In Prospect

Autumn 2004

Writing amid the still-smoking ruins of post-World War I Europe, William Butler Yeats begins his stupendous poem "Nineteen Hundred and Nineteen," perhaps the twentieth century’s greatest, by remarking that once no one ever dreamed that anyone could be so savage as to smash the sacred artworks of the ancient world—and yet barbarians arrived, and behold, the sublime works have lain in ruins for centuries. And here are the wild-eyed barbarians again, exploding our temples of optimistic and inclusive world commerce with thousands of innocents still in them, hacking off the heads of bewildered bystanders, spewing out torrents of primitive fanaticism that make the achievements of civilization and enlightenment, surrounded by this sea of darkness, seem all the more valuable and fragile by comparison.

Have we taken the measure of their evil? Abroad, yes; and we are at war with them. But here at home, we still seem to live in the illusion that no one could want to smash the civilization we have painstakingly built. In "Homeland Security? Not Yet", Heather Mac Donald tries to wake us up. Though terrorists quite publicly announce their intention to kill us in our own country, we still behave as if it’s a 9/10 world, failing to secure our porous borders, allowing political correctness to trump airline security, and not focusing domestic counter-terrorism efforts on the specifically Islamic terrorism that we are fighting. Meanwhile, as Peter Huber and Mark P. Mills explain, with a lucidity that makes complexity simple, our advanced urban civilization—with its banks, hospitals, computers, and the like—depends on the most exquisitely sophisticated network of power plants and transmission lines, and they offer some sound suggestions for stopping the terrorists from cutting the wires that keep the magnificent mechanism we have constructed humming.

Where does the evil that wants to destroy all this come from? Certainly history has had its share of religious fanatics whose transgression of the fundamental prohibitions, including "Thou shalt not kill," proves to them their special election and oneness with God. And certainly the last century has shown us entire regimes based on terror and killing. But as Theodore Dalrymple writes in "The Frivolity of Evil", you don’t need a totalitarian regime to promote a reign of terror; the potential for evil exists in every human heart. Civilization rests on the prohibitions that keep such impulses in check; and if a government relaxes the laws and conventions that promote self-restraint, evil flourishes, if only on the domestic scale, where every man tyrannizes his own wife and children. And so, writes Dalrymple, not a day has gone by in which he, as a doctor in a British slum, has not heard patients tell of children raped or beaten by their mothers’ boyfriends, of 14-year-olds turned out by their own mothers as being in the way of their new affair, of women having their arms broken by jealous lovers, and on and on. The family may be the "little platoon" on which the social order is based; but what kind of society produces families like these—or will be produced by them?

America has its own underclass with its own broken families, of course, but as Kay S. Hymowitz reports in "Dads in the ’Hood", there’s good news and bad news on this front. The good news: black America is starting to take seriously the state of the inner-city family, and ghetto dads are trying to be fathers to their kids. The bad news: the ghetto social structure won’t re-knit until the dads and the moms marry and commit to being real families—which isn’t yet happening.

The messages from above, where rock stars bear kids out of wedlock or judges tell us that any kind of ménage is fine, don’t help, of course. But not long ago, as Jonathan Rose shows in his moving "The Classics in the Slums", the poor profited from all the right messages from above, as contained in the great literary classics, which they hungrily devoured. The result: a working class often of high civilization and independent-mindedness; and, Rose reports, some inner-city teachers today get similar results by the same methods.

Finally, we present our vision for a new Far West Side of Manhattan, to advance still further the ongoing project of civilization and enlightenment.