For the first time in almost 2,000 years Europe is not a Christian civilization. Although this is still a racy suggestion in ten years' time it will be plain as day. The Nietzschean observation took its time playing out, and regrettably things are even flatter and duller and less significant after a century of military and finally cultural exhaustion on the Continent and critically in the British Isles.
The landscape of Europe is now dotted with gorgeous works of architecture that nobody knows how to build. The libraries and monasteries are filled with books written by people whose very premises have passed so far into the passe that the possibility of their existence no longer crosses minds. Nearly the entire cultural legacy of Europe has proven itself--irrelevant; it has only the most token, minimal, aesthetically kitchy role to play in the lives of Europeans on a day-to-day basis. The wisdom of the years 0 - 1914 have been replaced almost completely by the wisdom of the years 1914 - 2004--so much so that one in the street will be openly gasped at merely by suggesting that those early years contained Any wisdom at all. The wisdom of armies, slavery, oppression, xenophobia, petty nationalism? The wisdom of sexist, elitist, monarchist thought?
Leap for a moment to the United States, where centuries before the 20th are a little more in vogue, but not by much. The only people in America cognizant of the past are too stupid and ingrown to function in the present, and the dwindling number of people for whom a possible complexity of moral reality in situations such as the Civil War are already driven primarily by a cheesy gut nostalgia: how many men who slap the Stars and Bars on their gun-racks know anything about Alexander Stephens--much less what he knew, why he thought as he did, much less the contents of his great multitudinous retrospective?
We run the risk--we perhaps already ran it--of losing the contours of complexity that give required perspective to a nuanced, intelligent, intelligible understanding of political and cultural life and one's place in it required to capably participate in a democracy.
Why is this a problem, aside from the obvious cosmetic one? Because America is still full of many people who are informed by the past in a sense that would be disapprovingly called backward-looking; and that number of people is vastly larger at all social levels than it is in Europe. And the centerpiece of this situation is the fact that America is still a Christian nation, although less so with every passing day. The question is not so much whether this is for good or for ill as a Domestic matter (or rather, that is a separate question requiring a full dissection of the meaning of 'Christian' and alternate, competing possible meanings)--the issue is that an America that still views its role in the world and its habits at home through a Christian lens of valuation will only become more estranged from a Europe in which that ceaselessly ceases to be the case.
Soon will come the day that the average European and the average American--children of the same root civilization--will not be able to even have a conversation about what matters to them: the distance attained on issues like sex, birth, death--in fact, the most bedrock components of the human experience--is already a chasm and it will not grow any closer unless more Americans become more like Europeans, because the reverse is not going to happen, ever, until possibly another two thousand years from now.
And in 'becoming more like Europeans,' Americans will have to slide toward a number of possible truths:
1. Organized religion is bankrupt and potentially pernicious.
2. One only has a moral monopoly on behavior that only affects oneself.
3. Sex is primarily an end, not a means.
4. The mortal life you know is immeasurably more valuable than any supposed immortal life.
5. You and I are best approached personally and socially as aesthetic projects.
6. The past has done more harm than good.
The power in these points is palapable. But don't we worry that thoughts like these are preludes to cultural exhaustion? Don't we still hear echoes of the virtues of war, of toughness, of adversity, echoes of privileges being earned instead of rights inhering?
That hollowness of chest that Fukuyama and others have feared has not yet been refuted. But there is a fear beyond the fear of that cultural exhaustion.
A civilization of post-Christians, in command of the human body, devoted to a cultivated and machinistic group undertaking of sex, architecture, money, and power, will be more proud than any civilization since infantry wore colored uniforms. The commoners will largely be men and women with hollow chests, but that has always been so; they will be in thrall to the civilization in which they live, and they will probably often give their lives for it, if not in an act of death, than in the devoted act of living. Such a civilization will look upon our own as a clever but confused moment of painful transition. The quaint and baroque political architectures of our time--federalism the crown-piece among them--will be adjudged useless in a climate where the straits of a culture in mutation produce untenable results: back to back elections being decided by a tiny Court. The civilization of the future will not blush because a tiny Court of unelected elders chose policy and bent the 'will of the People' to heel; they will blush because none of the People wanted that to happen. It will be their notion of the Primitive.
The monolith of a question we are presented with today is whether it is possible to become that civilization without losing control over ourselves. Today as a pattern for that civilization we have the ever-widening sphere of Celebrity. Celebrities, by and large, are better versions of the people who pay to be influenced by them: more daring, more attractive, more well-heeled, more talented. Only because there are so many celebrities today do we think they are unjustly compensated for not really being very good at what they do. But compare them to the millions of Americans who cannot read a bus schedule or balance their checkbooks; compare them to the people who do not have checkbooks and have to be surgically sawed from their couches after years of sloth. But there's more. Those inside fame are increasingly outside the rule of law. Appearances must be kept up, to prevent the slavish jealousy that drives fame from souring into a lust/gluttony rage against the Corpus of celebrity; yet it is often remarked that anyone who is stupid enough to get caught with marijuana doesn't deserve to smoke it. And this not only about pot. Celebrities are more enabled--more, indeed, self-enabled--to make their own law, to revalue their own values, than those outside fame. The pattern set by Gore Vidal and Marilyn Manson, to touch on two particularly sharp examples, is the pattern of the future civilization in which a fully networked media decentralizes not only fame but culture, morality, and ethics: in which the number of people privileged to be sovereign creative forces shaping their own reality in ways that the primitives would fearfully label 'Godlike' shoots upward, with the only end in sight the end provided by natural selection. But the civilization of the future will have mastered selection, too, and 'natural' will hold as little sway then as the belief today that children born with crooked teeth should not be manhandled by science.
Every society and all civilizations--all systems--require the imposition of control. What imposition will control the possibility-truth emerging from a post-post Europe and from constraintless American celebrities? Will it not have to be a draconian, unquestionable force? A force with, finally, a monopoly on Physical force? Or will that be mastered and decentralized, too?
All of it shrinks down at once as soon as the portrait becomes that large: the 'civilization of the future,' for us, is the present of our face and spirit; the question is not academic but personal; the fear of losing the accumulated wisdom of two millenia is embodied in a nauseous vote for the incumbent, and the fear of gaining the accumulated wisdom of time not yet come to pass held in a queasy vote for the challenger. We are not choosing Presidents so much as civilizations; and we are not choosing civilizations so much as we are choosing for ourselves personalities, identities, destinies.