Thursday, July 10, 2014

A fine contribution to contemporary collapsarian literature

Professor Eric H. Cline's 1177 B.C. is an excellent snapshot of where we exist now, as well as engaging history. Since I read this book by ear while barreling across the United States in a car, I won't be able to quote from it extensively as I often do. But I was quite fascinated.

Here's the publisher's breathless descriptive copy:

In 1177 B.C., marauding groups known only as the "Sea Peoples" invaded Egypt. The pharaoh's army and navy managed to defeat them, but the victory so weakened Egypt that it soon slid into decline, as did most of the surrounding civilizations.

After centuries of brilliance, the civilized world of the Bronze Age came to an abrupt and cataclysmic end. Kingdoms fell like dominoes over the course of just a few decades. No more Minoans or Mycenaeans. No more Trojans, Hittites, or Babylonians. The thriving economy and cultures of the late second millennium B.C., which had stretched from Greece to Egypt and Mesopotamia, suddenly ceased to exist, along with writing systems, technology, and monumental architecture. But the Sea Peoples alone could not have caused such widespread breakdown. How did it happen?

Though a little overwrought, that's a pretty fair summary of Cline's narrative. The last 50 years have immensely deepened what scholars can tell us about Mediterranean, Near Eastern and Egyptian Bronze Age civilizations. Cline shares their picture knowledgeably and clearly. If this subject interests you I recommend this book.

And yet -- I came away from reading this book more than a little queasy about endorsing it as history. All historical descriptions are necessarily written out of the contemporary perceptual frame of the writer, however much they purport to objectivity or an Olympian view from nowhere. 1177 is very much a view from somewhere, full of direct pointing to contemporary events the author thinks are analogues to the upheavals of the Late Bronze Age such as the Arab Spring and desertification in unhappy Syria. In this respect, his history is a record of the anxieties of 2011 as much as of the catastrophes of 1177. In 20 years, I think it will read as an interesting period piece, a document of our fearful era, an era tantalized by terror of the zombie apocalypse, invading brown hordes, climate disaster and Orwellian totalitarianism.

Cline is also irritating when he insists that the civilizations whose end he chronicles -- Mycenaean, Minoan, Egyptian, Hittite, Canaanite, etc. -- represented a "globalized" culture. Yes -- people got around and these states created an integrated mercantile system. But hey -- weren't there an awful lot of people building their own civilizations in China, the Indus Valley and perhaps sub-Saharan Africa whose developments are erased by calling Cline's cluster "global"?
When reading about or contemplating the collapse of what seemed stable, eternal societies, it is hard not to mentally drift from the macro level -- states, economic systems, etc -- to the micro level -- to ask: what happened to the people whose lives were caught up in these catastrophic upheavals? Mostly they suffered and died, one assumes. Maybe a few struck out for more peaceable places and made new lives and opportunities. The archeologists can provide little information at the micro level. But their discoveries raise the question.

It was with this in mind that I read Masha Gessen's New York Times oped about the wrenching decision to stay or go that confronts Russians -- especially Western oriented, LGBT ones -- as Putin's society veers toward its more retrograde aspects. This is dealing with collapse on the micro -- human, personal -- level.

Russia’s society is regressing in nearly every way imaginable. Not only is the government’s rhetoric decidedly anti-modern, but so is the very direction of life. Life expectancy at birth is well below the average in Europe and Central Asia. Nearly one third of the population does not have access to modern sanitation facilities — and the number of those who do is slowly dwindling. Political freedoms have been curtailed and media freedom all but shredded. In these circumstances, a good doctor, educator, activist or journalist is worth her weight in gold, and every departure creates a perceptible void.

On the other hand, everyone working in Russia is struggling against the tide of social regress. Doctors work in underequipped clinics, teachers work in underfunded schools, most journalists and political activists are reduced to their own blogs, and all professionals are crippled by illogical, unpredictably applied laws whose sole purpose appears to be curtailing activity. Wherever these people go next, as long as it is outside Russia, they will be able to work more effectively — and do more good.

This reframes the argument. If a doctor goes to where he can treat more people effectively, does the world get better even while the country he left gets worse? If a special-education teacher can work with dozens of schoolchildren in a North American city, is she doing more good than in Russia, where she could only work with a few? At the crux of these questions — and at the crux of the emigration debate — is another question: Does one owe a special debt to one’s country of birth?

Gessen describes her own solution, a very good one for a lesbian parent, if available. In more general collapse, most individuals don't get personal solutions. But it is hard not to wonder.

I'm pretty certain that living with chronic anxiety is not good for us as individuals or a society. Very likely it will be those who can put anxiety away, at least for a season, who can find ways forward.

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