We have so much. We have so little

Material prosperity is not protecting us from existential despair.

Douglas Altabef ,

סליחות מוזיקליות בהר הזיתים אשתקד
סליחות מוזיקליות בהר הזיתים אשתקד
צילום: יח"צ

Ours is a strange time. Imagine a civilizational Rohrshach test. On the one hand, we might perceive widespread prosperity, as millions, even billions, have been lifted out of privation.

We have largely conquered starvation, where the current difficulties of feeding people deal more with distribution issues than the availability of food. Amenities and possessions that 200 years ago, if they existed, were only the province of the wealthy or the aristocracy, are everywhere to be had.

Perhaps for the first time in history, much that motivates dissent, anger and revolt, has little to do with the availability of resources. Poverty, as opposed to privation, is a relative term. Poor people today nevertheless have cell phones, access to air conditioning and food in their stomachs. Not all of the poor of course, but a great many.


Perhaps for the first time in history, much that motivates dissent, anger and revolt, has little to do with the availability of resources.
And yet, we live in a time of great anxiety, anger and resentment. We have pocketed material gains, but there has been little real comfort or solace that has come from them.

Instead, we look again at that Rohrshach blot we might see resentment and anger for what others have, the sins of the past, or even worse, at what others are.

There is a willful dismantling of civilization going on in front of us. In what sane - morally, civically sane society - would the destruction of statues of past notables be deemed to be anything but both childish and destructive behavior?

It is one thing to blame the perpetrators. That’s the easy part. The more difficult part is to take responsibility for the ability of these perpetrators to so run amok. Where were the adults, the teachers, the moral guides that would have made such behavior inconceivable?

What we must face up to is a multi-generational loosening of the awareness of the blessings of the civilization that enabled all of our material prosperity. We have, best case, been inattentive to the obligation to assure that our values and beliefs are maintained, cherished and renewed.

Worst case, we have become contemptuous of them, seeing them as sources of oppression rather than advancement, of enslavement rather than liberation. We have extolled this contrary way of regarding ourselves as counter culture, as speaking truth to power.

Except that we have expunged the idea of truth. Truth is a conceit, or it is something that someone determines for him or herself.

We have discarded the organizing, central role, ordering influence and omniscience of a Higher Power, but we have not found a widespread substitute. For some it has been reason, for others, science; for a great many, there is no guiding star, no organizing principle. There is just me, and how I feel.

The discarding of a Higher Power has sent a great many down the slippery slope of discarding any power or authority. If societies and civilizations were not created in order to reflect God’s Will, then their creation was only a function of power. They exist because they were able to force others to follow their self-serving lead.

In such a worldview, values go out the window. Values are merely the gloss and justification for the application or raw power. Values like history, are the product of the victors, and are used to defend and buttress the ruling cliques.

Is this a wild overstatement of the state of much what is animating Western societies today? I only wish it were so.

Historians have the luxury of critical distance, and use that luxury to look back at periods in particular societies in order to find the defining and animating spirit of the age. Sometimes those are micro perspectives, such as the years leading up to World War I, and sometimes there is an attempt to identify long term societal changes to see how they affect a particular period.

My hunch is that historians will look back at this particular period and see the gradual existential impoverishment that came of material prosperity. Much as Moses warns the Children of Israel in Deuteronomy, material success can make people forget what enabled them to become fat and happy.

I believe that we have become untethered. We have forgotten what it is that made the West prosperous, what made America the greatest expression of the elevation of the common man, and with all its faults, the most sublime manifestation of human dignity in history.

A friend in America opined that here in Israel, and in the Middle East as a whole, there is less of this waywardness because people still believe in God. While there are all sorts of other problems, existential despair is not one of them.

I think he is on to something. The real question is how does the West find its way back? In accounting and finance there is the concept of “last in, first out,” of how we are to account for inventory, for example.

I suggest that what we need to do is to try to employ the inverse, “last out, first in” in the quest to save the West. In other words, we need to start to remember, re-acquaint ourselves and re-embrace the most recently discarded values as worthy guidelines in and of themselves.

These values, such as the freedoms elaborated in the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights, must be seen as the sanity preserving guideposts of Western Civ. Perhaps they will be re-embraced because of renewed appreciation. Perhaps they will only be re-embraced because of the realization that without them, that way social madness lies.

But however it happens, this needs to be the first step. We need to start connecting the dots: of understanding that all of our material success was enabled and fostered by a governing ethos of respecting the institutions and associations that enabled it to happen.

Eventually we might come to understand that the notables of the past were operating by the norms and values of their own time, not ours. They can not be held to current standards, just as we have no idea how we will be judged by our descendants.

This might lead us back to a renewed appreciation and embrace of a Higher Power. But first steps first.

The road back to social sanity and health will not be an easy one. Above all it will require a very clear determination that this is the goal.

Simply stated, if Western Civ goes the way of neo-Visigoths, we will have had only ourselves to blame.

Douglas Altabef is the Chairman of the Board of Im Tirtzu, Israel's largest grassroots Zionist movement, and a Director of the Israel Independence Fund. He can be reached at dougaltabef@gmail.com.



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