The Long View 2004-06-04: Art Imitates Death

The Two Cultures

The Two Cultures

John references C. P. Snow's famous essay The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution in this post. While much has changed in the last sixty-seven years, much has also stayed the same.

Most politicians in the English-speaking world continue to come from law, poli sci, and the social sciences, although some exceptions, such as Margaret Thatcher, exist. For the most part, scientists and engineers do not have easy access to the levers of power. This isn't true everywhere, however. The nomenklatura of the USSR often had technical backgrounds, and the current government of Mexico, heavily dependent on the oil revenues from PEMEX, is largely composed of engineers.

Oddly, the support base of Communism in the West largely came from the same literary classes as the rest of the politicians, despite the more scientific bent of the Soviets. Maybe that explains why the Soviets held their Western fellow-travelers in such contempt.

Also, look at this paragraph written by Mark Steyn in 2004:

In much of western Europe, on all the issues that matter, competitive politics decayed to a rotation of arrogant co-regents of an insular elite, with predictable consequences: if the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain issues, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones.
America turns to an unrespectable politician, as predicted by Mark Steyn in 2004

America turns to an unrespectable politician, as predicted by Mark Steyn in 2004

You can't say you weren't warned.

Art Imitates Death

The custom of referring to death as a "final journey" is so common that the expression has lost power as a metaphor. So why do we keep using it? Perhaps because it is also a common experience.

That may be one way to take the observations by Valerie Reitman, which recently appeared in the Los Angeles Times in a piece entitled Taking Life's Final Exit. She was not talking about "near-death experiences," which is what people report who have been clinically dead but then revived, but "nearing death awareness," which is what terminally ill people dream or imagine or just talk about. According to Reitman:

[T]hose dying slowly often talk of preparing for a trip or of trying to finish something, Kelley and Callanan found, perhaps using language pertaining to their professions or hobbies. One dying man who liked to sail, for instance, talked about the ebbing of the tides; a watchmaker mentioned that the clock was not ticking fast enough; a carpenter described details of completing an imaginary house...Why dying people speak of taking journeys is anyone's guess. Drugs don't seem to play much of a role, hospice workers say, because the phenomenon occurs both in those who are taking painkillers and those who aren't. If anything, they say, the more drugs one takes, the less likely any conversations.

Reitman cautions that this behavior should not be confused with the desire many dying people express in their last days to go home or to be transferred to another facility; I have seen that, but this final-journey business is new to me. I wonder: does this also have something to do with the motif of the Quest?

* * *

Speaking of near-death experiences and the Quest, there are several things that might be said about the decision by the US Supreme Court earlier this week to throw out the Newdow case. That was, of course, the suit by the noncustodial biological father of a girl in the California school system to have the phrase "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance declared unconstitutional, at least for use in the public schools. The Supreme Court said the father did not have standing to bring the suit; the surprising thing was that any of the lower courts had held otherwise. On the other hand, it was also surprising that the Supreme Court had agreed to hear the case. It was surprising that the Court heard oral arguments in a case decided on a technicality. It was surprising that three of the justices wrote separately, giving their views on the merits of a case they had voted not to decide.

Perhaps what happened here is that the Court realized there was a majority for overturning "under God" in an election year, and understood it was looking into the abyss. They met this challenge in a way recalling Sir Robin's Song in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

Monty Python was not as good as the Simpsons, but they were close.

* * *

Before there was Monty Python, there was the scientist-turned-novelist, C.P. Snow. A collection of his lectures, published in 1959 as the book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, was also once a reference that all sophisticated people were supposed to recognize. His argument was that, particularly in Britain, the elites were divided between those with a literary education and those with a scientific education. Though sometimes exasperated by the cultural illiteracy of scientists, his argued that only people who understand science and engineering would be able to direct public policy intelligently. He contrasts the British political class, populated by a raft of Oxbridge graduates who read Classics or Modern Literature at school, to the nomenclatura in the USSR, most of whom have been trained as engineers, or in the useful humanities, such as foreign languages. Surely, he says, the West will be able to hold its own in the Cold War only if its educational system can be brought up to Soviet standards.

Now comes social-science-fiction writer David Brooks, with a structurally similar model of a cultural divide among American elites. In a column in The New York Times entitled Bitter at the Top, Brooks puts the matter thus:

Knowledge-class types are more likely to value leaders who possess what may be called university skills: the ability to read and digest large amounts of information and discuss their way through to a nuanced solution. Democratic administrations tend to value self-expression over self-discipline. Democratic candidates — from Clinton to Kerry — often run late...Managers are more likely to value leaders whom they see as simple, straight-talking men and women of faith. They prize leaders who are good at managing people, not just ideas. They are more likely to distrust those who seem overly intellectual or narcissistically self-reflective.

Note the declension here. Snow's Classicists, who at least knew Latin and Greek, have been replaced by people who studied political science and sociology, and so know nothing. Similarly, the physicists and chemists have been replaced by "managers," who in my experience are people who never, under any circumstances, learn the substance of what the organization they manage is supposed to do.


* * *

On the other hand, if you believe Mark Steyn, the problem in the United Kingdom, and in Europe as a whole, is that the elites have arrived at a consensus that their electorates find increasingly repulsive. Speaking with reference to the recent elections, in which euroskeptics embarrassed the establishment throughout the EU:

In the late 20th century sur le Continent, politics evolved to the point where almost any issue worth talking about was ruled beneath discussion, beyond the bounds of polite society.

In much of western Europe, on all the issues that matter, competitive politics decayed to a rotation of arrogant co-regents of an insular elite, with predictable consequences: if the political culture forbids respectable politicians from raising certain issues, then the electorate will turn to unrespectable ones.

Most of these alternatives are unrespectable only in the sense that the establishment refuses to give their ideas a hearing. Others, of course, should be hanged or arrested.

* * *

Here's a final instance of the widespread sense that something is missing: 'Faux mitzvahs' a rising trend with non-Jews. As the headline suggests, the story deals with the rising demand among young American teens of all religious affiliations for the sort of initiation rite that bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs provide for Jews. Actually, the belief that something has to be done to civilize 13-year-olds is universal. East Germany devised a secular coming-of-age ceremony like this, and I believe it survived the Wende of 1989.

The wonder is that the report does not mention the term confirmation. What can the churches that maintain this rite be thinking of?

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

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  The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution By C. P. Snow