On Independence Day, I like to reflect on the historical improbability of my circumstance. I could have been born in a different place, at a different time. If I had been, I almost certainly would have lived a life of relative suffering. I might have been born in pre-history and been prey to giant birds, snakes, and cats. Or, I might have been lucky enough to be born in a stable civilization, like Ancient Rome, where I would have been drafted into a legion and sent away from home to fight fearsome warriors in hand-to-hand combat at the edge of the known world. If I were luckier still, I might have been born at the turn of the 20th century and found myself clutching a rifle in a trench in France, hoping that the next shell would land anywhere but on top of me.
Instead, I was born in the freest and most prosperous country mankind has ever known. A place where our national identity is based not on blood, as is the norm throughout history, but on principle. The principle that all men are created equal. Not only was I born here, but I was also born now, at a time where we are closer to realizing that principle than any civilization that has ever come before. We must always work to improve what we have been given for the next generation, as our ancestors have for us. But we must do so with gratitude and perspective, understanding that no one has ever had it better than Americans in the 21st century.
I am sure that today we will hear from those who would describe universal human faults as uniquely American. As Thomas Sowell wrote,
“Intellectuals have largely ignored or downplayed the things in which Americans lead the world — including philanthropy, technology, and the creation of life-saving medical advances — and treated the errors, flaws and shortcomings that Americans share with human beings around the world as special defects of ‘our society.’”
These critics lack perspective on how recently humans have woken up from an ancient and bloody past, and how fleeting our civilization might prove to be. We should appreciate what we have while we have it.
Civilization is a recent development. Anatomically modern humans evolved approximately 200,000 years ago. As best we can tell, the first complex civilization (characterized by writing, urban development, and a centralized governing structure) arose in Mesopotamia around 5,000 years ago. To put this in perspective, let us consider how many generations have passed between the dawn of civilization and now. If we measure a generation as 25 years (approximately the time it takes for children to grow up, become adults, and have children), 200 generations have passed since civilization began. Considering the 8,000 generations since modern humans evolved, we have been living in civilization for one-quarter of one percent of our total existence.
Ten generations have passed since America’s founding in 1776. That is about three and a half lifetimes.
Now let us compare that to a few ancient civilizations to get a sense of how long these things tend to last.
- Egyptian Civilization: 125 generations, 43 lifetimes
- Mesopotamian Civilization: 120 generations, 41 lifetimes
- Indus Valley Civilization: 56 generations, 19 lifetimes
- Roman Civilization: 40 generations, 14 lifetimes
If we consider America to be a new and unique civilization, it is relatively young. If we consider America to be a part of the Christian-European civilization, it is considerably older. If we arbitrarily date the beginning of some sort of pan-European Christian identity at 800 AD at the formation of the Holy Roman Empire, America is the heir to a civilizational tradition that has lasted, thus far, for about 50 generations. Depending on how we date it, we could be at the beginning or nearing the end of our own civilization, if history is any indication.
Why does any of this matter? Because history is shorter than we often realize. The academic study of history necessitates a myopic focus on a particular subject. Historians select a small portion of available facts and place them in an easily understood narrative context. Many historians labor admirably to update our body of knowledge with new discoveries, providing us with an ever more colorful picture of the past. But narrow the focus too much and the facts lose their ability to provide insight. A treatise on the origins and methods of animal husbandry in ancient Egypt, for example, does not shed much light on the human condition. There seems to be almost no correlation at all between the increasingly detailed historical articles collecting dust in academic journals and our public understanding of history. This is because our public discourse on history is not about gaining a much-needed perspective on current events. Rather, history is merely another front in the all-consuming culture war that threatens to tear our civilization apart.
Civilizations collapse when they stop believing in their own exceptionalism. When you understand that your way of life is better than any existing alternative, you will do whatever it takes to defend it. You will continue to pass down to your children an appreciation for their cultural inheritance. When this stops happening, a civilization is open to destruction from within and without. Other nations, out of confidence or necessity, will test borders and boundaries to find weak points. If you do not believe you are the best, why should anyone else? Internally, generations not raised to appreciate the historical improbability of their civilization will not bother to maintain it. They might actively seek to tear it down. After all, the total entropy of the universe is continually increasing.
Today you will hear that because America has not yet become the first society of all time to achieve perfect racial harmony, its founding principles and the institutions which arose from them are irrevocably tainted. A thousand years from now, as centuries of our history are condensed into a few paragraphs, historians might write that America never atoned for its original sin of slavery. But those of us who lived in the wake of heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and A. Phillip Randolph know the truth. For a brief moment, young Americans learned to treat each other as individuals, rather than see each other as members of a racial group. We did our best to keep the lofty promises, first formulated and simultaneously broken, in our founding documents. Do not let those who stand to benefit politically and culturally erase the legitimate progress of the last 60 years. It is an insult to the memory of the great men and women from whom we inherited the greatest civilization the world has ever known.
Happy Independence Day.