Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Civilization and its Contents - IV

It will always be said that America brought technological advance to civilization. But the problem in assigning fame or blame for technological advance is that it can be duplicated. Although the transistor was invented in America, it was the Japanese Transistor Radio that made headlines. And now when one can make an atomic bomb in the basement, who cares who invented it. The difference between the Arc de Triomphe and and atomic bomb is uniqueness. Do we celebrate who invented the catapult? And, of course, the Italians would claim that Leonardo de Vinci invented everything. (Incidentally, he almost did.)

I think, in spite of its appeal, we can discard technological advance as our mark of civilization. That even includes going to the moon (The Union formerly known as Soviet was the first in space. What did that count for?)

We have breezed by architecture and technology. There is not much left. Certainly, those in academics will say, we should consider the contributions of Americans to literature, music, art and law. In spite of their awesome (for the times) military accomplishments, we learn in grade school that Rome should be known for its law giving. (Napoleon, also, was no small fish when it came to distributing uniform law).

O.K., then, let's look at this area. Quick, name one prominent 18th century American painter. (No, you can't Google it.) And no, I couldn't either. O.K., then, try the 19th century. Well, Eakins and Whistler and a bunch of others. But, can you honestly argue that even combining the whole raft of artists, poets (Emily Dickenson excepted), novelists, etc. can really outclass any other civilization of even half its size? Look what Greece did in the Golden Age. Could there have been more than several million that lived in the city states at the time of Pericles? And how many of them actually participated in the culture.

No, I am afraid that when compared to other civilizations, our arts are a little shabby. Yes, we have been on the forefront for the last 50 years, but, my God, what a forefront. Pollack splatterings and Warhol soup cans. This cannot hold a candle to the French impressionists. Not a candle.

So, if the Romans were known as the law givers, maybe we will be known for our government. How poignant to be talking of America's government now, when we are in our deepest crisis. When it is possible that a radical fringe will undo over 200 years of admirable example. Yes, I think our Constitution, as imperfect as it is, is still one of the greatest documents of all time. The very basis is that the government derives its right to govern from those it governs. All of us have been imbued with this since we were tots. It is what has set us off from the rest of the World, whether that exceptionalism was warranted or not.

But in the end, it is not our Constitution or Laws, as excellent as they are, that defines our civilization. It is something else.

To be continued.....

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