Commenter William over at Althouse, in the anthrax thread, wrote:
What was so scary about the anthrax scare was that it took just one bright individual to sabotage a basic service of civilization….The sniper nut and his young companion in the Wash-Virginia area weren’t even all that bright…There are so many moving parts, many with a zero tolerance for error, that keep civilization pumping out the goodies that it’s a wonder it all hangs together– especially when you consider how many would love to see it all fall apart….
Civilization, of course, has a very high tolerance for error, at least at this point. In other times and places, minor errors can threaten it, which is why societies enter stoic. The tolerance of error is why societies exit epicurean, as well. In other words, when your survival depends on strict behavioral codes, then the homosexuals in your culture are stoned, unless they line up and have children like the everyone else. Thievery costs a hand. Blasphemy–which is an attack on the code–results in crucifixion. And so on.
Ultimately, society becomes “safe”, and therefore soft, and ultimately is destroyed by not realizing the cost of each individual transgression against the whole. I think this is most readily apparent in Western Europe, where Islam is permitted unthinkable sins (rape, violence and even murder) because, at least at some level, nobody can actually conceive of Paris or London or Rome falling.
The various links that hold things together can be strained: The current oil bubble is an example of that. A combination of speculation, inflated dollars, and refusal to produce in the face of rising demand, causes some discomfort. Then the response comes in the form of decreased consumption, pressure to control inflation, and abandonment of seemingly cherished-beliefs-that-are-in-fact-fads (environmentalism).
Even outright evil in the form of overt attempts to destroy a civilization can be easily handled. (They can even be a “good thing”, for reasons explained later.) Even knocking down the WTC–which was timed exquisitely (however coincidentally) to wreak havoc on the economy–was ultimately a minor blip.
Although it doesn’t get reported much, the economy under most of Bush’s two terms was about as strong as it was under Clinton. (Clinton inherited a great economy and left a mess, while Bush inherited a mess and will leave a mess, but both had good–even great–times in between. And, of course, they had little to do with the successes and failures of the economy, which is why President is such a sucker job.)
Remarkable when you consider that Clinton’s term took place during a time when we didn’t consider ourselves to have any serious enemies, and Bush’s time has been a constant war.
Civilization trucks on. Fault-proof to a fault, you could say.
What kills civilization is corruption. Where the corruption begins–i.e., it is possible to have noble leaders and corrupt populous, just as it’s possible to have noble people and a corrupt leadership, Confucius notwithstanding–almost doesn’t matter. Americans have traditionally been hardasses, I think, much better people than our leaders have reflected, which is why a political career used to be so fragile.
It’s not so true any more. Because wherever the corruption starts, it ultimately spreads. If anyone ever felt any romantic attachment to any mdoern communist government at any time, all you’d have to do is point out that corruption was rampant in all of them from the get-go. Anyone could get out of the USSR with enough bribe money.
Various populations of the US have elected convicted felons to office often enough to suggest that, at some level, other concerns now trump any concerns about corruption.
Not to suggest our impending doom, or anything. Civilizations spiral downward and one can always believe that things are different now than they’ve been before.
Ironically, a direct attack on a civilization can be “helpful”. The sort of patriotism engendered by WWII and even a few weeks after 9/11 can make corruption seem treasonous–which it really is. It’s a lot harder to brook corruption when you’re sacrificing.
Then there’s the idea–codified by the left, but used by everyone long before–that truth is secondary to partisanship. Think “I’d rather be wrong with _____ than right with ______”. One this idea becomes ensconced, once it’s apparent that, at long last, there is no shame, you have a society on the way out.
Although it seems bad today, it’s probably not as bad as all that. 1jpb wrote in the treadmill thread, the French are somewhat shocked by Carla Bruni. The French! We get a homogenous view of other people thanks to the homogenous media, but really, Europe isn’t completely filled with effete, amoral pseudo-intellectuals.
But this brings me to another post, on why I hate politics.