Everybody thinks that this civilization has lasted a very long time but it really does take very few grandfathers’ granddaughters to take us back to the dark ages. —Gertrude Stein
Helping my 18-yr-old with his homework is bringing back some often painful memories. This week, his English class started studying Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. I saw the title and shuddered. I remember struggling with the old English and not doing terribly well. The allegory was easy enough to follow once it was explained, but trying to get through the particular challenges of a language that was still trying to emerge from the Dark Ages was a formidable challenge. Fortunately, he actually likes this stuff. He’s doing well without me.
Looking back at that time period, though, when few people read and “publishing” was still not yet a thing got me thinking about how desperate and hopeless the conditions were in the period following the fall of the Roman empire. The decimation of anything remotely resembling that government was so complete that calling that period the Dark Ages is almost an understatement. The late William Manchester studied and wrote about that frightening point in history extensively. In his 1992 book, A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age, Manchester makes the following observation:
Very little is clear about that dim era. Intellectual life had vanished from Europe. Even Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman emperor and greatest of all medieval rulers, was illiterate. Indeed, throughout the Middle Ages, which lasted some seven centuries after Charlemagne, literacy was scorned; when a cardinal corrected the Latin of the emperor Sigismund, Charlemagne’s forty-seventh successor, Sigismund rudely replied, “ Ego sum Romanus et super grammatica”— as “King of Rome,” he was “above grammar.” Nevertheless, if value judgments are made, it is undeniable that most of what is known about that period is unlovely. After the extant fragments have been fitted together, the portrait that emerges is a mèlange of incessant warfare, corruption, lawlessness, obsession with strange myths, and an almost impenetrable mindlessness.
His last sentence is what frightens me. Compare the qualities with which he defines the Dark Ages to our conditions today and the parallels should shake us to our core. Perhaps we should be concerned. Let’s take a look at each area.
For all the talk about peace, the United States hardly knows what the word even means. I talked briefly with my middle son, the Marine, last night and briefly discussed how tensions over the South China Sea keep everyone on the base in Okinawa in a constant state of preparedness. There is no real relaxing even when they appear to be celebrating the long weekend.
The US military doesn’t know how to relax. We don’t want them to relax. If we look at the list of military conflicts in which the US has been involved, we don’t just see the major activities such as world wars, but an ongoing litany of one engagement right after another. Most of these have slipped our memory. Some were even ignored by the public in general. Yet, our taste for incessant warfare dirties our history from its inception. Consider this list, compiled by The House Committee on Foreign Affairs, for the decade from 2000-2009. How many of these do you remember?
- 2000 – Sierra Leone: On May 12, 2000, a U.S. Navy patrol craft deployed to Sierra Leone to support evacuation operations from that country if needed.[RL30172]
- 2000 – Nigeria: Special Forces troops are sent to Nigeria to lead a training mission in the country.
- 2000 – Yemen: On October 12, 2000, after the USS Cole attack in the port of Aden, Yemen, military personnel were deployed to Aden.[RL30172]
- 2000 – East Timor: On February 25, 2000, a small number of U.S. military personnel were deployed to support the United Nations Transitional Administration in East Timor (UNTAET). [RL30172]
- 2001 – On April 1, 2001, a mid-air collision between a United States Navy EP-3E ARIES II signals surveillance aircraft and a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) J-8II interceptor fighter jet resulted in an international dispute between the United States and the People’s Republic of China called the Hainan Island incident.
- 2001–2014 – War in Afghanistan: The War on Terror begins with Operation Enduring Freedom. On October 7, 2001, U.S. Armed Forces invade Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks and “begin combat action in Afghanistan against Al Qaeda terrorists and their Taliban supporters.”[RL30172]
- 2002 – Yemen: On November 3, 2002, an American MQ-1 Predator fired a Hellfire missile at a car in Yemen killing Qaed Salim Sinan al-Harethi, an al-Qaeda leader thought to be responsible for the USS Cole bombing.[RL30172]
- 2002 – Philippines: OEF-Philippines, As of January, U.S. “combat-equipped and combat support forces” have been deployed to the Philippines to train with, assist and advise the Philippines’ Armed Forces in enhancing their “counterterrorist capabilities.”[RL30172]
- 2002 – Côte d’Ivoire: On September 25, 2002, in response to a rebellion in Côte d’Ivoire, U.S. military personnel went into Côte d’Ivoire to assist in the evacuation of American citizens from Bouaké.[RL30172]
- 2003–2011 – War in Iraq: Operation Iraqi Freedom, March 20, 2003, The United States leads a coalition that includes the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland to invade Iraq with the stated goal being “to disarm Iraq in pursuit of peace, stability, and security both in the Gulf region and in the United States.”[RL30172]
- 2003 – Liberia: Second Liberian Civil War, On June 9, 2003, President Bush reported that on June 8 he had sent about 35 U.S. Marines into Monrovia, Liberia, to help secure the U.S. Embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania, and to aid in any necessary evacuation from either Liberia or Mauritania.[RL30172]
- 2003 – Georgia and Djibouti: “US combat equipped and support forces” had been deployed to Georgia and Djibouti to help in enhancing their “counterterrorist capabilities.”
- 2004 – Haiti: 2004 Haitian coup d’état occurs, The US first sent 55 combat equipped military personnel to augment the U.S. Embassy security forces there and to protect American citizens and property in light. Later 200 additional US combat-equipped, military personnel were sent to prepare the way for a UN Multinational Interim Force, MINUSTAH.[RL30172]
- 2004 – War on Terror: U.S. anti-terror related activities were underway in Georgia, Djibouti, Kenya, Ethiopia, Yemen, and Eritrea.
- 2004–present: The U.S deploys drone strikes to aid in the War in North-West Pakistan
- 2005–06 – Pakistan: President Bush deploys troops from US Army Air Cav Brigades to provide Humanitarian relief to far remote villages in the Kashmir mountain ranges of Pakistan stricken by a massive earthquake.
- 2006 – Lebanon: part of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit begins evacuation of U.S. citizens willing to leave the country in the face of a likely ground invasion by Israel and continued fighting between Hezbollah and the Israeli military.
- 2007 – The Mogadishu Encounter, on November 4, 2007, Somali Pirate‘s boarded and attacked a North Korean merchant vessel. Passing U.S. Navy Ships and a helicopter that were patrolling at the time responded to the attack. Once the ship was freed from the pirates, the American forces were given permission to board and assist the wounded crew and handle surviving pirates.
- 2007 – Somalia: Battle of Ras Kamboni, On January 8, 2007, while the conflict between the Islamic Courts Union and the Transitional Federal Government continues, an AC-130 gunship conducts an aerial strike on a suspected al-Qaeda operative, along with other Islamist fighters, on Badmadow Island near Ras Kamboni in southern Somalia.
- 2008 – South Ossetia, Georgia: Helped Georgia humanitarian aid, helped to transport Georgian forces from Iraq during the conflict. In the past, the US has provided training and weapons to Georgia.
The Roman empire made the same mistake that we’re making: trying to secure the whole world on their own. Granted, the “world” of the Roman empire was actually just most of one continent, but given capabilities and geographic knowledge of the time the comparison is still apt. When the Romans proved to be stretched too thin, the Huns breached the Northern borders, opening the doors to every other barbarous tribe that wanted a piece of the action. The once great Roman army fell with surprising speed.
With the fall of Rome, wars between the invading tribes were non-stop. The constant battles sucked up every last ounce of resources leaving nothing for even basic items such as the maintenance of roads. By the time of Chaucer, only the best of the ancient Roman roads were still passable. Most were muddy, rutted, paths barely suitable for foot traffic.
Today, the US military spend $829.1 billion annually. Only health care takes a larger portion of the US budget and many in Congress would dearly love to dismantle those programs. Of that $829 billion, the vast majority goes not to equipment or veteran’s care or personnel, but the direct cost of involving our troops in constant rotating areas of conflict.
Could we be making the same mistake that Rome once did? Could we be taking steps toward our own Dark Ages? Military activity on its own is not enough of a precursor. Let’s continue.
Where would you like to start, the Democratic presidential candidate’s private email server or the Republican presidential candidate’s ties with the Russian oligarchy? I’m not sure there is anyone within the borders of the United States who would deny that our government is rife with corruption from one end to the other. Even officials such as town councilpersons and county sheriffs have been convicted of things such as bribery and influence peddling.
What we often overlook, though, are the devastating effects of corporate corruption. It was the illegal dealings of traders on Wall Street and large banks, not the government, that led to the economic depression of 2008. Whistleblowing organizations such as Wikileaks are inundated daily with a constant stream of corruption accusations from around the world. Courts are full of lawsuits never fully heard as both corporate executives and the average Joe next door look for ways to exploit the system.
The effect of so much constant and thorough corruption is to destabilize all of society. We have, in just the past twelve years, seen the complete elimination of anything we once considered the Middle Class. Both legal and illegal corruption bring us constantly closer to that Medieval class system where one is either born rich, serves in the military, or exists in poverty as a serf with no hope of ever changing one’s station in life. As we refuse to reign in such rampant corruption, our march toward the next Dark Ages grows every closer.
Remember when we were growing up and our parents and teachers taught us that the police were our friends? We naively believed them as they protected us from the violence that was going on right under our noses. I can sit here and see now that such an attitude toward law enforcement is a benefit of white privilege. Sure, for me and my family, the police are our friends. I can flag down a police officer as he patrols the neighborhood and know that they are going to respond to the best of his/her ability. To them, we appear like a normal, law-abiding, Caucasian family. I’ve never had any reason to fear them.
Too many people cannot say the same thing, though. Even as you are reading this, Native peoples fighting against a pipeline that would destroy their only water source (thanks to more corruption) are being attacked with dogs and tear gas. Here’s the video from yesterday’s activity:
At the same time, police in Santa Clara, California threaten to not do their sworn jobs, to protect and keep peace, because a black quarterback is protesting the brutality of law enforcement against people of color.
Over the past several years, we’ve seen violence erupt across the nation in direct response to the lawlessness perpetrated against people based on racial and religious grounds. Law enforcement has too often decided that they get to pick and choose whom they get to protect. Courts have followed suit, repeatedly giving reduced or no sentence at all to white offenders while filling prisons with black and Latino citizens. Our concept of justice has been warped to serve the opinions of whichever political ideology happens to be popular at the moment.
Lawlessness may be the one area where we are already as bad as the Dark Ages. When people mysteriously die on their way to jail and spend countless months imprisoned without a trial we cannot call our society enlightened. Do you feel the darkness closing in yet?
Obsession With Strange Myths
Today is a Sunday. How many people are making their weekly pilgrimage to a place of worship where they will bow in honor to a deity and belief system they don’t really understand? Our propensity to believe in, and obsess over, strange myths is greater now than it has ever been. In fact, the citizens of the Dark Ages would be confused and probably even frightened by some of the religions that prosper in the United States. With over 600 denominations of Christian sects alone, our country’s somewhat dubious guarantee of freedom of religion has given rise to a plethora of belief systems that range from the ancient and honored to the recent and ridiculous.
What pushes us ever closer to a Dark Ages-style of existence is that what one believes can affect their place in society. I have watched with interest this weekend as the Republican candidate for president has capitulated to church leaders of questionable legitimacy. Desperate to appeal to a wider group of voters, the candidate is pandering along religious lines offering preference in exchange for votes.
Where the poverty-stricken and uneducated Medieval masses were committed to what we would call superstition and legend, we have organized our mythologies so as to give them some sense of legitimacy. Yet, the ferociousness with which we defend these legends of deities that raise from the dead and so-called prophets and saints who miraculously heal select people (but never a whole hospital) ends up sounding every bit like a populous that was illiterate and ignorant of science.
We easily dismiss illiteracy in the Dark Ages because the printing press had yet to be invented. Access to books and scrolls was limited to those in power, and as we’ve already mentioned not even emperors were especially well educated. We, however, are supposed to be different. The United States is supposed to be the smartest, most well-educated, most intelligent country in the world. At least, that’s what we like to keep telling ourselves. Reality, however, is considerably different.
Statistics from the Literacy Project Foundation show that 44 million adults in the US are unable to read even a simple story. 44% of Americans do not read a book of any kind over the course of a year. Over three million students drop out of high school each year. Those who do graduate are unable to complete any form of higher education because of insurmountable costs that require incomprehensible debt.
Combine those statistics with an anti-intelligence attitude in government that rivals that of Sigismund and we are creating an atmosphere sending us hurtling toward the Dark Ages. Medieval citizens at least had the excuse that modern science did not yet exist. Copernicus wasn’t even born until 1473 and even then his views were considered so heretical that the Church prohibited them from being discussed. We have every benefit of science imaginable and still there are people who discard such knowledge and information as unsubstantiated rumor not worthy of discussion.
I’m not the first person to notice that we have the wealth of the world’s knowledge literally at our fingertips and yet we choose to remain ignorant. This, perhaps more than anything else, spells most certain doom for the whole of society.
No One Is Listening
As I sit here near the completion of this missive, hours of research and work poured into it, I wonder how many people will even read these last few lines. We don’t like being told that we are destroying our own civilization. We know that we know better. Yet, our actions continually push toward an edge that, once crossed, could take centuries before there is any recovery.
I wish you would listen. I wish you would share this article. I would love to see people insisting that we take these problems seriously.
There is some comfort in knowing I’ll likely be dead before we really see a return to the Dark Ages. What hurts is knowing that we have gone there with full knowledge of what we are doing. We are turning our back on advancing civilization and choosing ignorance. History has no choice but to look back on us with shame.