Bumpy Road Ahead

Experience teaches us that when we are approached on the street by a man carrying a sign announcing the end is near, we should do two things: give the guy a wide berth and don't believe a word he says. But what if the person carrying the sign turns out to be a highly respected social critic or a noted cultural historian? Maybe we should stick around and listen up.

Back when Jane Jacobs published "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" in 1961, city planners and traffic engineers did their best to laugh her out of town. In the intervening decades, we have come to see the wisdom of almost everything she had to say about neighborhoods as the pulse and soul of city life. So when Jacobs hits us with a new book--her seventh and most accessible--titled "Dark Age Ahead," arguing that we're stumbling into the same cultural decline that befell the Roman Empire, we at least know enough to put our skepticism on hold. And when Samuel P. Huntington tells us in "Who Are We?" that massive Latino immigration threatens the fabric of American culture, we may find his ideas distasteful, but we know better than to walk out on the guy who argued in the early '90s that the next global battles would be fought over culture and religion.

Jacobs begins her book with a dour but arresting thought: dark ages are a lot more common than we might think. On this very continent, 20 million aboriginals died--mostly through disease--and their cultures were scrapped when Europeans overran the place. Moreover, what's lost is often lost forever. She goes on to target five crucial weak spots in the foundation of contemporary life in the West: taxes; community and family; higher education; science and technology; and the lack of self-policing by learned professions. It's an odd list, but she argues that these problems lie behind more conventional trouble spots: the environment, crime and the discrepancy between rich and poor.

Her most persuasive and far-reaching chapter dissects the threats to families and communities. Modern families are, in her words, "rigged to fail." While housing costs put home ownership increasingly out of reach for people of average incomes, suburban sprawl degrades communities. As for the automobile's role in this, don't get her started. Or, rather, please do: no one is more eloquently enraged on the subject. "Not TV or illegal drugs but the automobile has been the chief destroyer of American communities," she says. In the early decades of the last century, buses, streetcars and jitneys once serviced even cities of modest size in America, before the automobile industry conspired to run them out of business. The lack of public transportation places a further burden on the poor and greatly increases pollution and sprawl. In every case, the idea of community suffers. Jacobs has always championed neighborhoods. Now she has extended her ideas about community to include the culture at large.

Jacobs can be distressingly brusque when it comes to shoring up her arguments with examples, particularly when she tackles the ills of science and technology. Huntington, on the other hand, occasionally threatens to drown his reader with statistical evidence. Like Jacobs, he worries that our culture is in peril--although he limits his arguments to American society, and his villains are quite different from hers. He's mostly worried about massive immigration--particularly of Hispanics--and bilingualism. "Without national debate or conscious decision," he writes, "America is being transformed into what could be a very different society from what it has been." He fears that we are straying from a culture united by a single language, a constitutional government and a belief in Anglo-Protestant verities into an America split down the middle: two cultures with two languages and no thought for the assimilationist ethic that has always characterized the nation. Yet elites of all stripes, divorced in thought and feeling from the rest of the country, also worry him--even though he's not some right-wing nativist but a self-professed liberal.

The problem with Huntington's book is not what he includes but what he leaves out. American culture is a cloudier concept than he wants to admit: it's about more than just religion, language and civic institutions. He omits any consideration of America's arts and popular culture, an ever-changing stew pot of influences that is surely as significant as our sociopolitical system. No one would ever argue that American music is the child of WASP culture -- more often than not, it was created by people who wouldn't know the Mayflower from a moving van.

Different as these thinkers are, they are united on one point: a culture left to drift along on its own is almost sure to fail. But there is good news. As Jacobs points out, dark ages are not inevitable. Still, as she persuasively insists, a healthy culture demands full, hands-on participation by its members. "Most of the million details of a complex, living culture," Jacobs wisely observes, "are transmitted neither in writing nor pictorially. Instead, cultures live through word of mouth and example. That is why we have cooking classes and cooking demonstrations, as well as cookbooks." In other words, we need to talk.