Remember when pundits and cultural commentators celebrated the end of history? They cheered the “no going back” view of a globalized village, and cooperative cultures and markets. Yes, there was such a time.
Yet, in the middle of all the giddiness author Jane Jacobs darkly predicted a coming age of urban crisis, mass amnesia, and populist backlash in her 2005 book, Dark Age Ahead, published one year before her death.
Reading the book today is terrifying, because like everything else Jacobs wrote, it’s all coming to pass in today’s history.
As Richard Florida, editor of The Atlantic points out, points out, “Jacobs outlines an increasing distrust of politicians and politics, a burgeoning new urban crisis in cities, worsening environmental degradation, entrenched segregation, and an ‘enlarging gulf between rich and poor along with attrition of the middle class’ as signals and symptoms of a coming Dark Age.”
And how does Jacobs’ Dark Age continue? “Cultural xenophobia is a frequent sequel to a society’s decline from cultural vigor,” as “self-imposed isolation” leads to “a fortress mentality,” she writes.
This turns logic into myth, Jacobs wrote, with a philosophy that “looks backward to fundamentalist beliefs for guidance and a worldview.”
So, Jacob asks, “how and why can a people so totally discard a formerly vital culture that it becomes literally lost?”
She provides the answer in the rise of “mass amnesia.” The notion of a widespread, “permanent and profound” society-wide loss of memory, which seemed crazy when she wrote the book, seems suddenly all too real in our world of Trump and Brexit, a world where every new outrage quickly leads to another, where facts have no meaning, and where rational itself is suspect.
One problem in particular occurs with “the subversion of the ‘learned professions’ such as medicine, law, architecture, engineering and journalism. We cannot possibly learn every facet of the world, so professions are needed to instill trust and maintain common welfare. Doctors, for example, adhere to a Hippocratic Oath. Lawyers have ethical requirements to adhere to. When such professions come under attack and their norms and functions are undermined, Jacobs notes, society falls victim to the whims of ‘frauds, brutes, and psychopaths.’”
Before she died in 2006, Jacobs begged us to do everything in our power to protect ourselves from the forces of top-down power and mass amnesia that would destroy our communities and the “pillars of human civilization.”
If ever we are to listen take the advise of a genius like Jane Jacobs, now is the time. Because history never ended. It’s just repeating itself.