The thought occurred to me that if I had been born at nearly any other time in history, odds are I would have died by now. For the vast majority of humanity, average life spans didn’t get much over 30 years until very recently in anthropological terms. Sure, there were pockets of longevity in there, and if you made it out of your teens you would likely make it to your 50’s or 60’s, but for the most part war, famine or disease would get you before you got through your 20’s. The notion that anyone would be having just their first child when they were well into their 30’s would have been unimaginable for most of our ancestors, and yet it’s becoming the norm among my peers. The way we live is such a total aberration, such a shift away from the historical norm, I can’t help but wonder when the bubble is going to burst.
Looking back over the ages, it seems that every time some civilization or other gets a serious power base going, revolutionizes their sphere of control and takes a leap forward, history has a way of clawing back most if not all of that forward movement. The Romans spread their culture over most of the Western world for hundreds of years, and then the Dark Ages came along and all but erased them under a wave of Huns, Goths, Visigoths and Vandals. But for a few remnants and pockets of memory in the form of libraries, most of us never would have heard of Julius Caesar or Mark Antony, and even Christianity’s survival would have been touch and go without the work of a few monks out on the fringes keeping their libraries tended. The Romans were a high water mark in many ways, their myriad faults notwithstanding, and it was by and large a bad thing for most people when its legacy was almost erased by barbarians.
Thing is, it seems like every historical high water mark has ebbed to the point of some new low, and usually at the hands of those we consider barbarians today. It seems obvious that these people were savages with no appreciation of what they were tearing down, but can it really be as simple as that? Did the Gauls sack Rome simply because they were crazed savages, or perhaps did they have a deeper motivation, maybe something rooted in Rome’s treatment of their tribes in what is now France and Germany? If a foreign army marched into your town, burned everything to the ground, killed anyone who resisted and then sold nearly everyone you know into slavery, what would be your general opinion of that army and its home country? Rome didn’t build her empire on fair dealing and respectful negotiations with the people they conquered, they conquered them. It was a brutal process that involved centuries of war and oppression, humiliation and retribution. While it could be argued that Rome wasn’t as cruel as some powers of its time, it’s hard to picture too many things more cruel than nailing your defeated opponent’s soldiers to crosses and lining them up along the road home, just as a display of power.
Now, if Rome’s high water mark was built on mass killing and slavery, and it looks very much like every single nation to make it to the top of the heap has taken a similar approach to achieving greatness, does it make sense to think that we’ve gotten to our own high water mark in some other way? Or perhaps should we wonder about what’s underpinning our own modern empire, and maybe consider the possibility that it could have something to do with a potential wave of “barbarians” or “savages” who are currently being crushed down and oppressed in our name?
Be honest with yourself for a moment and just think rationally about the situation we’re all in. Does it really make sense to say that there are just evil people out there who hate us because we’re free, or should we be looking for a better explanation for the massive piles of hatred people all over the world have for the West? In human terms, is my 70 year life expectancy coming at the expense of someone else’s life or happiness? Take a moment and think about it, and if you come out of that time thinking your oppression footprint is zero, you need to go take another moment until things get a little clearer for you. Every extra year you live on this planet, and every miracle gadget improving your quality of life is quite likely offset by someone else having their time on Earth cut short or degraded, either in a war for control of the mining rights to a mineral necessary for your latest MRI or X-ray, or through Victorian work standards in a sweat shop making those little plastic miracles in your pockets and living room.
While reading a recent blog about our society heading towards a new Dark Age, it struck me that the writer was taking a very narrow view of history, which is very common among Western writers. What he missed was that the Dark Ages weren’t dark for everyone; they were just dark for Europeans. The Arabian Peninsula and North Africa were going through something of a Renaissance during that time, and Asia was hitting a similar high water mark as the Mongolian Empire solidified power and evolved into the Golden Horde. If the West in general and America in particular really does slide into a new Dark Age, it is very likely that we are going to see those powers rising up to fill the power vacuum portrayed as savages, as barbarians and outlaws; in fact, we are already seeing that in the vilification of Muslims and China. Muslims are dangerous radicals bent on destruction, China is a tyrannical monolithic power out to take over our stuff and rule us through economic leverage; this is the narrative our popular culture is feeding us on a constant basis. This is also the narrative Roman culture fed its citizens about the Huns who came and crushed the Western Empire, and it is the narrative the Eastern Empire followed when talking about an Arab culture that produced the works of Avicenna and Averroes.
All this talk of barbarians at the gate, of foreign powers looking to take over the world, it’s all just history repeating itself for the nth time, and we need to see it for what it is. The way to avoid a new Dark Age isn’t throwing blood and treasure at things until we’ve beaten the world into submission, it is to open our eyes to the way the world really is and stop talking about other cultures like they’re dangerous aliens. Muslims don’t really want to kill you and your children because Mohammed told them to, they just want to live in peace and raise their families, same as you do. The Chinese don’t really want to crush the world under the boot of global domination, they just want a standard of living we’ve been rubbing in their faces for centuries. They are all just people, same as you and me, and for the vast majority all they want is to have a little security and comfort in their lives, nothing much more. It’s only the power-hungry few who drum up fear and anger among their people, who portray our global neighbours as our enemies, and get obscenely rich in the process. We need to stop handing over control of everything to these madmen and see them for what they really are, hoarders on a planetary scale. Until their monomania for power and wealth is brought under control, none of us will be able to live in peace and justice with our neighbours, so we need to start calling them out for what they are, stage an intervention and get us all the help we need.