Several days ago, Philip Green emailed me a link to a long, thoughtful, knowledgeable, deeply depressing essay that he has published in Logos called "Farewell to Democracy?" You can find it here:
Some of you may know Green as a longtime forceful voice on the Left, a member of the editorial board of Dissent, now Professor Emeritus of Political Science from Smith College. I have known Phil for perhaps seventy-five years. When we were eleven, we went to Camp Taconic in the Berkshires [I have a picture of the two of us perched high on two very large horses, taking a riding lesson.] Earlier still, when we were both two, it is said that on occasion we shared a baby carriage during outings in Sunnyside, New York. So, give or take, three-quarters of a century. I read Phil's essay quickly, growing more gloomy with each page. Essentially, he argues that historical forces are at work that are inexorably bringing to a close a three and a half century long "democratic moment" in the Western world, with the consequence that the best we can hope for, if indeed "hope" is the right word, is temporary ameliorations and defensive accommodations. When I read the piece, my first thought was of Oswald Spengler's famous book, THE DECLINE OF THE WEST [hence the second part of the title of this post.] Now, I am by nature an optimist, as some of my more lugubrious friends take a certain delight in pointing out, as though it were a character flaw. And I simply do not want to spend what few years I have left on earth angry and depressed all the time.
Yesterday morning, I spent some time courtesy of Netflix watching on my computer the 1995 movie HACKERS, with the ever lubricious Angelina Jolie. I have always liked the anti-authoritarian, countercultural, intellectualist sensibility of that movie. Later on, my son Tobias, the law professor, showed up for an overnight visit. [Old Jewish joke: Mrs. Shapiro is taking a walk in Brooklyn Heights with her three year old and one year old in a stroller. She meets Mrs. Goldstein, who coos, and asks "And whom have we here?" Mrs. Shapiro replies proudly, "The one on the left is the doctor. The one on the right is the lawyer."] After dinner, Susie, Tobias, and I were sitting around, and I remarked that I could not figure out how to get free movies on my IPad. Tobias allowed as how he had downloaded a dozen or more books onto his IPhone [including the Critique of Pure Reason and Locke's Second Treatise!], and told me to get my IPad. He then proceeded to show me how to access thousands of free books, speaking slowly and distinctly in that way one talks when explaining things to a little child. [Tobias is forty-one, and at the top of his game, professionally, but we shall always be father and son.]
Which got me thinking. For the first one hundred and fifty thousand years or so of homo sapiens sapiens, the old people in each generation have explained to the young people how things work. That is how the knowledge of the species accumulates and expands. But we are living in the first human generation in which young people regularly explain to old people how things work. Want to stop your DVD player from blinking "12:00 12:00 12:00? Find an eleven year old.
This development is so new, and so completely contrary to the inherited wisdom of the entire species, that we have not yet begun to adjust ourselves to it and incorporate it into our collective understanding of the social world. Oh, we are all familiar with twenty-something billionaires who have managed to transform our experiences almost before they are old enough to vote. But we still assume that when it comes to the big things -- politics, religion, war, international finance -- the old will tell the young what to do.
Is it possible that I have managed to hang on just long enough to see the beginning of an entirely new era in human history? Will my grandchildren Samuel and Athena, now five and almost three, live in a world that I cannot imagine? And might that world be better in countless ways than the godawful mess we see around us now?
I choose to think so.