NECESSARY, YES: AND
NOT NECESSARILY EVIL
Thoughts on Dissent and
its inherent Limitation
Saturday, December 3, 2011
by Richard E. Berg-Andersson
The very word is so often charged with no little emotion. A heroic word to many; a much disdained term to many others-- depending on the context, of course.
It derives from a combination of the Latin prefix dis- (signifying something that is "apart from [being]") and the Latin verb sentio ("to think, to discern; to perceive, to sense [itself related to sentio]"; indeed, "to feel" [in the context of "feelings" outside of those generated by mere touch])... a dissenter, therefore, is one who thinks, perceives, feels differently from some norm of a larger group.
Dissent, in fact, is the polar opposite of Assent (to agree [to]); thus: to dissent is to disagree, perhaps even most strongly!
The term first came into vogue in the modern English language within the realm of Religion, not Politics (although during an era of English History in which what might be religious still, very much, was political!)
While the Oxford English Dictionary notes political applications of the word 'Dissent' or 'Dissenter' as early as the mid-17th century (for example, the statement by Thomas Hobbes in the English translation of his treatise on Government, De cive, that "the City retains its primitive Right against the Dissenter, that is the Right of War, as against an Enemy" [!!]), the vast majority of the definitions of same in the classic Turn of the Last Century OED deal with religious, and not political, dissent and, indeed, in the very late 16th century on into earliest decades of the 17th, Dissenter was, indeed, a religious designation!
In the England of just prior to the Puritan Rebellion, a 'Dissenter' was one who was a member of a (Protestant) congregation that had ceased to be in fullest communion with the established Church of England (such would come to be formally, as well as legally, defined as so-called "Protestant Dissenters" in the Toleration Act of 1689 adopted in Parliament in the immediate wake of the so-called 'Glorious Revolution' which had replaced James II on the throne with William of Orange and his wife, James' daughter Mary); those who remained members of the Church of England but refused to partake of certain practices of High Anglicanism were, at around the same time, designated 'Nonconformists' (these, too, had been formally, and legally, codified as such in the Uniformity Act of 1662 adopted in the wake of the earlier Stuart Restoration, which declared that anyone not fully accepting that which was contained in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer was such a "Nonconformist" and, thereby, no longer entitled to membership in the Church of England or to receive its sacraments: as regarded English Protestants, therefore, Nonconformists were in pretty much the same boat as Dissenters and, indeed, over time the two terms became, more or less, interchangeable in everyday English speech... as for English Catholics, these would be regarded [by Anglicans in particular, but also by English Protestants- of whatever type- in general] as, essentially, Christian 'heretics' [at least until the Relief Act of 1791 specifically referred to "Protesting Catholic Dissenters"-- therefore: in a sense, by the end of the 18th Century, Roman Catholics in England had become- at least under Law (where not also rather oxymoronically!)- the "new protestants"!]).
As far as American History might be concerned, however, the principal distinction between the two terms was this: the "separatist" Puritans (those who felt that the only way to have a "pure" Christianity, as they themselves saw it, was to secede from the Established Church)- among which were those who came to be known, by Americans, as the so-called "Pilgrim Fathers" who founded the colony of New Plymouth on the New England coast in 1620/1621 - would, at the time the Mayflower first anchored off of Cape Cod, have been called 'Dissenters'; meanwhile, however: the "independent" Puritans (those who sought to remain within the Church of England in what turned out to be, to their minds, a vain attempt to "purify" Anglicanism from within)- among whom would be those who first settled the colony of Massachusetts Bay in 1629/1630- were, at the same time, known as 'Nonconformists' (and, as already noted: under English Law, this remained a legal distinction- and, presumably, one at least theoretically enforceable in England's own colonies [however much it might actually not have been so enforced]- until 1662).
Indeed, it would be in what became the United States of America that the religious concept of the 'Dissenter' would first give way to the political notion of the same term. Even though the American Constitution's own emphatic pronouncement- in its First Amendment- that Congress shall make no Law respecting an Establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the Free Exercise thereof;... did not immediately trump laws already in place mandating an Established Church in a given State of the American Union (or, at the very least, allowing- this more generally being the practice in the New England States- the local community itself to determine [at its quintessential 'Town Meeting'] just which congregation therein might be supported by the local taxpayers, regardless of a given taxpayer's own religious inclinations [or might just such a-- well-- "dissenter" be seen- by a plurality, if not a majority, in his own town(ship)- as the more having odder religious "proclivities"?]), taxpayer support of Church at the behest of the State was already, as the American Republic itself waxed in the immediate wake of Independence, very much on the wane (as a practical matter- despite [in several cases] laws remaining, for a time, on the books allowing for various forms of de jure Church Establishment- most of those among the "original 13" that had had Established Churches during the Colonial Period [only 3 of the 13- Delaware, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island- had never had formal Establishment by Law] had de facto functionally abandoned the practice during the Revolution; of those which had not: South Carolina formally ended Establishment in 1790; Connecticut in 1818 [when it, finally, replaced its old colonial Charter with a bona fide State Constitution] and Massachusetts, the last (believe it or not! [;-)]), in 1833 [although, technically, Establishment per se had been done away with in the Commonwealth's Constitution of 1780, eligible voters were originally still required to belong to a church and, thereby, be taxed- under State oversight- by one's chosen denomination; objections that this merely "established" Congregationalism- the dominant denomination in 'ye olde Commonwealth' throughout its earliest decades- led to even this practice being abolished that year]).
This difference in context can be clearly see in the fact that- while Sir William Blackstone, when he used the term 'Dissenter' in Book IV of his famous Commentaries on the Laws of England (a work that had no little influence on American Law, even after Independence) was solely referring to religious dissenters (and only Protestant dissenters at that)- an edition of Noah Webster's equally famous American Dictionary of the English Language from a mere six decades later leads off its definitions of the word 'DISSENT' with a decidedly non-religious description-- to wit: "to disagree in opinion; to differ; to think in a different or contrary manner" (likewise, as well as contemporaneously with Webster's work, Chancellor James Kent's Commentaries on American Law [which, interestingly, would become almost as influential on English Law as Blackstone had already become in America] do not refer to religious dissent at all [it being taken as a "given", by Kent, that, despite the history of religious establishment throughout the Colonial Period (which Kent most fully outlined), full Freedom of Worship without State Compulsion was already the Law of the Land, throughout the several States, by his own time]; instead, Kent's "dissenters" [insofar as Law might be most concerned] would be those who were- and are- availing themselves of their constitutionally guaranteed Freedom of Speech and of the Press and of peaceable Assembly, not Freedom of Religion!)
Yes, there is a point to my having so outlined the concept of Dissent within Religion in Anglo-American History above and that is this: that Dissent within the context of Politics took no little time to emerge from out of the shadow of the religious definition(s) of 'Dissenter" and, further, that- once Dissent had so ceased to be (at least from a legal, even constitutional [as opposed to, say, a social and cultural], perspective) religious in the earliest days of an American Union constitutionally committed (on the State, as well as the Federal, level) to the lack of an Established Church and was, from that time on, to be purely political in nature- the relationship of Dissenter to the larger Society had also, by very definition, significantly changed.
For, while determining Dissent is relatively simple where there is an established (or, at least, normative) theology, once Dissent has moved most fully into the political realm within Free Society (in which there is no established ideology: despite the most fervent wishes of the hard-core ideologue on either side of the political divide), the situation becomes much more complicated. Indeed, today's "Establishment" (which, despite the wide use of that well-worn term, is never so firmly established in a country like the USofA) might very well have been yesterday's Dissenters; meanwhile: today's Dissenters might very well become tomorrow's Establishment (against which others will then have to engage in Dissent)!
In his book God and Gold (subtitled Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World), Walter Russell Mead sees three poles of opinion at work within an American political and legal (thus, constitutional) culture that owes much (or so I myself have opined, from time to time [albeit often in mere passing], in my own essays for this very website) to Britain- denominating (yes, I have here used this word purposely) these as: Reason, Revelation and Tradition. In a dynamic society (a concept Mead himself admits is borrowed from the works of such as Henri Bergson and Karl Popper) such as the American, these three poles of opinion are counterpoised, one against the others, in Politics as much as they might be within Religion.
[Or, for that matter, in Law:
for Mead's three poles dovetail rather well with the three underpinnings of basic Legal Hermeneutics- the methods (often described as "rules") of Statutory Construction- used, by American courts, to interpret the text of a statute, administrative rule or regulation, even a constitutional provision: Plain Meaning of said text (which would be the "Reason" element); Intent of the Framers (or Drafters) of the provision (which would be the equivalent of "Revelation", here understood to be- in an equivalent religious context- that derived from the doctrine that emerged out of the Protestant Reformation known as sola scriptura ["by scripture alone"]); and Legal Custom (which would be the "Tradition" element of Legal Hermeneutics).
Some might even see something of a connection to the Separation of Powers (political) doctrine as it has been applied within the very system of American governance as a whole here!: as the Legislature makes laws (the very "scripture" that becomes the basis of Revelation [it can be fairly argued that the mix of Public Opinion that is chewed upon by both houses of a State legislature or the Federal Congress is, in and of itself, largely nonrational]); the Executive enforces said laws (Reasonably, at least one hopes!); and the Judiciary applies these laws to cases and controversies that might (but, then again, might not!) come before the courts (enforcing "Tradition" through the [legal] doctrine of stare decisis ["to stand by that already decided"]-- that is: legal Precedent)...
of course, there is ever-lurking danger in taking such analogies (for that is merely what the above are-- always keeping in mind the adage within Logic that Analogy is Illustration, never Proof) too far, for someone could- just as well- see much the same connection with, say, the id, ego and superego of more than a century ago Sigmund Freud!]
Such counterpoise is as much a creative tension as it is a balance, for the danger is that one if these elements might well become dominant (or, at the very least, predominant) and, thereby, potentially change the society from a dynamic one to one that is the more static: all too much Reason would lead to a nightmare of Law as, perhaps, top-down bureaucratic pronouncements (many of those nowadays agitating on behalf of Revelation and/or Tradition even argue that this has already happened); all too much Revelation would take society well down the road of Theocracy (and both Reason and Tradition- in, say, the form of libertarian constitutionalism [which seeks to restore American Jurisprudence to the so-called "Ratifier Understanding" of circa 1791: the year the United States Constitution, including the additional Ten Amendments generally known as the 'Bill of Rights', was first fully in effect]- today seek to well trump that); all too much Tradition (and here I speak of that which even libertarian constitutionalists cannot well stomach) might well lead to a society of social (as opposed to malleable [through Upward Mobility] economic) class, where not even- Heaven forfend!- hard caste.
Dissent, then, can be seen as a political vehicle through which those most strongly adhering to one element- whether they be Rationalist, Religious or staunchest Defenders of Tradition- can attempt to keep the other two at bay; indeed, from time to time, two of the poles can be seen to be (however inadvertently) pushing back together against a third pole that has seemingly become all too powerful for its time. For instance, both the movement of so-called 'Tea Party' conservatives and the liberal-to-Left 'Occupy Wall Street' movement of this 2009 through 2012 Presidential Election cycle can be so seen as being opposed (albeit with differing ideas as to how best to apply said opposition) to a Financial System which- in the eyes of each movement- has become too predominant within the politics of both Major Parties and, by extension, the greater American Society as a whole.
Arnold Toynbee, a British philosopher of History best known for his multi-volume A Study of History, postulated therein a notion that great Civilizations come into being primarily in order to allow a culture of large enough population to better respond to a challenge- which might be either physical (that is: from the natural environment: for instance, ancient Egyptian Civilization coming into being in order to better- indeed, more efficiently- utilize the Spring floods of the Nile Valley for agrarian purpose throughout an otherwise arid land) or social (resulting from the collapse of an earlier Civilization: for example, Western Civilization rising from the ashes of defunct Graeco-Roman 'Classical' Civilization).
Interestingly, Mead himself gives Toynbee rather short shrift in God and Gold, lumping Toynbee in with such as Oswald Spengler (whose Der Untergang des Abendlandes [which, despite the direct translation of the German being 'the Twilight of the Evening Lands', came to be known, in the English-speaking world, as The Decline of the West] was already something of a 'rage' by the time Toynbee first embarked on what would become his life's work) and, thereby, relegating Toynbee to the group of those- including Spengler- who simply saw the decline of a Civilization as inevitable (for his part, Spengler not only compared Civilizations to living organisms- with a like cycle of birth, maturity, decline and death; he, further, also postulated that the period of time for each such phase was just about the same in each and every Civilization throughout History! [and this is all something Toynbee would very soon come to reject])
There is- to be fair- much to criticize in Toynbee: his methodology is, at times, suspect (at one point- to take just one example- he cites, as "proof" of one of his key conceptions, the ability to respond to that harsh environment encountered by early New Englanders [except that Puritan New England was not, in and of itself, alone a 'Civilization'!]) and, indeed, his very conclusions- regardless of problematic methodology re: his so reaching these- seemed to change considerably over time as his work proceeded (he even tinkered with the very number, as well as the make-up, of his 'Civilizations' throughout History as he himself had defined them over the half-century he was most active [1925 (when he first began formally writing A Study of History) up through his death in 1975]).
In his own defense, Toynbee would- late in life- note that what he had been doing in his trying to understand the very dynamics behind the rise and fall of Civilizations took up. as it turned out, his entire lifetime (indeed: he would be excoriated by the more conservative for, say, his notions that the West had more adverse impact upon other Civilizations than they on the West [this at the very height of the Cold War, by the way]; by secular liberals for his later insistence that the very salvation of a dying Civilization was Religion itself; and by economic conservatives- towards the end of his life- for his notion that adverse affects upon the natural environment greatly contributed to the decline of Civilization [in fact: the very last work of the Toynbee "canon", as it were, was entitled Mankind and Mother Earth, published posthumously]): thus, 'truth' as he first saw it as a still relatively young man [he was 36 in 1925] had ever been transformed, over and over again, through the wisdom acquired via aging and- or so he would argue- his life's writings should best be seen in that very context.
Moreover, Toynbee would likely have fairly bristled at having been so summarily lumped in with Spengler by the likes of Mead! Indeed, in explaining the origins of what became his life's work, Toynbee himself noted that- although, at first reading The Decline of the West, he honestly thought Spengler had very well addressed the very nature of History Toynbee himself had only just begun seriously thinking about- he, upon subsequently re-reading Spengler's tome, came to see inherent flaws in Spengler's thesis, especially those (as already noted earlier in this piece) in which Spengler seemed to equate civilizational with biological processes (likewise: Toynbee would not have all that much appreciated a textbook on Philosophy prevalent during my own university days [these being the mid-to-late 1970s] in which the author- in his chapter on 'the Meaning of History'- attempted to link Toynbee's concept of Civilizations to what this same author called the "experiential thread" within the life of an individual!). To Toynbee, Civilizations were not alive- they were not born; therefore, they did not live and die in much the same manner as plants, animals and human beings: and it was this mental dispute with the likes of Spengler that caused Toynbee to embark on his own A Study of History in the first place!
I myself will confess to no little influence from Arnold Toynbee (as opposed to Oswald Spengler, who is merely interesting to me [ever since I first came upon his thesis as a youth in an essay postulating that Spengler could well be used to analyze the (far in the future) events described in a series of science fiction novels by James Blish later grouped together as Cities in Flight]): indeed, I even used the concept of "World"s (my own equivalent of Toynbee's 'Civilizations' [here using this term in the sense it is used in such phrases as "the Western World" or "the Islamic World", etc.]) in a piece for this website almost a decade ago now!
But please know, gentle reader, that (no less than might be the case with any other source of intellectual curiosity for me) such "influence" is, most assuredly, not mere blind loyalty to his concepts!...
for I also do not think (nor have I ever thought) that Toynbee is The ANSWER (as, so very clearly, neither is Spengler!); instead, Toynbee's A Study of History (along with his other more or less related writings) is- no less than the work of many other writers on this same subject of "what is History?" (including, yes, even the writings of Oswald Spengler!)- but a tool that might well be utilized- so long as one fairly keeps in mind the very limitations of so using such a tool- to try and examine elements within what has often, quite poetically, been referred to as "the stream of History" and, as is the case with my so applying Toynbee herein, thereby answering the question "what really makes Society 'tick'?".
Toynbee thought that, once a Civilization (or, if you will, "World" [in my sense of the term]) became established as such by successfully responding to an initial (again, physical [environmental] or social [politicoeconomic and/or technological]) challenge that required what was otherwise a mere isolated culture to transmogrify into a Civilization to begin with, new challenges would then arise to which a response by that Civilization would now be required: therefore, in Toynbee's thesis, Civilizations continued to be dynamic (there's that word again! [though Toynbee himself never used it])- that is: continued to progress, even thrive- so long as such a response to any new challenges were, indeed, successful and (more to the point) even newer challenges were thereby generated by the very success of a given response (challenges to which yet another response on the part of the Civilization would thereafter be required).
What's important to consider here, as regards this piece of mine, in Toynbee's concept of that "Meaning of History" is the actual working of such a cycle of challenge- response- challenge- response- challenge, etc. In Toynbee's view, some kind of a leadership cadre in a field of endeavor most relevant to the problems engendered by a given challenge to the Civilization would be the primary responders to that challenge; this leadership cadre (which I will call an "elite"-- though please note, gentle reader, that Toynbee himself never called it that: to Toynbee, it was simply a "minority" of the population of the given Civilization)- which was not necessarily a political elite (it could very well be, say, an elite of economists/financiers [or their equivalent in the ancient World]- or of scientists/engineers- or even of priests and associated clergy: all depended on the nature of the particular challenge so requiring a response)- would devise that which would prove to be able to respond to the challenge of the day and the masses (that is: the rank-and-file of the ordinary, everyday people of the Civilization) would willingly (key word there!) take part in that response... there was no need for coercion... the "experts" simply would- because they could- be trusted.
Toynbee called this process mimesis (borrowing a term- derived from Greek- that Western philosophers had long used to mean "to imitate" [but as a group, not merely as an individual]: perhaps better, "to resemble"; in ancient Greek thought, however, it primarily referred to artistic "representation") and, so long as more or less voluntary mimesis took place, the elite that was so being followed by the populace was- in Toynbee's words- a "creative minority". Once the difficulties posed by a given challenge had abated as a result of the Civilization so successfully responding to it and a new challenge for the Civilization had already begun to arise (more often than not, said challenge would be of a wholly different type than the immediately preceding challenge), those who had come up with the response to that immediately preceding challenge would have to give way to a new leadership cadre (almost certainly of a different type)- a new "creative minority"- which would be more relevant to any response to the latest challenge.
Problems, however, would begin for the Civilization (put another way: the Civilization would begin its rather long road of decline and decay before outright collapse and ruin) when a given elite (again: my term, not Toynbee's own) that had, in fact, successfully responded to a challenge (and, again, had managed to get the People to voluntarily emulate said response) would come to think that it, in and of itself, was the only elite capable of handling any future challenge(s)- even where this elite was, in effect, the "wrong" one to come up with the best response to a new challenge: the People, sensing this, would begin to be less inclined to emulate the response created by the "wrong" elite and the elite in question would then have to utilize coercion (in forms ranging from "incentives"- that which, nowadays, is often decried as "social engineering"- to outright force-politics [potentially leading to political Absolutism and/or dictatorship]) in order to get the rank and file of the society to engage in the response so being pushed by what is now the "wrong" elite. When this situation appeared within a given Civilization, it had entered what Toynbee called a "Time of Troubles" and what was once a "creative minority" was now, instead, a "dominant minority" stubbornly refusing to give up power (which, again, might not necessarily be political in nature).
One need not be concerned all that much here with Toynbee's thesis as regards the subsequent direction of a Civilization that has so entered its 'Time of Troubles': suffice it to say (if only to be complete) that- in Toynbee's view- the coercion of the masses by a "wrong" elite- his "dominant minority"- trying to maintain itself as such would eventually only lead to the creation- by (or, at least, on behalf) of said elite- of what he himself termed a 'Universal State' (that is: an 'Empire'- as in, for example, the Roman Empire) which might actually maintain itself for decades, if not even centuries, thereafter (as once did the aforementioned Roman Empire itself) despite having exhausted its fullest flower of creativity at the highest levels of society (all while the rest of that society is pretty much left to fend for themselves), before collapsing more or less under its own weight (a Civilization so collapsing being, in and of itself, a new "social challenge" to, perhaps, later be successfully responded to by a new nascent Civilization [as did the West itself in response to the so-called 'Dark Ages' existing in the wake of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire]).
'OK, Rich'- the reader of this piece might well be forgiven for now thinking- 'what does whatever this Toynbee dude thought have to do with Dissent?'
It is this (keeping in mind here Toynbee's notion that the "wrong" elite so maintaining its power in the face of a challenge with which that elite is incompetent to deal is, in essence, the "trigger mechanism" for events possibly portending the eventual decline of a society): Dissent can fairly be seen as the very mechanism that Free Society has come up with to- as they say on the streets- "call out" what might, indeed, be the "wrong" elite!
Put another way: Dissent keeps just such an elite- a "creative minority" that has just (at least seemingly) successfully led a societal response to a serious challenge to that society but which now seeks to become Toynbee's "dominant minority"- honest and may, in fact, even help stop the "wrong" elite from at all prevailing in maintaining its power and, instead, push it to make way to an elite far more fitting for the task at hand (that is- in a Toynbeesque analysis: through the society as a whole- again, via voluntary mimesis- responding successfully to a challenge to which the "wrong" elite simply can't so well respond).
Indeed, Toynbee himself thought that a "creative minority" being kept from becoming a "dominant minority" by some mechanism within the population of the Civilization as a whole (and, again, Dissent might be- in modern Free Society- just such a mechanism) was not all that uncommon and, in fact, A Study of History takes into account a series of rout-rally-rout-rally-rout- etc. and potentially ad infinitum- within the Civilization that prevents it from even going into that phase Toynbee calls the "Universal State" (which only comes into being when the masses have already turned their backs on [thereby, unwilling to engage in mimesis of] a powerful elite that has already exhausted its creative force and, thus, has to rely on mere dominance in order to remain in power); decline of the Civilization is, therefore, not necessarily inevitable (and, whereas Spengler saw the West [his 'Evening Lands'] already well in a 'Twilight' signifying its inexorable Decline, Toynbee- instead- came to regard the future of the West with at least that which can best be described as a "guarded" prognosis; not only, unlike Spengler, did Toynbee not see Decline of the West as inevitable: he also did not think any such decline as might be evident was at all irreversible!)
[There, by the way, is also the issue- directly related to the context of this very Commentary- as to whether or not 'America' is itself a Civilization apart from 'the West' (along the lines of Max Lerner's 1957 work America as a Civilization): in the 30th Anniversary edition of Lerner's tome (published, obviously, in 1987), Lerner tells of an exchange he himself had with Toynbee in the early 1960s during which he failed to at all convince Toynbee of his thesis that, indeed, America was (and, while noting the explosion of 'American Studies' departments at colleges and universities- not only here in the USofA but also abroad- during the first decades after the original publication of his book, Lerner acknowledged- in the aforementioned subsequent edition- that considering 'America' apart from 'the West' was- at that time- yet controversial [truth be told: it still is, now nearly a quarter century later than that!]).
From a purely Toynbeesque perspective, one would- of course- have to fairly answer the question as to what challenge(s) posed by the West in general would 'America' in particular have then been a successful response (or responses): doubtless, however, a case could very well be made for Lerner's thesis on these very grounds. But, as far as this Commentary might be concerned, the important thing to note here is that a decline of the West might, thereby, not necessarily imply the decline of 'America' (however one defines this) at one and the same time in any event!]
But- ay!- here's the rub and it is one which provides us with a rather serious limitation on Dissent and one that very often puts pay to Dissent's own efficacy: for there is no way to really know whether or not the elite in question is, indeed, the "wrong" one (as nobody- Dissenter or no- can know the future). It is merely the opinion of the Dissenter that those in a position of power- again, not necessarily (nor merely) political power, but also (perhaps) economic/financial power and/or scientific/technological power- are incompetent to deal with the latest challenges (whether real or merely apparent) to the society from which might emerge Dissent at a given time.
Mead's God and Gold (despite its having so given Arnold Toynbee rather short shrift, as already noted above) seemingly shares Toynbee's "guarded optimism" about the future of the West (at least a West with America generally leading the way); the same might also fairly be said for such as George Friedman, the founder of STRATFOR, in his recent works The Next 100 Years and The Next Decade: in the minds of both, America will, indeed, face serious economic and geopolitical challenges (in Friedman's view, from some- to the observer now in the second decade of the 21st Century- rather surprising places by century's end) but there is no reason to presume that America- and, by extension, the Western World- can do nothing but ultimately fail to overcome these.
By contrast, writers such as Niall Ferguson in many of his works over the past decade (his latest being Civilization: the West and the Rest in the Preface to which Ferguson argues against historians even attempting to postulate what he calls "universal laws of social and political 'physics' " in order to- in the manner of scientists- try and come up with a predictive system of History [in essence, a critique of such as Spengler and Toynbee (although Toynbee was certainly not as "predictive" as Spengler with the latter's ever-repeating cycles of relatively equal length in Civilization after Civilization)]) and CNN moderator/commentator Fareed Zakaria, author of The Post-American World (in which Zakaria puts forth the notion of "the rise of the Rest" [a neat pun on historian William McNeill's seminal mid-20th century work The Rise of the West], see the current ending of American- and, by extension, Western- ascendancy: to these, 'the Rest' (at least those outside, say, the abject poverty of much of sub-Saharan Africa) have caught up to 'the West' and are, thereby, on the verge of- if these have not already done so- surpassing it in economic and geopolitical (if not also cultural and social) influence.
Yet neither a Mead nor a Ferguson, a Friedman nor a Zakaria (nor especially a cybercommentator like one Richard E. Berg-Andersson, for that matter!), can know which prognostication- which forecast(s) or outlook(s)- of theirs might actually come to pass. And if these historians and/or geopolitical analysts (along with countless others like them) cannot so know then certainly those "on the ground"- arguing in (hopefully) peaceful assembly under the rubric of Dissent for their own vision of "what to do (or not to do) next?"- cannot so know the future either! In Toynbeeseque terms (if only for the sake of this particular Commentary): are we in America now well into a 'Time of Troubles' (perhaps even poised on the verge of a 'Universal State'-- even a Spenglerian Imperium)?-- or, instead, is this era merely another 'rout' from which the West might yet again 'rally', keeping a potentially "dominant minority" at bay and, thereby, allowing a "creative minority" to successfully respond to the challenge(s) of moment posed to the West in general, and America in particular, via popular mimesis?
In an age (one that actually seems, in retrospect, to have taken up most of my own lifetime [and I am already in my mid-50s as of this typing]) in which the "experts" in America and the West (from whichever of Mead's three poles of opinion- Reason, Revelation or Tradition- these may have come) are hardly listened to, let alone much respected- one in which the quintessential 'Conspiracy Theory' attempts to make (and, in all too many cases, succeeds in making [!]) up in width of dissemination what it so sorely lacks in depth of data and its concomitant analysis- it seems increasingly hard to tell.