'The Last Who Remember'
A preview of Brian Kaller's great book about the wisdom of the Ireland that was
Hello from rainy, chilly Budapest. I went out to the market this morning to buy things to make a pörkölt, a Hungarian pork stew that is full of paprika. I haven’t cooked in a long time, because when you live alone, it’s hard to muster the interest in cooking interesting things. Plus, to be honest, the idea of cooking — something I used to do with great pleasure with my ex-wife — has been too depressing to think about, because of divorce. Nevertheless, I really loved cooking once, and can love it again, I believe. In any case, I’m going to go back to the kitchen this weekend because my friend Brian Kaller is coming in tonight from Dublin, and I want to welcome him to Hungary in proper style.
If you followed my writing in the past, you’ll remember Brian as the author of the great Restoring Mayberry blog. He’s an American, from Missouri, who moved to Ireland twenty years ago, and has been writing for ages about living in rural Ireland, and learning from the old people he got to know. He’s a Catholic and a cultural traditionalist without really being fully on the political Left or the political Right. Brian is headed back to America soon to care for his aging parents. He’s coming over to say goodbye.
Brian has written an unpublished book titled The Last Who Remember, about the wisdom he gained from the Irish men and women who remember what it was like in the old days. I read the manuscript, and I can tell you that it’s one of the best books I’ve read in ages. It’s basically a book-length treatment of the epigraph from my book Crunchy Cons: “Hope is memory plus desire.” By sharing memories of the Irish elders, Brian offers a penetrating critique of modernity, and shows us that the way forward to a more humane future is through the past.
I’m going to share with you passages from The Last Who Remember. The whole book is like this. If you are a publisher interested in talking to Brian, contact him at briankaller — at — briankaller — dot — com.
Behind you stands an army of ghosts, the ancestors whose blood flows through you right now. They all lived wildly different lives in different climates and cultures – a Cro-Magnon here, a Viking over there – but every one was tough enough to survive long enough to have descendants. They lived outdoors and fed themselves, they chased boar and rabbits through woods, they spotted the fruits and leaves that would keep them alive amid a sea of poison, herded and trained giant grumpy animals many times their strength, and over thousands of years they took scraggly weeds and transformed them into lush crops.
Your ancestors were – if I may put it this way – total bad-asses. If you’ll forgive me for saying so, you probably aren’t. It’s okay – neither am I. In a few generations we have become the most dependent creatures ever to exist outside of zoos. Almost every modern person – even activists who campaign for notional “freedoms” -- are helpless as babies without our global financial and food system, with a Hollywood-style Zombie Apocalypse nine missed meals away.
So when elderly Irish tell me they grew up without electricity or cars, or worked for a fraction of today’s wages, or spent years with no money at all, we picture them as miserable as we would be without these things. Longing for such a world sounds as bizarre to us as someone longing for prison or homelessness. Yet they, and many other cultures, created a society far less violent than ours, with far higher levels of self-reported happiness, and – as we will see later – far more educated.
How did they do it? The same way all humans had, in every culture and every generation until us: they grew food, they hunted, they fished, they knew delicious berries and mushrooms from deadly ones. They knew how to raise animals, to give them a good life and a clean death. They stocked food for winter by drying, curing, pickling, salting, burying, canning, brewing, fermenting, and making milk into cheese, fruit into jams, vegetables into wines, and grains into beers.
“Our farm was like a little colony, self-contained, where everyone worked hard and all were contented and happy,” Mary Fogarty said. “Besides the fields, the farmhouse and its good outbuildings, there was a quarry, a kiln for burning lime, a sandpit, a turf bog and the productive eel-weir ... Everything we ate and drank came from the farm except tea and coffee and J.J. (whiskey), which was kept for visitors and medicine.”
“There was a great sense of independence in those days – people, they weren’t dependent on supermarkets,” Mick Waddell said. “I can remember at home a couple of cows, our own butter, our own milk, plenty of potatoes and vegetables from the garden. Mother spent much of the summer making jam, and baking bread ...”
One great unmentioned casualty of the modern breakdown of trust is the close friendships that children often had with local adults. To become their own person children need multiple role models beyond their parents, and children had them by the dozens. Carvill described his friendship with a women across the road who shared her vegetables, Bill Bergen remembered spending hours watching his village blacksmith work, and Patrick Boland remembered he and his friends – perhaps nine or ten -- scaling the fence around the nearby nurses’ school and chatting with the young ladies, who indulged their childlike questions.
You can see this in most novels or diaries written before the last few generations; in his diary in the early 1800s William Howitt wrote fondly of how much of his childhood was spent being mentored by kindly adults all around. “We haunted the joiner’s [woodworkers’] shop, chipping and boring, and endangering our toes and fingers; at another, the smith’s forge was our attraction … Many a day of a cold winter did I pass by the pleasant blaze of this forge, delighting in its cheerful light, and in all the curious operations going on, such as making chains, and sharpening ploughshares, and so on; and many a day, of a cold winter too, did I sit cross-legged on the board of a good-natured tailor, making pincushions of a red and yellow strips of cloth …”
You can see it in American movies from the black-and-white era, in the friendship between Mr. Winkle and a neighbourhood boy in Mr. Winkle Goes to War, or in the friendship between the children and local townspeople in To Kill a Mockingbird. Here too, American comic strips preserve a window to the past; a neighbourhood boy wanders in to Dagwood’s house, as does Dennis the Menace with his neighbours, all scenes that are inexplicable now. Today, if a normal local man were to spend a lot of time with a child, parents would be likely to call the police. When I mention to modern people that this used to be normal, I often see them giggle or smirk, and say they know what was “really going on.” The idea that any such man must be raping a child is the first thing that occurs to them.
The presence of all these forces meant that “they were taught more in a year than a lot of children these days are taught in a decade,” my neighbour Mary told me. “And you know what? When we met for a reunion decades later, they all arrived in nice cars and happy families – they had all done really well in life. The kids I see now, whose memories of childhood are all of television and video games, I don’t think they’ll do as well.”
Many of my elderly neighbours feel estranged from their own grandchildren, who grew up in an alien culture even a few doors down the road. The children’s minds live in their hand-held screens, growing up with the same Hollywood culture as the rest of the modern world, and their bodies in a sterilised and padded space. They are also increasingly sick. The rate of suicide and mental illness among young people today is not just unprecedented. In no other age and culture did young girls starve themselves into skeletons, or cut their arms, or cut off body parts. In no other era would so many young men be sitting inside all day, restless and bored. In no other culture would children be raised by strangers rather than loved ones. As they age the children continue to live indoors, always in similar clothes, playing similar games on similar screens. Their bodies will age, but they will never be adults, because they have never truly been children.
We picture Ancient Romans as senators and centurions, Ancient Japanese as samurai, Vikings as seafaring warriors – all images from popular culture, mostly of the leader and his soldiers. What almost no one pictures, and no history book or movie portrays, is what most people actually were: farmers.
Until we began using fossil fuels a century or two ago, around 95 percent of all people were farmers in any civilisation, and it was they who fed the kings and soldiers, they who supplied the calories to build the Pyramids or the Collisseum or the Great Wall. The details might vary from Sumeria to China to Ireland, but the yearly cycle of their lives, their prayers and stories, remained much the same for thousands of years.
In all that time, farmers have never been cool. Teenagers rarely threaten to become farmers to shock their parents. They have no Pride parades or groupies. In our media they rarely appear except as comical rubes. Real farmers in any era, though, had to be meteorologists, botanists, soil and pest experts, hydrologists, repairmen and veterinarians, long before these fields were named and codified. The wrong spot on a plant, bellow from an animal or shift in the wind could change everything, so they had to know the land and sky as you know your own body. Most ploughed the same fields as their fathers and grandfathers before them, going back longer than records. The word plough derives from plegan, to take responsibility for, and that describes what farmers did; they were a husband to the land in the old sense of a protector, and their craft is still called “husbandry.”
“Every evening my father would walk these fields, checking the animals and seeing that everything was as it should be,” Alice Taylor wrote.“It was not actually necessary to do this every day but he enjoyed walking the fields – you were never alone in them, with the farm animals and wildlife all around you.” As one elder told me, farming reminds a man who’s boss, and it’s not Man. Whatever the era or culture, farmers tend to be God-fearing, and Bible verses are thick with references to sowers and grain, vines and trees, sheep and goats – all metaphors that everyone understood until yesterday.
“There was a lovely practice known as blessing the crops: these were days of supplication when God was asked to bless the harvest,” Taylor wrote. “The farmer went to every field with a bottle of holy water, and he sprinkled the water and said whatever prayers he thought suitable, giving special attention to fields in which crops were planted. I accompanied my father and mother as they did this, and I felt a great sense of harmony, of man, God and nature in complete unity.”
That unity meant following the demands of each season as the year turned, so farmers in every culture created detailed calendars of the sun and stars, and our holidays are what remain of their markers. In a land where winter nights here stretch on for up to sixteen hours, the first longer day was cause for celebration, and for that purpose, before the Egyptians built the pyramids, the Stone Age people of Ireland built the monument of Newgrange. When the first dawn of the solstice hit the structure its light poured through a special opening into an inner chamber -- think of the map room scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark– where worshippers could celebrate the return of light and life to the world. Today, we call it Christmas.
As I took my daughter walking to see our elderly neighbours, we’d often see them with animals; white-haired Jim training his colt in the road, Martin walking his cows from one field to another, William bleary-eyed after staying up all night with a sick calf. I was always struck by how respectful, how affectionate they were toward their animals, understanding but never sentimentalising their nature.
When I mentioned the bull standing giant as a bison in the nearby field, Martin smiled and said, “Ah, Duke – he’s a good lad. Sometimes, when I get close, he lifts me up by the horns and sets me down again, just to remind me he could.” He had spent almost every day of his eight decades around bulls, and was no more peturbed than we would be around cars, which kill 100,000 times more people every year.
Virtually all our ancestors had a working relationship with animals of some kind, in any era and culture, until historically yesterday. Before we began using machines for everything, animals were the literal horsepower that carried us, the teeth that guarded us, the wings and legs that helped us hunt and fish, the oldest and most faithful of companions, lovingly nursed to life and to health. They were also, without contradiction, meat and milk and eggs and blood and life for ourselves and our children.
Many modern people treat cats and dogs as the babies they will never have, and I see first-time riders try to control horses as they do dead machines. Animals, though, are beings with their own personalities and goals, if not the words to express them.
“Animals will not be measured by us,” wrote Henry Beston in his memoir The Outermost House. “They move through a world older and more complete than ours, as finished products, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or have never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren or underlings, they are other nations, caught with us in the net of life and time, fellow creations of God and bound to the exalted Earth.”
We can love animals more deeply than we do other people, and they can reciprocate. “There was a great bond between my father and Grey Fann [his draft horse], a mutual trust,” Martin Morrissey said. “... he took better care of Grey Fann than he took of himself. In return she was a willing worker who gave her best at all times ... he often said ‘Look after your horse and she will never let you down. Only people let you down.’” When his father died, the horse seemed to grieve, and passed only a short time later.
About modern working habits:
Most jobs were not done in isolated offices as they might be today, but in company and often in public, with the work and the results visible to all. Even in Dublin, each neighbourhood was like its own village, and elders remembered passing dozens of shops every day.
“I was born in Blackhall Place and this part of Dublin, to me, always had a sort of ‘villagey’ atmosphere,” O’Donnell said. “In this area I remember saddlers, wheelwrights, blacksmiths, bootmakers, tobacconists, and bakers, and they all did a great business.”
Friends gathered around the barbers’ or the smithy to chat and watch the work. “There was something very special about the forge,” Ann Gardinier said. “It was a place people were reluctant to leave.”
While corporations today might call their employees a team, they are not responsible for them, nor are the workers loyal to each other; everyone just puts in their time and leaves to their farflung addresses at night, while their children are mostly raised by strangers and neighbourhoods evaporate into mere collections of houses. In today’s workplace one can build up many relationships, but they amount to a pile of threads, not a tapestry.
Many of these craftsmen, though, had grown up in the same neighbourhood, sat together in church and were destined for the same churchyard, and had an interest in seeing each other do well.
“There was a great feeling of comradeship,” O’Donnell said of the 300-or-so coopers in Dublin, and the same was true for most crafts. They also celebrated together once the day’s work was done. Gerry Rafferty remembered the teams of men that laid rail lines near their town came to the pub in the evening with their violins and banjos, and “were not only skilled workers but were also musicians and storytellers, the last of a dying race.”
“Publicans [bar owners] knew all the men,” said William Murphy, who worked the docks in the Ringsend neighbourhood of Dublin. “And in Ringsend every publican knew who he was dealing with and if you were short and stuck for a pint he’d give it to you and you’d pay him when you got a job.” When a docker took sick, Joe Murphy said, “a loaf of bread was sent in or a bag of sugar or bag of tea. That’s the type of people they were.”
What the woke don’t get:
When I write articles or give talks about traditional craftsmen, I sometimes encounter a surprising hostility from “woke” people today. To them, any authority must be oppressive, authoritarian, patriarchal, fascist, and so on. The impulse to question authority and to side with the underdog is certainly well-meaning, and runs deep in our culture; in fact, it’s one of the things that made Western Civilisation special in human history. When we see a movie about Spartacus fighting the slave-masters, Robin Hood versus the Sheriff, Old West farmers against the railroad barons, or rebels rising up against the Galactic Empire, we instantly understand which side to root for. It’s a shock to Westerners to hear legends or see films from cultures that lack these core values, and see characters that would be heroes to us treated as villains.
An ancient example would be from The Iliad, describing the Greeks before they became democratic; at one point King Menelaus commands his weary troops to keep fighting, and when a lone hunchback talks back to him, the king strikes him down. Everything about the situation -- the futility of the war, the king’s arrogance, and the hunchback’s disabled status -- signals to us that we should side with the hunchback, but that’s probably not how Homer’s audience saw it. Their descendants, by the time of Euripides or Sophocles, would think differently.
If the woke hostility to authority took the form of building back democracy, with masses of activists attending utility board meetings and encouraging debates, I’d be all in favour of it. Instead, though, most of their activism centers not on the reconstruction of community and civic life, but the destruction of symbols like statues or monuments. They do not focus on making more people authorities, but on eliminating authority.
There are several problems with this. First of all, the woke movement seems to be concentrated mostly among the upper classes; infamous riots take place at the most expensive colleges in the country, rather than small-town plumbing schools, and global corporations have taken up the ideology, but not Mom-and-Pop hardware stores. Their targets -- say, police officers – tend to be the instutions that provide some small measure of safety and freedom to lower classes.
We are raised with a historical myth of the poor rising up against the rich, but most revolutions involve the rich rising up against other rich – and when they turn genocidal, as the French and Russian revolutions did, they involve the rich rising up against the poor. For another thing, the desire to live without authority requires the belief that living without authority is possible, which has never happened in any human society. Woke literature often cites tribal cultures – always conveniently far away or extinct – that allegedly lived, as one editorial said of Native Americans, “in a non-hierarchical, non-coercive way.” These claims ignore the fact that many Native American groups made almost constant war on their enemies – in certain Amazonian tribes up to 50 percent of males die violently, compared to 0.3 percent of Americans and 0.09 percent of Irish today --- and more complex empires like the Aztecs held rituals of mass human sacrifice.
Most human societies were not so brutal, but all have some kind of leadership; hunter-gatherer tribes have shallower and less formal hierarchies than empires, but some people are always more senior than others. The same is true of our animal relations, from the literal pecking order of chickens to the savage dominance struggles of chimpanzees. Also, even the most anti-hierarchical of woke activists have hierarchies of their own, with organisers and figureheads. No babies are born espousing French post-modernism; the students learned at the feet of someone they follow, who follows someone else. These are hierarchies of persuasion and peer pressure rather than violence, but so were most relationships between craftsmen and villagers. And since activists attack speakers they disagree with, clearly they are not averse to violence either.
… Of course authority can be unjust and brutal, but it doesn’t need to be. All human groups have some measure of authority, seniority and hierarchy for a simple reason: some of us know more than others about certain subjects. If woke activists were hit by a car they would not want to be treated by any random passerby, but an actual emergency doctor, not because they have been brainwashed by an oppressive conspiracy, but because a doctor would know what he or she is doing. When they have a leaky pipe they would call a plumber, and if violent gangs were to attack your neighbourhood you want to know which of your neighbours is good with weapons.
We can and should treat people as equals, if we mean under the law or in the eyes of God or as fellow human souls making their way through this Earth. We will not, however, all be equally good at the same things, or have the same experiences. Mothers can do things for children that fathers find more difficult, and vice versa. Older people will know more than younger people. Even if a community is run by democracy – which I encourage – I can say from experience that everything will be decided by the few people who show up to meetings.
Since hierarchies of authority are inevitable, we have a choice between types of authority: visible and invisible, accountable and unaccountable, earned and unearned. Democracy, science, public justice and other Western traditions demand authority be visible and accountable, their status earned through election or expertise. Attack such institutions into oblivion, as the woke movement is trying to do, and we are only left with invisible hierarchies, based on hidden relationships, secret deals and unspoken prejudices.
What we have lost, including the dignity of work:
There was little chance for a carpenter to become a CEO, but there is little chance you will become a CEO either. If you were a carpenter, though, you had a status and an identity no outsourcing or artificial intelligence could take away. Even if you lost your physical ability with age or accident, you could mentor others, for you had the knowledge that apprentices needed and that no book could convey.
“A man who was a carpenter was more than a man,” Waters wrote. “A woman qualified as a dressmaker was someone from whom an opinon emanated in a new way, seen to be born of a depth of endeavour and application to reality that made her worth listening to.”
Each craftsman represented a distillation of centuries of experience, of lore and secrets. “… a hatter was a very secretive person and a very proud person, very proud of his knowledge which he wouldn’t give to anyone else ... in tricks that you learned when you were growing up,” said William Coyle, who worked in the days when no one would be seen outside without a hat. “...There are things I can do with a hat that nobody else would know about. And I wouldn’t even share it with anybody because that’s my trade and it’ll die with me.”
All the crafts disappeared in a generation or two – the coopers, wrights, milliners, cordwainers and thousands more. All the stories handed down through generations disappeared in a few generations, until we all know only the same few pop-culture stories. All the apprenticeships, lodges, clubs, co-ops and guilds disappeared, in Ireland and elsewhere. We are the survivors wandering the ruins of a post-apocalyptic society, but it has been a cultural apocalypse, a mass forgetting, and it’s still going on.
When I walk around Dublin, I see breathtaking architecture that spans the ages, church sculptures that shape marble like silk, art that ennobles and inspires, all works that – if they are not demolished, as many have been – are likely to outlast all our fragile modern architecture. These buildings used to house clubs and libraries and schools that taught philosophy, literature and political organising. They survived unimaginable hardship to overthrow an empire and create a free, healthy and safe society. I realise that we could not build some of these churches now; the crafts to create them are forgotten, along with the conviction to devote a life to them, and the social organisation, and the families to support the craftsmen, and ... everything. The entire human infrastructure. And I think: None of this world could have been built by the people now living in it.
On the decline in educational standards:
Once I began to read the classics as an adult, I suddenly understood many of the paintings in art galleries, as most of them reference scenes from Greek and Roman works. When I re-read the writings of Jefferson or Lincoln, I realise how much of their writings drew from the Greek and Romans of their education – Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, for example, drew from Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides. I used to think the famous sculpture of George Washington in a Roman toga was a bit of pretentious glorification; now I understand, as Americans at the time surely did, that it was the opposite. It portrayed Washington as Cincinnatus, who peacefully stepped away from power – or as my daughter put it after reading Tolkien, “he put down the Ring.”
The same was true until the mid-20th century; black-and-white films, newspaper articles, novels, popular songs and even children’s rhymes referenced Horatius or Croesus, assuming everyone would understand the reference. Even when I casually read books or magazine articles written a mere few generations ago, written not for professors but for regular mailmen, farmhands or construction workers, I’m struck by how liberally they are peppered with references to the classics, lost on anyone reading today.
Materially poor, but rich in social capital:
In Dublin’s poorest areas “You had this great community … you weren’t isolated and you weren’t afraid because there was somebody beside you,” John Gallagher said. “[Families] slept together; it was this great feeling of unity.”
Living uprooted as most of us do, spending our lives adrift on a sea of strangers and rarely seeing loved ones, was in most cultures the worst punishment. Ancient Greeks chose death over exile, and the Israelites grieved to be strangers in a strange land. International law today condemns solitary confinement as literal torture, but that is how many of us spend our lives, alone even in a crowd.
In every society, of course, there were young people who left to seek work or adventure, but even that was often seen as a kind of death. When a son or daughter left for America seeking work, everyone held an “American wake,” a funereal celebration, as though the departing were already departed. Men who went to sea or to war or to a monastery found a new family, a “brotherhood” like the real brothers they might have left. Even today, when people look back at the best times of their lives, it’s usually things like camp or college, when they were thrown together into the same kind of closeness, and briefly felt as humans should.
Consider for a moment what it means to be social – and as someone on the autism spectrum, I have had to pay conscious attention to a process that most find intuitive. When someone speaks to us, we are forced out of the hall of mirrors in our own mind by the alarming presence of another, demanding something of us. As people rarely state flatly their thought processes and intentions, their words force us to winkle out their true motivations, to imagine ourselves through alien eyes. We have to stretch beyond ourselves, and create a new living thing – a relationship – in the space between us.
Relationships are more than the ratio of the people involved, but create something unlike any of the ingredients, as the green gas chlorine and soft metal sodium combine to become salt. We all know couples that were magical together and not separately, songwriting teams who wrote better as a team, or elderly men who died shortly after their wife and the relationship. Different people bring out different things in us, our identities subtly reshape to fit them, and even when they are gone their imprints remain. As the number of people in a group increases, the number of relationships increases more, and a community is born, with its own personality different than the people who comprise it.
Those relationships can also demand much of us, which is why we find it so easy to flee from them into screens. They force us to be kind when we don’t feel like it and to put ourselves in the place of others; that is, to practice the qualities that separate humans from other animals, and thus become full human beings. They make us endure the quirky habits of others long enough to build an immunity to them, and perhaps even appreciate them.
When I describe this world to modern audiences, they often say I am romanticising a time of desperate poverty, especially in Ireland – and it is absolutely true that people then lived on a fraction as much money as people do now. Dubliners, especially, lived in a world many of us would find hellish – whole families living in one room, sleeping on beds of straw, taking turns eating off a single plate, wearing someone else’s cast-off clothes or sewing their own from flour bags, using an outhouse behind the building.
Yet elder after elder, in my interviews and their memoirs, all told the same story; whatever the injustices of the world, they got by because they “shared everything with one another,” Elizabeth Murphy said. “Same with births, deaths and marriages, they all came. Everybody helped.” Neighbours cared for each other when sick, helped each other on jobs, and gave each other food and clothing. When they died, as we will see, local women prepared the body and local men carried it to the grave. “See, the way it was, if one was in sorrow, we were all in sorrow,” she said. ”Everybody knew everybody else. It was a community.”
Patrick Boland remembered that his parents made extra food to distribute around the neighbourhood. “But my parents were not alone in their concern for others,” he said. “Other people on the street, even those in poor circumstances themselves, made sure no one was forgotten or neglected. Gosh, how times have changed.”
In short, take almost any normal thing your great-grandparents used to do in the evenings – go on, pick one. Whatever it is has almost evaporated. All forms of human interaction, the thing our species needs to stay sane and human, had plummeted when [Bowling Alone author Robert] Putnam wrote his book in 2000; since then, they have continued their freefall toward zero.
On the Myth of Progress:
For most of human history people didn’t walk around thinking of their own selves as split into a conscious and subconscious. Until the 20th century people didn’t assume that most of their own motivations were opaque to them, requiring a credentialed expert to decipher. In the same way, as John Michael Greer pointed out, no culture until ours believed the present was better than the past, and that the future would be better than the present. They did not believe in progress, and they were not wrong.
In modern culture, progress is how we describe the story of our past, from stone tools to farming to chariots to engines to laptops, always “forward” in a straight line. It’s how we describe social ideas, from “backward” sexists and racists to modern “progressives.” It’s how we describe the evolution of life on Earth, an ascent from primordial slime to fish to apes to humans to the stars. It’s how we describe our future of flying cars and mile-high skyscrapers. It’s how we describe geopolitics, calling First World countries “developed” by more progress, while Saudi Arabia and China are “developing” – supposedly on the road to becoming us. It’s why US political candidates claim their country is “on the wrong track,” meaning it’s not progressing fast enough, or that their opponents are “on the wrong side of history,” meaning that progress will judge them harshly.
What progress means, then, is an invisible force that makes everything better – in Martin Luther King’s words, “the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” When we are prosperous we thank progress, when we are not we wonder why progress abandoned us. Someday, we are told, humanity will ascend to the heavens, and if we choose to side with progress we will not be left behind. Replace the word “progress” with “God,” and you see why we’re not just talking about a set of mechanical devices, but a religion -- evangelical Christianity with one word changed.
As modern Hollywood culture spread over the last century or so, smothering local folk culture in country after country, progress has quietly replaced every other religion. Even atheists, so proud of rejecting every other belief, are fanatics in this faith.
Critically examining this religion does not mean rejecting the benefits of the modern world; progress is a complicated ideology with many moving parts, some of which might be beneficial and others not, some true and others not. Take, for example, how evolution is portrayed in pop culture, as an invisible force that rewards the most superior animals, and promotes them into higher and higher levels until they become us. Fundamentalist Christians denounce this as a rejection of God, and fundamentalist atheists embrace it for the same reasons. At the risk of offending all sides in that debate, though, let me point out that neither group is actually talking about evolution as actual biologists use the term. They’re talking about progress, a dark god that rewards the superior and kills the rest.
I’m not saying that progress has been uniformly terrible; again, I’m glad to have vaccines to diseases that once killed people, or be able to type this on a laptop. I am merely saying that just as a teenaged party animal shouldn’t expect to continue that life into middle age, we should not rely on Industrial-Revolution-era acceleration to give our lives meaning.
Almost all people, until a few generations ago, lived in the small groups that are natural for our species: like tribes, villages, close neighbourhoods. They spent most of their days and nights surrounded by loved ones, in a world with few strangers. They roamed freely as children, honing their bodies and brains with games passed down through centuries. They learned useful skills from parents and older relatives – boys from men, girls from women – until they became craftsmen themselves. They shaped wood and fibre and stone and metal into useful things they needed. They celebrated the turning of the seasons, and the passage of boys into men and girls into women. Men prepared to defend and provide for their families as farmers and artisans and warriors, all so women could birth and raise the next generation. …
Only in the last century or two – the most recent half a percent of the time since modern humans appeared -- did every one of these things change. We are the first humans to live mostly indoors, not knowing all the people in the homes and offices around us. We are the first whose children are raised by strangers and screens. We are the first to be unfamiliar with the plants and animals around us, and to be incapable of feeding ourselves. We are the first people in history whose employment, child care, home repair, transportation, nursing, funerals and burial have all been made into transactions, given over to unseen authorities. We are the first to be unable to make or repair any of our own possessions. We are the first to have no stories or songs of our own other than what was handed to us from corporations. We are the first to be unfamiliar with our own past, and to despise it. We are the first to be told that men are interchangeable with women, and that we can turn from one to the other.
We often die alone, tended by people who don’t care about us. Mental illness, addiction and suicide might be higher now than at any time in history. We have all been guinea pigs in the largest experiment ever devised, resulting in vast populations sick and dependent as caged animals. And like caged animals, we live in a world that gives us everything we could possibly want, and as much as we want, but nothing we need.
Of course I’m glad to live in a time when we have modern medicine, when I can talk to my parents across an ocean and fly to see them once every few years. I’m grateful to live in an age and country where all men and women have human rights codified in law. In that sense, you and I are the luckiest people to have ever lived, richer than emperors in the past. I’m not complaining about those things, and I’m not proposing we all try to live like cavemen or the Amish. I am proposing that the modern world we’ve created has brought both advantages and disadvantages, and that we can disentangle them and – perhaps – keep the benefits of the present while reviving the things we admire about the past.
Most interesting, though, was how indignant people become when I praise previous generations, and how defensive. People back then must have been less educated than I am, with all my student loans, they tell me. Women must have been miserable when they could not be interchangeable with men in a corporate machine. Marriages must have been loveless before pornography. Childhood must have been miserable before screens and pharmaceuticals. Food must have been dreary before chemicals. Everyone must have been a hateful fanatic, they shout at me.
Such attitudes seem especially concentrated in my “woke” friends, the people most paranoid about “white supremacy” – yet they have substituted a far more extreme and sweeping temporal supremacy. Everyone, of every culture who ever lived, they believe, must have been stupider, weaker, less tolerant, less virtuous than we. Only we are a master race, they believe – everyone who came before us was subhuman.
These beliefs explain a panoply of ideologies that don’t make sense otherwise. Take, for example, the current debate around transgendered people. According to most governments, schools and media these days, some significant fraction of the population is transgender, and all of them are inevitably so from birth, and all of them know they are trans, and none can ever change. If all these are true, there must have been billions of them in history, yet there are very few recorded cases. Therefore, the theory goes, every civilisation, across thousands of years, must have been controlled by evil anti-trans forces who persecuted them for some reason, and then destroyed the evidence for some reason. How else to explain so few records of drag queens?
How history gets remembered:
Of course we can say that the past had more horror and tragedy than the present does, because the past outnumbers the present by something like a million to one. The Middle Ages saw a great deal of turmoil, from barbarian invasions to plagues, but we lump these things together in our minds into a single moment, forgetting that they took place here and there across a continent over a thousand years. It would be like thinking of many terrible things from the last century -- the Holocaust, the Holomodor, Chernobyl and the Taliban – all taking place in a single year, to the same people. Of course human history is full of tragedy and injustice, for these things are literally what history records.
“Civilization is a stream with banks,” historian Will Durant once said. “The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people killing, stealing, shouting and doing the things historians usually record, while on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians ... ignore the banks for the river.”
On the West:
Western Civilisation grew out of the fusion of Ancient Greek democracy, freedom and logic with the radical compassion of Christianity. Kept alive by monks through centuries of upheaval and barbarian invasions, it was arguably the first civilisation to learn from the one before, to preserve ancient writings and build on the best of their ideas, and when it reached its height in the 1800s, it did things no other culture had done. It became the first civilisation not just to invent most of our technology, but to ban slavery, give women the right to vote and codify inherent human rights.
All cultures have their own unique foods and musical traditions, their own jokes and stories and decorations. What I’m calling Western Civilisation, though, isn’t just the cultural preferences of Victorian Britons or 1950s Americans or any other Western country. I’m talking about a specific toolkit of social technologies, of intellectual “hacks” that transform society for everyone -- democracy, literacy, the scientific method, monogamy and freedom of speech.
Many appeared in Ancient Greece first and were developed in Italy or England or Germany, but printing was first developed in China, and our numerals in India. Wherever they were from, however, they caught on because they work. You can see the distinction easily in music. All cultures have had their own music, and we all have our preferences. I enjoy the sound of Irish folk music but not the similar American country music, but that’s just my taste. When Westerners created musical notation, equal temperament, harmony and chords, however, they opened up whole new possibilities which can now be used by musicians in all styles around the world.
Writing and widespread literacy allowed everyone to exchange ideas. Widespread freedom and democracy allowed everyone to participate in history. Widespread monogamy incentivised men to work to gain a family through peaceful means, and minimised rape and the oppression of women. Together these things created high-trust societies, where even strangers can feel safe around one another. All these social technologies developed and spread with Western Civilisation, and all of them began to decline once Western civilisation began to decline and be replaced by modern consumer culture in the 20th century.
Of course Western nations have committed injustices, as have all nations, but its intellectual toolkit enabled people to recognise them as injustices, and have the freedom to do something about them. When women protested for the right to vote in the early 1900s, they did not have to worry about being casually beheaded in the streets, or gang-raped, or sold into slavery. When they claimed to be second-class citizens, they could do so because they had the concept of a citizen, and a class, and that a “second” one would be bad. If these things seem obvious, it’s because we’ve enjoyed such rights for so long that we no longer appreciate them.
Modern culture is in many ways the opposite of Western culture. If the values of Western culture were founded on preserving the past, modern culture mocks it, rewrites it to its own liking, tears down its monuments. If Western culture was founded on limiting human behaviour with concepts like monogamy and fidelity, modern culture revolves around the idea that all desires must be indulged, all urges satisfied. If Western culture was founded on religions whose traditions reach back thousands of years, modern culture replaced it with the worship of progress, disdaining the past in favour of a future that will never happen. Modern culture appeared within Western civilisation and ate it from within like a parasite.
On decline and fall:
In the USA and other Western countries, you can see the same patterns – not exactly as it happened for Rome or any other civilisation, of course, but with some parallels. The upper classes tear themselves away, geographically and culturally, from the declining working classes. In our case, global corporations and elite colleges portray working-class men as monsters or pathetic losers, along with religion and national loyalties. They create their own parades where they fly their own flags, in states of dress and undress designed to repulse working people. Anyone who disagrees with them can be mobbed, or fired, or see their bank accounts frozen. The upper classes defund the police in working-class areas, and start encouraging euthanasia. For the rest of us, economic decline doesn’t happen as we imagine, with mobs outside banks and mansions. Instead, it becomes normal again to forgo college, to move in with relatives, to declare bankruptcy, to keep student loans at bay forever, to work multiple jobs. A decline in energy doesn’t bring mass blackouts or sudden lines at petrol stations; rather, everyone becomes used to the power going out here and there, more and more over decades. A decline in food production doesn’t create mass graves; instead it becomes common to buy cheaper and worse food, or to use food banks, or to grow gardens or keep chickens.
Even invasions don’t play out in real life as we imagine, with Mad Max survivors fighting off axe-wielding Visigoths. Instead, someone with a foreign accent moves into your neighbourhood, and then another and another. Over the years it becomes filled with people who talk only to each other and not to you. More and more they don’t bother to speak English, but they understand it, and you learn not to say the wrong thing in their presence, as no one wants to risk being beaten. No one criticises them, for no one wants any trouble. Teenage girls start disappearing, or learn to cover themselves, or walk outside only with male escorts. All the adults around you pretend this is normal, and the children don’t believe it was ever any other way.
You might notice that all these things are already happening. Not in Saudi Arabia or North Korea, but in America, Canada, England, Sweden. Not all these things are happening in the same places, and perhaps not where you live. Yet.
I am saying, though, that when they dream of something– a new president, a movement, a violent revolution – to get their country “back on track,” they are dreaming of the wrong solution. They want that booming economy back, in which their country and their family could be on top. That almost certainly won’t happen, and a violent revolution will make everything worse. I am saying that many of their problems could be solved, however slowly and incrementally, if they stopped trying to accelerate to the future, and again tried to restore what what their grandparents or great-grandparents had. I am saying that working people could change their story. Instead of being people who tried to reach the top of a futuristic economy and failed, or being part of a culture and country that is sickening, they could tell a new story, to themselves and their children. They could be the people who revive what we once had, and carry the torch of civilisation for future generations.
Neither the political left or right, though, can entirely let go of the mythology of progress. Most environmentalists I know appreciate my neighbours’ harmony with the nature, but they bristle when I suggest that they also lived in harmony with male and female natures. Most conservatives I know appreciate their religious devotion or independence, but bristle when I tell them those values were part of an old-fashioned economy, not a throwaway one. For left and right alike to truly accept the common-sense solutions of the past, it often has to be dressed up as something cutting-edge. A feminist went viral recently for an angry post about abortion – if it is made illegal, she said, every man who has sex with a woman should be legally forced to support her child. She seemed to intend this as a sarcastic “take that” to teach men a lesson, but conservatives pointed out that she had accidentally rediscovered marriage.
… You can see a similar phenomenon when “queer” women define themselves as “demi-sexual,” or only attracted to people they love – something that used to be called being “decent.” Or the new fetish of “radical monogamy,” which used to be called “fidelity.” You can see the same thing happen in technology; like a recently unveiled ship that used zerocarbon, wind-powered energy sources, or what used to be called “sails.” You can see this in the hipster trend for organic food and small houses, which used to be called “food” and “houses.” Or in radical hippie schools that teach children science through gardening, seemingly unaware that that this was normal in the 1800s. To paraphrase conservative author Auron McIntyre, “once in a while modern people accidentally reverse-engineer some aspect of a healthy life, and act like they’ve discovered Atlantis.”
Near the conclusion:
Every other culture, as far as we know, venerated their ancestors; in Egypt and China, Africa and Alaska, Ireland and Iceland, people built monuments to their ancestors, and their pyramids and dolmens and gravestones are usually the thing that survives when all else has crumbled. They built shrines to their ancestors, burned incense and prayed to them, named their children after them, and sang songs of their valour. We are the first to dismiss the generations on whose shoulders we stand, to have hacked away our identity like an unwanted limb, to flop around severed from a place in the great human story, and to call ourselves free.
When I tell most Western people about their real pasts, however --- the world their own forebears inhabited – they don’t believe me. They don’t believe that children roamed miles from home, or kept alive traditions centuries old, or read Plutarch and Thucydides, or became respected at young ages. They don’t believe that any houses were open to all visitors to sleep there, or that people passed on legends through the centuries. They feel no sense of loss, for they do not know and will not believe that such things could have been real. They would more easily believe in a lost civilisation of Atlantis or a vast conspiracy of lizard-people than look up the actual lost civilisation whose ruins are all around us, whose citizens are only recently under the grass, and whose books might still be in your local library.
There’s so much more in this terrific book. If you can, join me in helping Brian Kaller find a publisher for The Last Who Remember. It’s honest to God something special. This Substack post has been ungated, so please pass it around. More people should know about Brian’s wisdom and talent as a writer.