The Sun Sets in the West #3

One gloomy grey afternoon in the late winter of 1972, I was walking around Seattle’s Capitol Hill thinking about things when it dawned on me that the central idea of American life—that every generation must have a higher standard of living than the generation that preceded it—was an impossibility. I‘d never read anything about economics, but I understood that resources are limited. I also saw that even if we could accomplish it, it would be a bad idea since we’d overheat the planet to the point that it was uninhabitable. I thought it was something that even a child could understand, and yet most politicians, economists, and intellectuals did not see it—or at least wouldn’t admit to seeing. They didn’t dare because anyone in a powerful position who said such a thing would be scorned as a heretic and lose their position. I came home from that walk feeling that America was doomed, that when a nation’s core idea is false, there’s no hope for it. And for the great mass of Americans—liberal and conservative, Democrats and Republicans—a constantly rising standard of living has been our central idea. It’s only been a question of how we accomplish it. Over the decades I’ve been simultaneously adding to the detail of my understanding (that we would lose jobs to cheaper overseas markets was obvious to me long before it started) and watching the country steadily fall apart. The election of Donald Trump to the presidency is stark evidence of that fall. But I’ve come to believe that it is not just America that is in a state of collapse. The situation is much more complex—more epochal—than that.

There is an ancient, ongoing problem with human evil, which I think is the only real evil. Many people I know don’t like the word because it takes on the aura of a bogus religious force—medieval ideology. But evil is simply egotism—something we’re all familiar with. At times, the effects of our egotism become so overwhelming that we’re roused to try to counteract it. In the Western world, there have been at least three major efforts: Greek philosophy, Christianity, and most recently the movement that began around the late 17th century known as the Enlightenment. I think what we’re seeing right now is the collapse of the Enlightenment values—democracy, progress, equality, individual freedom, reason, science, and so on. It’s happening in both America and Europe. I think the last election, Trump vs. Clinton, was representative of that collapse. It pitted a representative of hardcore egotism versus a representative of traditional Enlightenment values, and evil won. It’s important to understand why, but not many commentators, politicians, journalists, or intellectuals do. This series, which I’m calling “The Sun Sets in the West,” and which I’ll work on as I find the time, is devoted to my particular understanding of it.

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7 Responses to “The Sun Sets in the West #3”

  1. Dhruvacitta Says:

    Hi Mark,
    I generally agree with most of your post, except for the Hillary part. She’s just another neo-liberal wolf in sheep’s clothing. Have you read any of Chris Hedge’s material over on Truthdig? I think he has a good take on the situation.

    • markbittner Says:

      The point I want to make is in its early stages. You’ll see that I don’t mean she was representative of the forces for Good. I haven’t read Chris Hedges in some time, but I know his ideas generally.

  2. TZ Says:

    A chilling thought: the collapse of Enlightenment, but I fear you’re on to the core reality of things. One headline today stated “most Americans hate political correctness” – which to me translates that most Americans are spoiled selfish brats who don’t give a damn about how their words affect others. I’ve always help tightlyly to the thought that there are more caring people than greedy selfish people on our planet… I don’t think I want to peek past my blindfold on that idea.

    • TZ Says:

      “held tightly” – sorry, need more coffee

    • markbittner Says:

      If I’m able to complete this series (it’s going to be a long ride), you’ll see that my vision is not one of the collapse of civilization. But our approach to it is definitely going to change.

  3. Reader Says:

    “it dawned on me that the central idea of American life—that every generation must have a higher standard of living than the generation that preceded it—was an impossibility. … I also saw that even if we could accomplish it, it would be a bad idea since we’d overheat the planet to the point that it was uninhabitable.”

    Not sure I agree, Mark.

    U.S. citizens would enjoy a higher standard of living and quality of life if they had access to a Western European-style social safety net and if renters among them were protected by strongly enforced federal regulations against real estate speculation (as renters are in Germany). The money is there (notably at the federal level) and the bipartisan Congressional and public political will is not, but such social protections would neither be financially impossible for the federal or many (if any) state governments to implement nor make the planet uninhabitable.

    If implemented, these feasible protections would raise the otherwise declining standard of living of U.S. citizens.

    The global elite enjoys the socio-economic status quo, which is a separate issue.

    • markbittner Says:

      We’re talking about two different issues. I’m talking about a myth that this country has thrived on for a long time, that we can grow ever richer, generation after generation, without end–that we can all be millionaires. You’re talking about survivability within the current setup. I’ll get into that question later on, but it’s not what I was addressing here.

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