Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Review: How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam is Dying Too)

Another book I've been meaning to review for about a month is David Goldman's How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam is Dying Too).  It's a fascinating book, a shocking book, a depressing and uplifting book at the same time.  It's well worth the reading for anyone with an interest in history, religion, and culture.  It makes a compelling argument for American exceptionalism, whether you agree with Goldman's conclusions or not.  And it give a sobering look into the root causes and possible outcomes of the growing unrest and breakdown in the Islamic world.

There's a story behind population statistics, beyond the infographics and the demographics and the glib summaries that make it into the few news articles published in this field.  Goldman searches it out and gives us a sense of current events and a reasonable forecast of the near future.  Put quite simply, some civilizations commit suicide.  They lose the will to live; they see the handwriting on the wall and stop reproducing themselves.  Sometimes the decline is gradual and not necessarily catastrophic; the wealthy nations of Europe, for example, are able to provide for their elderly population in reasonable comfort even though the birth rate is below replacement levels and expected to continue so.  But in the Muslim countries where tribalism is still the main cultural tradition, where marriage between cousins is preferred and literacy is low, the birth rates are declining drastically.  Although the fertility rate (number of children per woman) is declining overall worldwide, it is declining much faster in countries like Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey.  Forecasts predict that if current trends continue, but 2070 Iran will have a more elderly population than Europe.  And without sophisticated pension plans and health care systems, that is likely to provoke a crisis long before then.  Iran was the first Islamic republic; it is a bellwether for the countries that are emulating it, but the statistics are not encouraging: rampant drug use and prostitution as educated people who see no future in their culture try to numb their existential pain.

A civilization that knows it has no hope and is drawing near to extinction does not go gently into that good night.  On the contrary, history shows that adherents to doomed causes are likely to fight with more desperation and violence than those on the cultural upswing.  Goldman details three great extinctions of civilizations in recorded history -- the city-states of the Eastern Mediterranean in the 12th century B.C., Hellenistic civilization in the 2nd and 1st centuries B.C., and of course Rome.  All of them, he argues, fell in large part due to moral decay.  Islam, he predicts, is caught up in the 4th great extinction, although in the short term that is no consolation to the other civilizations that have to deal with it, as with a fatally wounded animal.

Why is population at risk of collapse in so many regions of the world but not in America?  Goldman argues that America was founded on the Calvinistic principle of Election - America, and Americans, are chosen by God for a special purpose, not to be confused with the nationalistic, idolatrous state religions of Europe.  At the same time, the Evangelical Christian impulse in America has always put a strong emphasis on the individual and the individual's responsibility before God.  This too is distinct from the way religion was historically practiced in Europe.  It is not possible to export American-style democracy to places like Iraq or Afghanistan, he claims, because such civilizations lack the fundamental framework for understanding and supporting freedom.  Nor is it possible, as the current administration seems to think, that if America dis-engages from world affairs, the rest of the world will fix itself.  Only by slow and non-governmental means -- as for example, the patient work of Christian missionaries -- can a culture hostile to individual liberty be transformed.  Goldman (who is Jewish, not Christian) espouses a foreign policy he calls "Augustinian realism" based on Augustine's City of God. If America falls too, which is a possibility he concedes, it will be as Rome fell; not to be replaced by a superior military power, but by a slow emergence of newer Christian civilizations, most likely from the global South and China.

1 comment:

Mary P said...

thanks! sounds interesting. will look it up.