost 250 years, the good guys have mostly kept the bad guys in check and the vast majority of us were free to live our lives without fear.
Imagine what life would be like if all governing and restraining authority suddenly disappeared. You don't have to imagine very hard, you can see it on display in recent events in many cities, from rioting and looting to a self-declared autonomous zone in Seattle. As bad as it was on TV and the internet, it was pretty much concentrated in a handful of urban locations. Where I live, people mowed their lawns and went to work just like nothing was happening. We behaved not because of a heavy police presence but because that is what the social contract dictates. In many places, that social contract has been shattered but in most of the country we operate as if it has not.
It is not just the antifa and bLM goons and thugs. The reason anyone associated with Jeffrey Epstein is terrified is that his case gives the average American a glimpse behind the curtain to the world of the super-rich who can do whatever they want. When a man is so rich that he has a private island with a weird temple stocked with underage sex slaves and he pals around with the most powerful people in the world, it starts to seem like our "leaders" are mostly a bunch of sociopaths and pedophiles who have sex with kids because they can get away with it.
Now imagine that this general state of lawlessness went on for weeks and then months and instead of being localized, it is spread around the country. While libertarians and anarchists think this would be swell, in the real world it would be anything but.
How many registered sex offenders live within 25 miles of your home? If you haven't checked, the answer is almost certainly "a lot". You might think that way out in the country where I live that we would be free of degenerates who end up on those registries but you would be wrong. These guys mostly behave themselves because they don't want to go back to prison but without the threat of jail, they would go right back to doing what got them on the list in the first place.
The only thing stopping tens of millions of people from acting on their basest impulses is the threat of prison and the threat of getting shot. With four hundred million guns in America, if you break into an occupied home your odds of getting shot are pretty decent. Even if you don't get shot, you could easily go to jail and not many people are enthusiastic about that idea.
My general opinion of humanity is not very optimistic, which is certainly why back in my "arguing about theology on the internet" days I found Calvinism so appealing. Calvin and his descendants taught that man is "totally depraved". That seems to be fairly accurate.
You might be saying "Not me!". That might be true and it almost certainly is true of many people in a stable, functioning society under normal circumstances. What if the wheels come off? There is nothing I can imagine that I wouldn't do to protect my family. If you can't feed your kids now, there are food banks and food stamps, lots of resources that ensure that no one is going hungry unless there is something else going on. Without the safety net, what would you do if your kids were starving? Would you steal food? Would you kill someone else to get their food? Try to picture your kids a day away from dying of starvation and think about what would be off-limits.
That assumes that most people who read this post are generally decent people who follow the rules, pay their taxes however begrudgingly and obey the laws. There are tens of millions of people who already don't and see no reason why they should other than the fear of getting into serious trouble. When the deterrents that exist no longer exist, nothing will hold them back. That might seem pessimistic but that is what a lifetime of observing humanity has taught me.
The purpose of civilization is primarily to restrain the worst impulses of humanity. As civilization deteriorates, those restraints are loosened. In places without a functioning civilization around the world, we see what that looks like. During World War II the Imperial Japanese in Nanking and the advancing Soviet forces in Germany had few restraints and the stories of mass rape, slaughter and torture of civilians is stomach churning. Genocide, ethnic cleansing, religious persecution, sexual violence, child soldiers. That is what civilization attempts, however imperfectly, to prevent.
Simply passively maintaining civilization is insufficient for the task. One other important facet of civilization is that the number of people defending and maintaining civilization has always been a fraction of the number of savages and barbarians just outside of the gates. Every moment of inattention or lapse means inroads are made by those outside of civilization. When you are outnumbered, your resolve must never waver or you will be overrun.
All around us I can see cracks in the walls keeping the barbarians at bay. We have had unrest before but this is different. This is personal, vindictive, getting right at the core of the foundations of our society. We have Federally elected political figures calling for the complete dismantling of American society, most of them beneficiaries of that same society. We have the New York Times poised to publish the private home address of Tucker Carlson, clearly intended as a threat to his family, and that seems OK. Ruffians and hooligans are rampaging through the streets with little interference. The people who put their lives on the line to try to keep our streets safe are vilified and those who have spent their miserable existence braking the law and bringing misery on others are lionized. Our forefathers who created this great nation are scolded posthumously and in absentia by small people with small minds who collectively have never accomplished a single act of note.
No, this is different and the difference is that there simply are too few of us remaining who are laboring to hold back the tide. The destroyers outnumber the builders inside of the walls of our civilization and the barbarians are eagerly anticipating the gaps growing large enough to slip inside.
Will civilization survive? Not in a form we would recognize, not for a long time. I have faith that civilization will be reborn from the ashes, rising like the phoenix to once more push back against the tides of barbarism. This faith is born of our history as conquerors and explorers, builders and thinkers. We are still those people in spite of their efforts to stamp it out of us.
In time we will rise again and when we do, we must begin the endless fight to preserve civilization and hold back the barbarism and savagery that is man's natural state.