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Civilization in Reverse
We, too, can lose our civilization.

Demonstrators in Athens protest against austerity, Jan. 17, 2012.

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Victor Davis Hanson

In Greek mythology, the prophetess Cassandra was doomed both to tell the truth and to be ignored. Our modern version is a bankrupt Greece that we seem to discount.

News accounts abound now of impoverished Athens residents scrounging pharmacies for scarce aspirin — as Greece is squeezed to make interest payments to the supposedly euro-pinching German banks.

Such accounts may be exaggerations, but they should warn us that yearly progress is never assured. Instead, history offers plenty of examples of life becoming far worse than it had been centuries earlier. The biographer Plutarch, writing 500 years after the glories of classical Greece, lamented that in his time weeds grew amid the empty colonnades of the once-impressive Greek city-states. In America, most would prefer to live in the Detroit of 1941 than the Detroit of 2011. The quality of today’s air travel has regressed to the climate of yesterday’s bus service.

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In 2000, Greeks apparently assumed that they had struck it rich with their newfound money-laden European Union lenders — even though they certainly had not earned their new riches through increased productivity, the discovery of more natural resources, or greater collective investment and savings.

The brief euro mirage has vanished. Life in Athens is zooming backward to the pre-EU days of the 1970s. Then, most imported goods were too expensive to buy, medical care was often premodern, and the city resembled more a Turkish Istanbul than a European Munich.

The United States should pay heed to the modern Greek Cassandra, since our own rendezvous with reality is rapidly approaching. The costs of servicing a growing national debt of more than $15 trillion are starting to squeeze out other budget expenditures. Americans are no longer affluent enough to borrow hundreds of billions of dollars to import oil, while we snub our noses at vast new oil and gas deposits beneath our own soil and seas.

In my state, Californians for 40 years have hiked taxes; grown their government; vastly expanded entitlements; put farmland, timberland, and oil and gas lands off limits; and opened their borders to millions of illegal aliens. They apparently assumed that they had inherited so much wealth from prior generations and that their state was so naturally rich, that a continually better life was their natural birthright.

It wasn’t. Now, as in Greece, the veneer of civilization is proving pretty thin in California. Hospitals no longer have the money to offer sophisticated long-term medical care to the indigent. Cities no longer have the funds to self-insure themselves from the accustomed barrage of monthly lawsuits. When thieves rip copper wire out of street lights, the streets stay dark. Most state residents would rather go to the dentist these days than queue up and take a number at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Hospital emergency rooms neither have room nor act as if there’s much of an emergency.

Traffic flows no better on most of the state’s freeways than it did 40 years ago — and often much worse, given the crumbling infrastructure and increased traffic. Once-excellent K–12 public schools now score near the bottom in nationwide tests. The California state-university system keeps adding administrators to the point where they have almost matched the number of faculty, though half of the students who enter CSU need remedial reading and math. Despite millions of dollars in tutoring, half the students still don’t graduate. The taxpayer is blamed in constant harangues for not ponying up more money, rather than administrators being faulted for a lack of reform.

In 1960, there were far fewer government officials, far fewer prisons, far fewer laws, and far fewer lawyers — and yet the state was a far safer place than it is a half-century later. Technological progress — whether iPhones or Xboxes — can often accompany moral regress. There are not yet weeds in our cities, but those too may be coming.

The average Californian, like the average Greek, forgot that civilization is fragile. Its continuance requires respect for the law, tough-minded education, collective thrift, private investment, individual self-reliance, and common codes of behavior and civility — and exempts no one from those rules. Such knowledge and patterns of civilized behavior, slowly accrued over centuries, can be lost in a single generation.

A keen visitor to Athens — or Los Angeles — during the last decade not only could have seen that things were not quite right, but also could have concluded that they could not go on as they were. And so they are not.

Washington, please take heed.

— Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of the just-released The End of Sparta. You can reach him by e-mailing [email protected].



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