When the local Galactic Empire decides that we are technologically mature enough for them to bother making contact with us, their anthropologists will clarify the turbulence of the 20th century onward with the theory of the Forbidden Fruit of Knowledge. They will likely have a different name for it, derived from a different myth, but this will be the name the Jungians of Earth will promptly apply to it.
Traditional society – family, monarchy, religion, marriage, and myriad small customs and norms – developed over untold centuries of human life. It did not do so because a handful of mean powerful males got together, filled with some irrational dread of female sexuality or people with different skin colors, and decided to hoodwink everyone else into letting them run the show. It did so because generations found that human life was safer and more satisfying if these institutions were respected and these rules were followed.
Nobody ever claimed that these rules were perfect. Indeed, in pre-19th century literature, the acknowledgement of the tragic nature of the human condition and the sorrow of this vale of tears was routine, and it was accepted just as the existence of gravity or the constant cycle of the seasons was.
Nowadays, human problems are generally blamed on “the system”, “the patriarchy”, “our Judeo-Christian heritage”, and various other institutions which have in fact done much to alleviate human problems for centuries. The progressive belief is that human life is naturally happy and peaceful, and if it fails to be so, it’s because mean people prevented it. The current liberal disillusionment with Barack Obama is an example of this. His adoring fans are not simply people with inaccurate beliefs about the efficacy of socialism or the morality (not to mention utility) of embryonic stem cell research. They are people in the grip of a powerful delusion that
A sudden transformation will bring a total change in one’s fortunes, bypassing work, luck, self-sacrifice, and time in one fantastic stroke.
We can enter a totally new world with different codes and the promise of adventure.
~Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power, p.267
The current collision with reality is proving quite traumatic for these true believers.
This is not just about Obama’s groupies. The assumption that the world is unpleasant because of a few bad people and that everything will turn to sunshine if we can just get rid of the corporations/Republicans/flyover states/religious right/smokers/capitalists/Jews has become deeply entrenched throughout America and Europe, and it has been for decades.
There have always been a few people prone to this delusion, but their numbers were kept small by harsh reality. Any day, sickness could strike, and medicine was primitive. Any night, a wolf could eat us on our way to the outhouse, or a snake could bite us, a horse could throw us. Any year, the harvest could fail because of drought or insects or blight, and this was before it was a simple matter to import necessities from elsewhere, or to maintain a surplus.
Today people can become terminally ill, or die in an accident, or have a flood or earthquake. We still live one breath away from death, three square meals away from savagery. But scientific advances have made us feel this less keenly. We tend to assume that if we get sick, doctors will give us magic pills that will make us all better. Often, they can, but when they can’t, our first reaction tends to be surprise. And thanks to mass transportation and consequent easy importing, crop failure has become the financial misfortune of a few farmers, not starvation for the community.
This has made problems and risks an abstract matter for most people, not something understood at a gut level, leaving us free to imagine how fun life could be without all those tiresome rules our mothers taught us.
Advanced technology makes us feel that we can do without the old boundaries and rules. To an extent, we can. For example: there were free-love theorists in the 19th century, but very few women could be persuaded to take up the philosophy, not because they were too oppressed by the patriarchy, but because they were too oppressed by the facts of their own biology. What birth control methods existed were highly unreliable, and abortion was extremely dangerous. No doubt many women chafed at premarital virginity and marital fidelity, but knowing the very likely consequences of violating them, most of them restrained themselves.
Until birth control, which finally made it possible for women to experience “sexual freedom” without as many consequences. To the optimistic, it must have seemed that women were now able to be as sexually free as men. In reality, however, women still have more consequences than men for promiscuity. Birth control makes conception far less likely; it does not make it impossible. Abortion advocates deny this, but the reports of women who have had them show that many women are traumatized by the experience. Casual sex is riskier for women, who might find themselves behind a closed door with a violent stranger from whom they cannot defend themselves. And the greater biological investment a woman makes in each of her gametes, relative to a man’s, has caused nature to make us far more emotionally attached to the sex act than men, and far more easily hurt by being abandoned. Plus, nature designed us to find emotional satisfaction in bonding with our sex partners and raising children with them. Nature does not act quickly enough to erase that bit of our genetic programming the moment we figure out how to make birth control pills.
Now that birth control has allowed us to minimize the chances of pregnancy, more and more of us spend our lives bereft of stable family bonds, discarded for the short-term enjoyment of sexual adventures. When I was a child, my two best friends were a pair of sisters whose parents were divorced. I always assumed their father had abandoned the family. A few years ago, my mother told me the truth: their mother, a very attractive woman who wore a lot of makeup and always had lots of boyfriends, had left their father when she discovered that marriage is not an eternal courtship. That her children needed a father and a stable household income did not concern her. This woman’s folly was partly enabled by no-fault divorce, the granting of alimony to women who leave their husbands, and default mother custody, but except for the last, which began in the 19th century in America, these laws were only made possible by the disconnection of sex from reproduction. A woman who knew that if she had sex, she would need financial support for the children who would probably result, would not have left her husband to play the field while her children grew up without a father. Nature did not change our desire for a stable family the moment we became able to survive – that is, feed ourselves and avoid being eaten by bears – without them.
Feminism did not happen until the Industrial Revolution, not because patriarchal oppressors were able to successfully keep women down until then, but because women who tried to be “equal” to men would have run into hard reality in about five minutes. Much of today’s economy consists of shuffling papers, using computers, or talking to people. That last is something women are naturally skilled at; the other two, if the male brain is better suited to them, the difference is subtle. A woman of the 18th century who demanded to be treated as an equal in the workplace would have crumpled the first time she had to heft a sledgehammer, carry a bale, or swing a sword – do you know how heavy a real sword is? As opposed to an ornamental or fencing sword? Even if a woman entered a profession that did not require upper body strength, unless she was prepared for a life of celibacy, she would have to quit in order to take care of her children in this era before government mandated maternity leave and day care centers. Today, advanced technology allows women the privilege of demanding entry to the workplace, and of imagining that women could have been sword-wielding soldiers all along if it weren’t for those mean old patriarchs. But technology hasn’t changed the way men and women relate to each other – they do not function well as direct competitors, men (and boys) do not respond well to female authority, men and women rarely achieve the same kind of camaraderie that comes easily to single-sex groups, and they see each other as potential sex partners, which is not conducive to a professional relationship. (These problems are not insurmountable, but most people today pretend that they are nonexistent. This is a grave error.) Technology also hasn’t changed the need children have for a secure attachment to their mothers, which cannot be created in a couple of hours of quality time a day. It hasn’t changed the necessity of socializing those children, training them in the norms of their society, which requires a considerable time investment. Technology made it possible for women to devote their lives to careers instead of to motherhood, but it did nothing to change children’s need for their mothers. Nor, as more and more “career women” whose fertile years are waning are discovering, did it change what gives women emotional satisfaction. For thousands of years, nature compensated us for our inescapable bondage to motherhood by making motherhood emotionally satisfying to us. Now that motherhood is no longer inescapable, nature has neglected to reprogram us to find our greatest satisfaction in careers instead. Anyone would think that nature doesn’t care if women are literally equal to men or not.
Nature also has not adjusted our tastebuds and physiology to adapt to the refined sugars and synthetic chemicals we have just recently learned to make. We are drawn to sweet tastes to make us eat berries, which contain all sorts of vitamins. Berries, which are sweet, are good for us. Now that we know how to make pure sugar out of sugar cane or beets, the healthy desire for sweet flavors has us consuming candy, soda, and desserts in ever-increasing amounts. The results are obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.
This is not even mentioning the numerous creative and horrible ways we have devised for killing a lot of each other at once. Those are discussed so constantly that they go without saying.
One more way in which our technological prowess has bypassed our biology: advanced technology has made it possible for socialism to work, a little bit. That is, a limited amount of socialism will cause problems, but will not cause the entire economy to collapse. Modern farms and factories can produce enough of a surplus that some of it can be spared for socialist looters. Before the Industrial Revolution, people labored too hard just to feed themselves and their aristocratic governments to be able, much less willing, to give up their money to finance absurd social programs.
Ironically, many progressives are to some degree Luddites, if only to the extent of being environmentalists. Once I heard someone refer to “food that was fresh out of the grocery store”. We are so disconnected from the harsh reality that we don’t even remember where food comes from. Only advanced technology has made progressive ideas at all practicable, but progressives have no understanding of this.
Today, the central conflict of civilization is between progressives who believe that we can cast aside all of the rules, codes, and restraints of our ancestors to dwell in an egalitarian paradise, and wet-blanket traditionalists who are struggling to warn everyone else that although we are somewhat safer from starvation and illness and crop failure than before, human nature has not changed and we still need the old rules.
Many a sentient species, our galactic anthropologists will tell us, destroyed their civilizations when they attained enough technology to achieve superficial freedom from their traditional mores. Intelligent beings clever enough to manipulate their hormones ignored the social consequences of mating out of season. Intelligent cowlike beings with five stomachs adopted a diet of easily digested processed food, heedless of the unpredictable consequences to their health. Intelligent aquatic creatures recklessly moved onto dry land and found that in the long run, they all developed psychological problems that had been unknown in the water.
How we can adapt to our own achievements, how we can acquire the wisdom and discipline not to avail ourselves of the apparent freedoms our technology has given us, is more than I can answer. It is most likely that we will not, and that instead we will continue to bring disaster down upon ourselves.