Many years ago, when the Catholic magazine Triumph existed and I was one of its editors, Malcolm Muggeridge stopped by our Washington offices one day. Several of us joined him for drinks on the rooftop terrace of the nearby Washington Hotel.
Muggeridge, who had introduced Mother Teresa to the world with his best-selling book about her, was not yet a Catholic but on his way. He was, above all, a man of ideas. He ventilated several memorable ones that afternoon. There is one in particular that comes to me now. He told us his greatest fear was that the West would descend into a “new Dark Age with the technology intact.”
The memory of Muggeridge’s expressed fear arises after four days of looting and burning (as these lines were written in real time) in major cities of England, including London. At the same time, the phenomenon of “flash mobs” of looters is spreading in the U.S. along with growing law-enforcement concerns over it.
(As when a “flash mob” recently ransacked a clothing store in downtown Washington, local media may report it, but since the looters so far have always been black, national media have largely ignored the phenomenon, which is why you may not have heard of it or know it is a nationwide problem. Staying politically correct matters more to the media than reporting the news.)
The mobs in England are multiracial. Yet they have one thing in common with the American “flash mobs”: technology. In both England and the U.S. social networks have been the means for gathering the barbarians and setting them off on their rampage.
That word — barbarians — was carefully chosen. These “youths” (as the media call them) know nothing of civilization. They do not read. The “music” to which they listen is not music. In fact, they can’t stand these and other civilized activities. They hate them.
Here’s proof: When bands of “youths” began to gather at a downtown Metro train station in Washington, fighting one another and harassing and attacking Metro riders, authorities solved the problem by piping in classical music! It drove out the barbarians.
If that strikes anyone as somehow amusing, reflect on what it must mean that human beings cannot bear to hear Mozart. It means not simply that they aren’t civilized. It says they are beyond the reach of civilization.
That they are is because they have no moral anchor. Yes, everyone comes into this world with the capacity for learning what is right from wrong, but morality itself — knowing it is wrong to loot and burn and kill — has to be taught. Teaching it is first of all the task of parents, but they need reenforcement by the larger society, and society itself is no longer anchored to anything except whichever “values” (instead of the Christian standards of yore) it recognizes at the moment.
(There is a difference between Christian standards and “values”. For instance, by the Christian standard life is always sacred, but since 1973 it has had no “value” in this country if it is that of the unborn.)
What we are talking about here is education in the true sense of the word. All anybody knows about today is teaching knowledge and skills. That is not education.
Unfortunately, if our barbarians are beyond the reach of civilization, they still have their Blackberries. As a result, the guess in this corner is that what we’re seeing in America and England (and in Europe) could be the rise of the barbarians at merely its beginning. The police may be able to limit their depredations for the time being, but because the barbarians are not at the gates but already within the city, sterner measures imposed by a stronger force, like the military, could one day soon be needed. Of course there will be a corresponding further loss of individual liberty (further than has already been the case), and since everybody is held to be equal in a democracy, we’ll all feel that.
When we do — when the constraints of civilization must be replaced by the rule of force, and not simply in the U.S. but also England and Europe — it will be a new Dark Age for the West with remaining ordinary decent folk huddled together around the homes of the rulers and the rich behind high walls and barricades.
Let us pray that this time around, as before (and if the worst really comes to pass) there will be some monks here and there keeping alive the memory of past civilization and whose communities can serve once again as centers for its renewed spread.