Rod Dreher

I was e-mailing with Alan Jacobs the other day about “books for the ages,” a blog entry he wrote in which he noted that certain books were influential to him at certain times in his life, because he was receptive to what they had to teach him. I told Alan that to my regret, one of the most influential books, and perhaps the most influential book, I ever read was the bestselling book of the 1970s, Hal Lindsey’s “The Late, Great Planet Earth.” I didn’t grow up in a religious tradition that took apocalypticism seriously. I happened upon the book quite by accident in 1979, and it completely freaked me out. You can imagine how easy it was at the end of the 1970s to believe that the world was coming apart, and that we were on the final stretch of road until the End. There was nuclear apocalypticism more generally in the culture. As a 12-year-old boy, life was pretty chaotic and scary anyway; adolescence has a way of doing that to you. Anyway, it took a couple of years, but I got over “Late, Great,” and came to disbelieve in its theological claims, and in its specific eschatology. It is well and truly a Bad Book. But it was a book that had a massive emotional impact on adolescent me, and I can’t help thinking that my penchant for declinism has its basis in the horror-show pleasures I took in that book back in 1979 and 1980. I wish I had never picked up that declinist porn book, but I did, and … there you are. That said, as hysterical and badly wrong as “Late, Great” was, that does not mean that therefore all declinist narratives, or eschatological speculation, is wrong or crazy.
I mention this to let you know that I at least try to be aware of my own weakness for decline-and-fall narratives. But that doesn’t mean that decline isn’t possible, and that falls can’t happen. John Tierney wrote yesterday about “The Rational Optimist,” a new book out by Matt Ridley in which he says that doomsayers are nattering nabobs of negativism, and that history shows that. From Tierney’s column:

Progress this century could be impeded by politics, wars, plagues or climate change, but Dr. Ridley argues that, as usual, the “apocaholics” are overstating the risks and underestimating innovative responses.
“The modern world is a history of ideas meeting, mixing, mating and mutating,” Dr. Ridley writes. “And the reason that economic growth has accelerated so in the past two centuries is down to the fact that ideas have been mixing more than ever before.”
Our progress is unsustainable, he argues, only if we stifle innovation and trade, the way China and other empires did in the past. Is that possible? Well, European countries are already banning technologies based on the precautionary principle requiring advance proof that they’re risk-free. Americans are turning more protectionist and advocating byzantine restrictions like carbon tariffs. Globalization is denounced by affluent Westerners preaching a return to self-sufficiency.
But with new hubs of innovation emerging elsewhere, and with ideas spreading faster than ever on the Internet, Dr. Ridley expects bottom-up innovators to prevail. His prediction for the rest of the century: “Prosperity spreads, technology progresses, poverty declines, disease retreats, fecundity falls, happiness increases, violence atrophies, freedom grows, knowledge flourishes, the environment improves and wilderness expands.”

Well, I would certainly love to be wrong; neither I nor my descendants gain anything out of a world of decline. But it would be useful to go back and look at how 19th-century progressives expected the 20th century to be a wonderland of peace, prosperity and progress. Didn’t quite work out that way. I suspect the truth is that nobody knows anything about tomorrow, and that we can only make our best educated guesses based on history and the wisdom of experience. And we all have, to some degree, the problem of confirmation bias. The most important narrative in my young life was, alas, a crazy book about the apocalypse. This probably did a lot to set my own confirmation bias toward the negative. I wonder if Ridley’s confirmation bias is toward optimism? Anyway, we might also ask what Ridley means by “progress.”
The comments thread could go any number of ways, but I hope at least some of you talk about the book or books you read at an early age that, for better or for worse, in some sense set your personal template.
UPDATE: In thinking about this question overnight, I recalled that the only other book or film with the same impact on my outlook was the NBC miniseries “Holocaust,” which my parents let me watch for two or three nights, until I became completely freaked out by it. I had no idea the Holocaust had happened, and I was absolutely haunted by it — that something like that could happen at all, much less in a place like Germany. It taught me that civilization is only a facade, and a very fragile one at that. The extent to which we tell ourselves it can’t happen again is the extent to which we lie to ourselves. I think the Holocaust was one of the signal events in human history, one that tells us that no matter how far we progress in terms of knowledge, material abundance, and cultural refinement, we will always be in danger of turning all our sophistication to barbarism and mass murder.

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