Several books from the 1990s predicted America’s current condition
In the 1990s, a few authors recognized leftist disconnects or discerned dangerous trends that, seemingly inevitably, led us to the year 2021.
There are several books I read in the 1990s that helped drive me across the Rubicon from mindless Democrat to more thoughtful (I hope) conservative. All of them were prescient in that, quite early in the leftist push to take over society, they recognized the factual and ideological problems behind what was happening. I’m rereading one of those books (because it’s on sale at Amazon), so I thought I’d briefly discuss all of them.
The one that I cite most frequently is Keith Richburg’s 1997 Out Of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa. In it, having experienced first hand the hellhole that is Africa, he admits something important (and something those seeking reparations ought to know):
I am terrified of Africa. I don’t want to be from this place. In my darkest heart here on this pitch black African night, I am quietly celebrating the passage of my ancestor who made it out.
Had my ancestor not made it out of here, I might have ended up there in that crowd, smiling gleefully, while a man with a cleaver cuts off the hands of a thief. Or maybe I would have been one of those bodies, arms and legs bound together, washing over the waterfall in Tanzania. Or maybe my son would have been set ablaze by soldiers. Or I would be limping now from the torture I received in some rancid police cell.
And then maybe I would be thinking: How lucky those black Americans are! It’s been said time and again that nothing makes you appreciate your own country like traveling away from it, and America has been like that for me. I see the flaws, I curse the intolerance, I recoil from the racial and ethnic tensions. And I become infuriated at the often mindless political debate that to me never seems to cut deeper than the crispest sound bite. But even with all that—maybe because of it—I recognize that it’s the only place I truly belong. It’s home. (Richburg, Keith B.. Out Of America pp. 233, 235.)
Richburg, incidentally, was then and (as best as I can tell) remains a Democrat. Nevertheless, he makes the best argument against reparations that I can find: No matter how bad slavery was for the ancestors of today’s Blacks (and depriving people of their liberty is a heinous moral crime), it benefitted the descendants. They would have been worse off had they remained in Africa. I’m not saying they owe America; I’m just saying it’s a wash, and let’s abandon that whole idea of reparations.
Another 1990s book that strongly affected me was Arthur M. Schlesinger’s 1991 The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. This was the first book I’d read that challenged the notion of multiculturalism and the dangers that flowed from defining Americans by their differences, rather than by their shared value. Schlesinger, of course, was part of the John F. Kennedy circle. He was the kind of old-fashioned Democrat who served during World War II, pushed back against racism, supported the Civil Rights movement, hated communists, and loved his country. I doubt that Schlesinger could have imagined that his concerns about multiculturalism would have led to the savage identity politics we see today or to the open racism of the anti-racists — but the seeds are all there in his book, and he was worried.
Although it was written in 1989, I associate Charles J. Sykes ProfScam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education with the early 1990s because that’s when I first read it. While Sykes joined the NeverTrumpers, forever forfeiting my respect for him (as if he cares), ProfScam was an eye-opening book for me. When I attended UC Berkeley at the end of the 1970s and beginning of the 1980s, I despised the place with every fiber of my being. Part of it, I suspect, is that I was inherently resistant to Marxism. When the professors (all monied and living in large houses with support staff) squeezed British history and literature through a Marxist filter, I called B.S. But the book went further, explaining how academia was set up to coddle lazy people pushing a poison pill on America. Sykes diagnosed then everything that’s wrong with academia now.
Sykes wrote the book in terms of the economic corruption behind academia (if I remember correctly), but he was also diagnosing the leftist thinking that led to academia being home to every bad idea in American culture and politics today. He also explained the indoctrination that has led to most credentialed Americans from 1980 onward being leftists.
And then there was Thomas Cahill’s delightful 1995 book, How the Irish Saved Civilization (Hinges of History Book 1), which you can download for $1.99 if you act fast. I’m trying to avoid all Amazon shopping, but I could resist owning this book, which I last read in 1995.
What I’d completely forgotten is that Cahill opens by describing the last years of the Roman Empire, which was at its peak and had nowhere to go but down. I’d like to share with you some quotations from the book. What’s noteworthy about these quotations is not just the fact that they seem to describe America in 2021. It’s also that, the way my Kindle is set-up, I can see what other people are highlighting as important passages — and the ones I’m quoting are the most highlighted.
For those unfamiliar with the book, let me quickly explain the premise: When the Western Roman Empire collapsed after 12 centuries, all of its knowledge collapsed with it. Literacy pretty much vanished from the Western world — except in one place, the tiny outpost of Ireland, a place considered as barbarous as any of the other barbarian lands that reared up the hordes who took down Rome. In Ireland, monks dedicated themselves to saving the written works of the ancient world — and lined up the dominos that led to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
Cahill is a delightful and erudite writer. One of the important points he makes is that Rome didn’t suddenly collapse because of a single horde (that would be Alaric and his troops) storming it. Instead, Rome had long since become the victim of its own success, its endless expansion, and its policy of allowing everyone in at the borders because its leaders assumed that Rome was so powerful that fraying at the fringes would not affect it. These quotations are from Cahill’s discussion about Rome’s subtle downfall which made it so weak that, when Alaric and his hordes appeared at the door, Rome began its inevitable and complete collapsed.
The first quotation points out that cultures don’t simply collapse like a souffle if the oven door is closed too hard. Instead, they are ripe for decay because of long-standing policies that eat away at the nation:
These earlier interpreters—first the pagan critics of Christianity, then Augustine, Petrarch, Machiavelli, and Gibbon—have defined the limits of all later interpretation: Rome fell because of inner weakness, either social or spiritual; or Rome fell because of outer pressure—the barbarian hordes. What we can say with confidence is that Rome fell gradually and that Romans for many decades scarcely noticed what was happening. (Cahill, Thomas. How the Irish Saved Civilization, p.21.)
Cahill discusses the way in which extraordinarily high taxes led to the decay of the middle class. It wasn’t how our taxes worked, of course. In Rome, the curiales were the hereditary tax collectors. It was a horrible job because the curiales were on the hook for taxes. If they couldn’t collect enough from the people in their community, they had to pay the taxes themselves. And if they couldn’t pay them, the consequences were painful and deadly. It was such a horrible job that Rome made it a crime for curiales to sidestep their inherited obligations. But people under pressure will find away to escape. Many ended up as proto-serfs on the estates of wealthy barbarians, paving the way for the medieval system.
One of the problems the curiales had was that the tax base was shrinking. Government greed and mismanagement demanded more money, even as those same sins led to less productivity. In response, the Romans expanded citizenship rights to more people who had no interest in the ways of Rome. They just saw citizenship as a good path to profit. With the government more corrupt, the borders fraying, and vast numbers of people coming in who were strangers to Roman tradition, the rule of law began to collapse. And that leads us to this much-highlighted passage:
There are, no doubt, lessons here for the contemporary reader. The changing character of the native population, brought about through unremarked pressures on porous borders; the creation of an increasingly unwieldy and rigid bureaucracy, whose own survival becomes its overriding goal; the despising of the military and the avoidance of its service by established families, while its offices present unprecedented opportunity for marginal men to whom its ranks had once been closed; the lip service paid to values long dead; the pretense that we still are what we once were; the increasing concentrations of the populace into richer and poorer by way of a corrupt tax system, and the desperation that inevitably follows; the aggrandizement of executive power at the expense of the legislature; ineffectual legislation promulgated with great show; the moral vocation of the man at the top to maintain order at all costs, while growing blind to the cruel dilemmas of ordinary life—these are all themes with which our world is familiar, nor are they the God-given property of any party or political point of view, even though we often act as if they were. (p. 33.)
Even that last phrase about all political parties being guilty is correct: What we’re seeing in America today is a problem of a government that is run by a uniparty, although it is a uniparty that hews to the hard-left core of the modern Democrat party. I like to say that the powerful Mitch McConnell branch of the Republican party is actually just the more conservative side of the Democrat party. It is Trump, MAGA, and Trumpism that is the genuinely independent political ideology in America.
Finally, Cahill, in writing about Rome’s collapse, speaks of a culture that has lost confidence. Trump’s people believe in America but the Democrat world does not. For decades now, Democrats have been preaching the doctrine of America last in K-12 schools, college, the news, the entertainment media, and politics. When people no longer believe in their country, there is no country:
What is really lost when a civilization wearies and grows small is confidence, a confidence built on the order and balance that leisure makes possible. Again, Clark: “Civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity—enough to provide a little leisure. But, far more, it requires confidence—confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers.… Vigour, energy, vitality: all the great civilisations—or civilising epochs—have had a weight of energy behind them. People sometimes think that civilisation consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that. These can be among the agreeable results of civilisation, but they are not what make a civilisation, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid.” (pp. 54-55.)
Anyway, I must work, but I thought those quoted passages were worth sharing. I’m also rather impressed by the fact that everything today that seems to be driving us inexorably to a full Roman collapse was already in play in the 1990s. It was just that many didn’t see it and those who saw it didn’t understand how swiftly and terribly these trends would choke America.
Image: Roman forum by Wallpapers 13.