The twilight of civilization

Jane Jacobs sounded the alarm about cities 40 years ago - now her worries are bigger.

In 1960, in a book that began as a Fortune magazine article called "Downtown is for People," Jane Jacobs warned of the problems cities would face in the late 20th century and offered ways of preserving the best of true urbanity. More than 40 years after publishing that prescient landmark treatise, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," she once again has proven herself to be one of the most trenchant observers and challenging critics of American culture and character.

Her latest, "Dark Age Ahead," deals not just with cities but with civilization itself. She claims she wrote it "to help our culture avoid sliding into a dead end."

In her opening sentence, Jacobs writes, "This is both a gloomy and a hopeful book," but throughout its 200 pages, I found it to be far more gloomy than hopeful. Echoing the sentiment of Walt Kelly's "Pogo," a wise old possum who was popular when the author, now 88, was young, she has found the enemy - "and it is us."

"A culture," Jacobs writes, "is unsalvageable if stabilizing forces themselves become ruined and irrelevant." She is especially troubled by the breakdown of the normative order and the loss of interdependence, and she indicates that if we don't act boldly to stem the tide, we will be heading pell-mell into a new Dark Age matching the reversals of fortune that occurred after the fall of Mesopotamia, Rome, dynastic rule in China, and many Western empires as well.

To support her argument, Jacobs highlights five "stabilizing forces" (she also calls them "pillars") in North America that have been dramatically altered - and not for the better - over the years:

• Family and community.

• Higher education.

• Science and technology.

• Governmental representation.

• Self-regulation of the learned professions.

Jacobs might have detailed a number of other serious chinks in the social structure. She admits this, noting that some readers may be surprised by the exclusion of such matters as the continuing issue of racism, the destruction of the environment, the costs of crime, voters' distrust of politicians, and the widening gap between rich and poor. But she claims that, because such issues are readily recognized, she decided to concentrate on those institutions that are "crucial to the culture and are insidiously decaying."

It is an interesting argument but hardly a convincing one. Her five stabilizing forces have plenty of defenders. We are inundated with expressions of concern about the degeneration of the traditional family, family values, and community. And increasing numbers of people have raised questions about the plight of the other "pillars."

Also, there are significant interconnections among her select five, others she enumerates, and several others she doesn't mention, such as the polarization of the polity, the arrogance of power, and the dominating role of the media bombarding everyone with too many mixed messages. By including them all, her principal twilight-of-American-civilization argument would have been even more convincing.

In a spirited opening essay called "The Hazard," Jacobs whets the readers' appetites with references to great ages followed by dark ones, but then too abruptly segues into a quick consideration of modern times, and then to an outline of her thesis.

Succeeding chapters address the failures of the selected foundations. Their titles offer capsule summaries: "Families Rigged to Fail," "Credentialing Versus Educating," "Science Abandoned," "Dumbed-Down Taxes," and "Self-Policing Subverted."

The most imaginatively titled chapter, "Unwinding Vicious Spirals," makes a number of linkages between past failures and current problems. For example, she begins by discussing some of the issues that she knows best: the connection between homelessness and unaffordable housing and their roots in the Great Depression and the years of World War II. The postwar boom and the move to the suburbs left others in "pockets of dilapidation" that still pock the city-scapes, and "slum clearance" projects put people into vertical ghettos.

"Dark Age Ahead" is written in an idiosyncratic style that is pure Jacobsian: a mix of anecdote (often quite personal), analysis, hard facts, and thoughtful conjecture. (The last chapter is followed by nearly 50 pages of annotated endnotes and often quite lengthy comments that are all worth reading, too.)

Refreshingly devoid of academic jargon, Jacobs's stimulating book adds to intellectual discourse on the past and the present, and what might well be in store for us in the not-too-distant future. Its "hopeful" quality, though, remains debatable.

The last page of "Dark Age Ahead" begins with this sentence: "History has repeatedly demonstrated that empires seldom seem to retain sufficient cultural self-awareness to prevent them from overreaching and over grasping."

Despite her effort to raise the alarm in order to rouse us to reform, there's a dark sense here that our present leaders and many of our people are too arrogant, too proud, too absolutist, and too blind to the acceleration of anomie and its attendant alienation to slow the erosion of our institutions, let alone prevent the collapse of North American culture as we know it.

Peter I. Rose is Sophia Smith professor emeritus of sociology and anthropology at Smith College. His most recent book is 'Guest Appearances and Other Travels in Time and Space' (Ohio University Press).

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