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The Race to Save Our Century

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What would you think if we told you that:

• All the horrors that marked the twentieth century were going to happen all over again. • This time the cruelties and casualties will be even greater, thanks to more advanced technologies. • The next mass atrocities will face less resistance, and generate fewer “rescuers,” because the West is even less hobbled by religious scruples about killing the innocent than it was in 1914. • The twenty-first century will be remembered not for Twitter, iTunes, expanding democracy, and the final dismantling of prejudice—but for total warfare, biological weapons, and the virtual disappearance of human rights as a concept.

You might think we were paranoid, overwrought, or in the grips of some apocalyptic delusion.

Then again, what would Sherlock Holmes have made of a character who predicted that within their lifetime, the advanced philosophy faculties of Germany would be justifying the use of poison gas on Englishmen; that a bitter world war would destroy most of the monarchies in Europe, and hand half the Continent to the most deranged kind of ideologue, who would wipe out Christianity, private property, and every vestige of freedom in Russia—and engineer artificial famines that would exterminate some ten million people? That this first war’s millions of dead would have died in vain, since another and bloodier war would come in its wake, and this time bring about the near-extermination of Europe’s Jews? That this war would only end when terror weapons blotted whole cities off the map, and be followed by forty years of brinksmanship between two superpowers, each with the force to wipe out the human species?

Surely Holmes would have turned to Dr. Watson and told him to note these prophecies as symptoms of hysteria. The world which those characters inhabited was much like our own:

The world’s superpowers, once locked into conflict by irreconcilable ideologies, were now alike committed to stable, prosperous coexistence. Their vast military establishments, they said, existed solely for self-defense. New industrial and information technologies were annihilating distance, uniting mankind, and globalizing the world economy. The English language had leaped far beyond its island home, and now knit together hundreds of millions of people on four continents. Medical advances were rapidly stretching the human lifespan, while new agricultural methods offered the hope of eradicating hunger. Research, science, and philosophies of progress had weakened the hold of religion in countries that once had fought bloody doctrinal conflicts and had persecuted dissenters. Transnational organizations in defense of human rights were striving with rising success to eliminate evils like forced labor and torture, and reform movements in once-tyrannical countries promised to gradually introduce democracy. Man had become, more than ever before, the measure of all things, and political philosophers predicted with confidence that mankind’s self-destructive history was drawing to an end; we had entered a new and perhaps the final phase of human development, an age of progress. The sun that dawned on June 28, 1914, in Sarajevo shone bright as all our hopes in a sky almost clear of clouds. The fact that history grimly repeats itself should only surprise those who do not believe in original sin. What can we learn from such repetitions?

Perhaps there is no useful lesson we may draw beyond a bitter irony, a grim smile of agreement with Rudyard Kipling:

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man There are only four things certain since Social Progress began. That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire, And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire; And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins, As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn, The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

But that is too easy, isn’t it? It might do, for those who plan to have no children, to leave behind no hostages to fortune. For anyone else, what is needed is more than cynicism, or stoic acceptance of man’s inborn compulsion to build, tear down, then rebuild the Tower of Babel. We want more than insight. What we crave, more than bread, is hope.

Hope is radically different from optimism. Stock analysts and campaign managers are optimistic—even when caution is called for. Worldly optimism is the fragile dream that pervaded the West in 1914, as it does today. It can be shattered by a single act of terrorism. Hope can survive in cancer wards and even concentration camps—as Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Victor Frankl have testified. Hope exists, if you will, in a fourth dimension that cuts across the world we can see at an angle we cannot imagine. It rises from secret places in the heart, where the torturers cannot find it, and spreads through quiet gestures or silent prayers they cannot quash. Hope is what Winston Smith hungered for in 1984, but all he knew how to look for was optimism—a plausible prospect for social change. And so he cursed God and died. If we in our darkening times would not learn to love Big Brother, we need a higher, indestructible Love. To find it, we must claw our way through the trash that blocks our path.

Much of the rubbish consists of the empty boxes that held our optimism, the wrapping paper from the gifts we gave ourselves. We must realize, deep in the bone, that there is no salvation in a cargo cult, that we can place no faith in princes, or in whispered, promised knowledge that will help us be “as gods.” Without renouncing the wondrous powers to improve man’s life that come with scientific discipline, we urgently need to rediscover what too many humanists and scientists impatiently set aside. We must rummage through their libraries and labs to find the questions they suppressed, the data they fudged. We have spent five centuries asking only “How?” We must step back and ask again “Why?” The answer will help us resist many temptations, of the sort our race falls into so very easily—to use the superhuman powers we gain in inhuman ways; to treat the weak, the “other,” the Enemy, as subhumans; or even to embrace a subhuman vision of ourselves.

Yet Subhumanism is the only word that fairly describes the worldview that lay just beneath the civilized skin of life in 1914. Each of the toxic ideas that would make the twentieth century so inhospitable to innocent human life was already present, ready to turn a political or military crisis into a humanitarian catastrophe:

  • Total war, the theory that in time of military conflict any means can and should be used to bring about victory, however destructive to civilian life among the enemy or liberty at home. This principle had not been practiced in the West itself since 1648, but Western nations had been employing the most ruthless of tactics against civilian populations in its African and Asian colonies. It was only a matter of time before Europeans turned their machine guns and gas against each other.
  • Racism and nationalism, the false religions that emerged with the decline of Christian faith, to offer some alternate principle of unity to rootless and economically vulnerable urban masses of men and women—and direct their anger away from the upper classes at home, outward at foreign enemies or “untrustworthy” minorities in their midst.
  • Utopian collectivism, a collection of messianic political movements that promised to solve the economic problems that arose from modern technology and mass production by using the bullets and bayonets of the state to transform human nature itself—to wipe out human selfishness and recreate the human race on the model of a monastery, establishing a kingdom of perfect and permanent justice by rooting out the “exploiters” and forcibly sharing the wealth.
  • Radical individualism, a theory that takes the fragile, fallible human person and makes of him a self-creating god, who owes nothing to parents, children, or neighbors—and who may rightly keep as much wealth as he can accumulate, and scoff at the claims of the poor and the weak.
  • Utilitarian hedonism, a philosophy that tries to make respectable the old despairing slogan “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we will die”—denying that human suffering or self-sacrifice has any significance, and using every technological means to create a “brave new world” where human beings can accumulate as many happy and comfortable moments as they can before they are annihilated.

Each of these principles was firmly rooted in one place or another in 1914, and each one would emerge to claim its share of the millions of human lives that were disrupted, wrecked, or simply snuffed out in the bloody twentieth century. And each of those principles still exerts an appeal today. The surface calm that pervades contemporary life is even more fragile today than it was a hundred years ago, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand went to visit Sarajevo—a truth that rises to haunt us with each international crisis, from revolutions in the Muslim world to fitful attempts by Russia to regain its status as superpower, from nuclear tests in North Korea to clashes between Japan and China.

To restrain ourselves and each other, to prepare a liveable future, there are certain nonnegotiable principles we need to accept as the bedrock of human rights and lasting peace. We do not need an infallible authority to reveal them. Any honest student of twentieth-century history could piece them together by looking at which perennial truths totalitarian movements systematically sought to deny, and at the brave people who stood up to defend and live out those truths:

1. Personalism, or the absolute value of every human person, whom we must treat as an image of God. 2. The reality of a transcendent moral order by which we judge every human law, public policy, cultural norm, and every decision we make in our own lives. 3. Subsidiarity, or the truth that a good society guarantees ordered liberty through a limited, decentralized government that preserves civil society, instead of trying to usurp its functions. 4. The solidarity of all human beings, regardless of race, class, nation, religion, or other criteria. 5. A free, humane economy that fosters individual enterprise and protects private property rights, within the limits imposed by human nature, human rights, and social cohesion.

In this book, we will unfold the implications of each of these irreplaceable moral principles, which stood in the way of every “pure” ideology that has emerged in the course of modernity, of each partial truth about man that claimed his absolute loyalty. If we live out these principles day to day, let them direct how we do business, how we spend money, and how we vote, we can rebuild our society as a more humane place for our children. Conversely, if we neglect them, we face a twenty-first century that will prove more even more horrific than the twentieth. The choice is ours. The options are clear. Pray that we choose responsibly. This is an excerpt from the introduction to the new book The Race to Save Our Century, by Jason Jones and John Zmirak. It will be published on July 28, 2014, the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.

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