We Are Living in the Ruins of Our Civilization

It is evening, very late evening. I am walking in the remains of what once was New York City. Broken trash bags and discarded clothing, furniture and debris line the sidewalks, spilling out onto the streets, the bags’ black plastic jerking and lurching as though some near-suffocated life within were struggling to break free of confinement. But I know it is only rats, still moving quickly and fearfully out of habitual wariness of the humans no longer around to challenge them. I traverse blocks of shuttered and abandoned storefronts, their housing-code-violating neon displays gone dark, the “For Rent” signs in the windows already faded and frayed. 

The first higher species of being I come across is only a shadow of any such description—a teetering, drooling zombie barely maintaining the accustomed vertical orientation of humanity—its head, neck, and back doubling over further and further, heavy eyelids drooping down time and again on the remaining vestiges of any consciousness to which it only weakly clings. I hear a dead moan as I pass. 

Others around have already given up the fight. In piles of rags and filth and the stench of their own excrement, they are laid out in corners and crevices. I navigate around one such specimen transecting the middle of the sidewalk, with the telltale final bottle capping off its drunken stupor still clasped in its gnarled fingers. Somewhere off a ways, another one is yelling something or just merely yelling, not something but nothing, a guttural scream. 

I know the unyielding ukase of my educated pedigree and those who share it is that empathy and compassion are the only sanctioned responses to this sorry spectacle. But that would require me to rationalize my way out of a feeling and override all my sound, sane animal instincts. Those instincts are of pre-cognitive repulsion and disgust, and I refuse to let them go. I refuse to humanize those who cannot be bothered to lift a finger to humanize themselves. The mentally ill need our care. The rest need the whip. In the long run, all of us—they most of all—will be thankful for it. 

I come upon a corner convenience store still open at this hour. Two brown bums are just outside, circumnavigating each other in a desultory dance, like ungainly insects going through the motions of a mating ritual both know will end in anticlimax. They are jabbing and jawing at one another, muttering simultaneously, casting unheard ravings into the wind. One pauses long enough to panhandle me as I cross the threshold, as the other looks on with a mix of meager curiosity and seeming incomprehension. I ignore them both, and they immediately resume their prior preoccupation. 

The store is standard-issue in every respect: Doritos, Oreos, Cheerios, and so on, a basket of overripe bananas, a few other assorted fruits and vegetables further back, chewing gum, cigarettes, microwaveable soup containers, Jell-O and other ready-mades, milk bottles and cartons, yogurts, cheese sticks. A tall, sunken-cheeked Arab behind the counter, his surgical mask beneath his chin, eyes me warily, crooks his mouth and licks his lips halfway across, then shifts his focus to another customer, a scraggly hipster, dressed in what appear to be pajamas, rummaging through pet food in back. I am overcome by the distinct intuition that he intends it for his own consumption. 

I need nothing in this store, did not need anything even when I ventured inside, cannot imagine ever needing anything here and hear in my head the transcendent warble of Pere Ubu’s David Thomas in “Heart of Darkness,” reaching out to me from an earlier epoch of urban collapse: “And I don’t see anything that I want / And I don’t see anything that I want.” I walk back out, feeling, without bothering to look to confirm, the Arab’s expression of contempt at having witnessed such a pointless spectacle. The two hobos are still mired in their ineffectual intercourse, the same one who’d hit me up earlier trying another go at it before quickly giving up.

Tunneling Through the Muck

The subway is on the next block, and there should be at least two or three more trains stopping here before the 1 a.m. post-pandemic subway curfew hits. I descend one flight of steps, turn the corner past the curled-up form at their base, take another flight down and arrive at the turnstiles by what I know no name for other than the manned “token booth,” though tokens have not existed in years, the function of dispensing their MetroCard replacements (themselves already on the way out) was ceded to machines long ago and, so far as I can tell, the individual “manning” these booths does little more than grudgingly give out occasional traveling directions. As though to prove the point, a young thug wearing an expensive jacket and sneakers rushes past me and vaults the turnstile, sagging jeans and all, and the bloated woman in the booth sits stone-faced. I flash my hands in a half-hearted “are you really gonna do nothing?” gesture. She fails to manifest so much as recognition.

I turn away, pay my fare, and go through. I think of the politicians who’ve betrayed us, who’ve shamelessly lied to us and told us that punishing fare evasion penalizes poverty, as if it’s the poverty of put-upon unfortunates rather than the apathy of an entire society that has led to a whopping 13.6 percent of subway riders not bothering to pay their fair share, costing the MTA nearly $40 million a year even as it faces a near-unprecedented budget crisis and contemplates fare increases that only we paying customers will have to shoulder. 

This is what this entire city, this nation, has become: a shrinking reserve of law-abiding citizens shouldering every burden for a growing mass of fat, lazy leeches, slugs, thugs, gangbangers, rule-breakers, whiners, and perpetual ne’er-do-wells comically beatified by walled-off, gated-away elites who never set foot in the subway and spin out contemporary fantasias on Rousseau’s theme of the “noble savage,” virtuous “oppressed,” “marginalized” and “vulnerable” victims heroically bearing their daily yoke while living in fear of the mythical, perpetual great white crackdown. This is our modern-day version of Joseph Goebbels’ “big lie”—an audacious, supremely ironic, 180-degree reversal of reality that only a well-off, sheltered, would-be white savior could possibly believe, blinded by opaque layers of ideology and inexperience borne of never having walked warily alone through a sketchy urban neighborhood at night. 

A moment’s reflection—bolstered, if need be, by reams of statistical data that would only prove the obvious—would reveal that we are the ones living in fear, of course. The chances that an unarmed civilian, regardless of his race, will be brutalized, much less killed, by police is vanishingly low (particularly if he avoids doing the kinds of things that tend to garner police attention) when weighed against the chances that that same blameless civilian passing through the same urban neighborhood will be the victim of a crime. 

The biggest duh-story of the past several years that somehow remains less than perfectly apparent to many muddle-headed blatherers today is that the far greater danger all of us face is from criminals, not from cops. But because that simple truism would tend to reverse the racial polarity of the media’s favored narrative, this is not a question facts and science can be brought into the picture to address. To do so would dispel the hysterical conspiracy theories on the Left—“systemic,” “institutional” and/or “structural” racism, “white supremacy” and so forth—that are the equivalent of Trump’s election fraud and his supporters’ Q-Anon conspiracies on the Right. 

The media has gotten adept at bedazzling us in a toxic cloud of numbers showing bare, decontextualized disproportions and disparities. A few puffs of fresh air in any direction are usually sufficient to dispel the miasma, but we are no longer up to the challenge. 

We have grown apathetic and complacent from too many decades of easy prosperity. We think we have earned the right to sit back, relax, and imbibe the never-ending infotainment industry spectacle that holds us in thrall and which, through its many social media tentacles, entangles us into becoming unreflective participants in the charade being perpetrated upon us. This is how we find ourselves living in our sick dystopia, an upside-down society in which high achievers are demonized as “privileged” rather than praised for being industrious and accomplished, while those who contribute the least to the common weal are lionized as “oppressed” rather than being condemned for being insufficiently motivated to better their lot. 

Another down staircase brings me to the subway platform. Naturally, the seats in the waiting area are occupied by more bums, one with a shopping cart full of bags and rags. Toward the far end of the platform I see the same young thug who’d jumped the turnstile now urinating against a supporting column. He is helping me illustrate the appeal of broken windows policing: the same people who are willing to break the law to sneak into the system without paying are likely to wreak havoc once they are inside. This is not anything a good, hard Singapore-style caning wouldn’t fix, but we in our first-world society are apparently too evolved and high-minded for that; we are, in fact, apparently too evolved and high-minded to do anything at all to fix the problem. So the citizens of Singapore get to enjoy near-perfect, First World public order while the citizens of our cities have to endure Third World turmoil and disorder. We have to suffer the stench of urine on our subway platforms, shameless litterers leaving accumulations of trash in our public spaces and the ever-present threat of crime, both petty and violent, in our streets and our public transit. 

As compensation for these notable inconveniences, we are told, we get to enjoy a level of liberty and free expression unavailable in the authoritarian societies of the East. But even if I were not to take into account the authoritarian crackdown on our core liberties undertaken by our state and local governments in the name of COVID-19 and the authoritarian crackdown on our core free expression undertaken by our universities and Silicon Valley behemoths in the name of policing “hate speech,” I would still not understand the connection: how would fining, caning, and jailing miscreants impinge on the liberty and free expression of law-abiding citizens? What exactly are we getting as compensation for tolerating this level of filth, crime, and disorder?

I go to stand near—or as near as post-pandemic protocols will permit—to the three regular people waiting for the train. One is an early-30-something white woman in a yellow knit beanie hat plopped atop red-dyed hair and a black bandana mask she is adjusting with a hand adorned with a sizeable engagement ring, the rest of her dressed down in purple sweatpants tucked into yellow rubber boots. She has a half-read copy of Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste suspended upside-down in one hand at her side, her thumb bookmarking its pages. Her eyes are posed in a reflective expression, as though she is pondering what she can do to add to the virtue being signaled far and wide by her many like-minded peers. 

This is what has become of our thinking class, I muse. 

They read, if they still read anything at all, books of the moment and then, indoctrinated into time-bound dogma, impress one another by echoing each other’s insights, as though they were college students comparing notes after having attended the same lecture. A few months down the road, a yet-more-dumbed-down version of that lecture will be broadcast out to the rest of us by a deafening chorus of infotainment industry insiders, while the in-the-know cognoscenti hum along. Finally, Big Tech and other organs of woke capital will come around to sweep up the remaining vestiges of dissent in the backwaters. 

Where Are the Men?

The train pulls in, one of the older, grimier models. I avoid the car on which a wild-eyed, frizzy-haired obese loon is smoking a cigarette and step into the next car, which merely has the usual bums snoring in the end-seats. There are only a few other riders, a black-clad Hassidic Jew asleep clutching his prayer book, a Hispanic MTA worker in his glow-in-the-dark orange vest, munching on a packaged snack and some sort of beanstalk-framed gender-neutral concoction with Ugged feet up on the adjacent seat. 

I have a theory that at least some substantial part of the conflict and aggression that plagues our society today is due to its de-sexualization. That might seem like an odd thing to say on the face of it. Porn is ubiquitous, and the explicitness of our everyday culture is, if anything, at an all-time high (if you need proof, listen to—or, actually, please don’t listen to, as I’m still trying and failing to erase from memory—Cardi B’s 2020 No. 1 hit single, “WAP”). But this is not what I am talking about. This kind of sexuality is not actually satisfying to anyone. It is what the old Frankfurt School don Herbert Marcuse would’ve called “repressive desublimation,” mere tokens of explicit sexuality that are put on offer all around us as cynosures to absorb our attention, zap us into smiling-zombie mode and distract us from the fact that we are living in a society that is repressive in far more fundamental ways. 

But speaking of Marcuse, his diagnosis of our civilization’s problem in Eros and Civilization is also somewhat off the mark, I believe. His take on our plight—a mashup of Marx and Freud—is that the powers-that-be have repressed our fulsome, all-encompassing libidinal energy to turn us into obedient laborers and, as a result, brought all our aggressive instincts to the fore. What I see, however, is not so much repression from on high as repression welling up from below, from the very forces of the New Left that Marcuse himself championed. 

Long-standing gender roles—the kind that, whatever their flaws, yielded stable families and communities for centuries on end—were undermined by feminism’s excesses. This is culminating in the rise of Third Wave Feminism’s male-emasculating, female-infantilizing #MeToo mullahs, and is coupled by the more recent gender-destroying trans-formation of society—which itself is but a misguided effort to flock to the aid of a tiny minority of individuals suffering from deep-seated psychological dissociation that is cynically stoked and manipulated by the profiteering media who are eager to make a quick buck from clickbait outraging the more conventional segments of the bourgeoisie and the “deplorables” of the blue-collar working class. 

This utter dismantling of gender norms destabilized men and women alike; in every prospective or consummated relationship today, everything is up for negotiation, and therefore, everything is a potential source of conflict. 

No one knows what is expected, who is supposed to make the first move, pay for dinner or for anything else, initiate sex (after securing express consent at every escalating stage?), do the dishes, put the kids to bed, or carry the brunt of the workload outside the home. Our new model of the effeminate sensitive man who has strong views on optimal diaper-changing technique but can convey it without mansplaining is, moreover, simply not one most normal women find particularly enticing. A more traditional alpha-male breadwinner who can hire a live-in nanny to handle such matters is infinitely preferable in the judgment of most women. And, by a no-contest 93 percent to six percent margin, women still want men to play the part of wooer and pursuer. Yet because the cultural headwinds are steered by an unrepresentative, outspoken minority, men are no longer getting that clear signal through the noise. 

The result is a crisis of masculinity. Men no longer know how to conduct themselves around women in whom they are potentially interested, and a life dedicated to video games, spiced with heavy helpings of porn, increasingly seems to be a simpler, more appealing option. So we have a mysterious plunge in male fertility in First World nations (a 52 percent drop-off in sperm concentrations between 1973 and 2011) where this kind of gender tumult has taken hold. And we have plummeting birth rates as well. Marriage is collapsing. Forty percent of children are now born out of wedlock, a solid predictor of poverty, crime, and nearly every other bad life outcome imaginable.

The Rise of Thanatos

But here is my point, one on which Marcuse and I are momentarily back in sync: less Eros means more Thanatos, i.e. death. Less partnering, less happy domesticity, less sex and more lives less charged with erotic energy means more angry, bitter, repressed incels (both male and female but especially male) on the prowl. Most of them don’t go on killing sprees and end up on the evening news. They go on tweeting sprees and end up drawing us all further and further into their bottomless abyss of hatred and rage. 

If Eros is a force that bonds and unifies us, then Thanatos is a force that has us tearing it all down and apart: if I can’t have you or any of my sundry objects of desire, then no one will. In the grip of Eros, our perception of everything around is enchanted; in the grip of Thanatos, we see the ruins of the wasteland, and where we do not yet see it, we are determined to create it, to reduce the remaining monuments around us to rubble. 

And so here we are, seized by rampages of resentment against each other and against the great achievements of our civilization’s past. Those achievements reprimand us, making us feel petty and small. 

We can no longer stand on the shoulders of giants without trying to stomp them into the ground. We can no longer borrow the fire lit by the priests and prophets of the past without feeling scalded by it. The reputations of our forefathers tarnish us. Their high ideals—liberty, equality, democracy, excellence—rebuke us for how far from them we have strayed, so we lash out at those older generations for the distance they left between ideal and reality. Despairing of a path towards a more perfect union, we work to tear apart the one we have and replace its aspirational ideas with fly-by-night flavors of the moment, rallying cries that will be discarded in favor of yet new variants soon after the troops are summoned to the field of battle and have upset enough apple carts to lay waste to our harvest. 

Measured against the old-world, tradition-bound cultures of Europe and Asia, we have always believed more in ourselves, in the capacity of every successive generation to rise as though unbounded and newborn and remake the world in its image. But our Emersonian self-reliance, our tradition of breaking with tradition, has turned to spasms of ceaseless self-immolation. Now, each new generation, nay, each new year, brings only further unraveling of old values but is powerless to create new ones that will last. We purge our cities of the names of great explorers like Columbus and Balboa, of founding fathers like Washington and Jefferson, of Lincoln, who ended slavery, of the abolitionist James Russell Lowell and even of still-living minor figures like Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Their replacements, whoever they may be, will be lesser men and lesser women who surely will not survive the next purge. 

Yesterday’s feminist and LGBTQ icons are already today’s anti-trans pariahs. Today’s BLM big shots will be tomorrow’s canceled sacrificial lambs. The permanent revolution will eat its own children. 

Every hero who stands for anything profound and abiding will be condemned sooner or later by our fickle system of values or else will be swept up and away in the general frenzy of what appears to be our only remaining ultimate value: purgation, destruction, Thanatos itself.

The Sisyphean Task of Clearing the Debris

The rumble of the train subsides, slows to a sputtering chug and then stills entirely. It is dead quiet, the HVAC system turned off despite the cold air suspended along with us in the mutedly lit, thin metal carapace that shields us off from the tunnel’s all-enveloping darkness. Time ticks by without progress. The few of us who are conscious take turns looking up from our thoughts, adding to the cosmic register of unavailing exasperation. At last, a barely audible, heavily accented, disembodied voice crackles through the silence: “Attention, passengers: at this time, we are holding due to a debris condition on the tracks up ahead. Cleaning crews are being dispatched. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

The Hispanic MTA worker—probably more privy than the rest of us to the fact that the announcement is MTA code for “very long delay”—groans and shakes his head. The others resume their doings. “A debris condition on the tracks up ahead.” Yes, indeed. I see it everywhere, but I know full well that no cleaning crews are being dispatched. All around is the debris of our once-vibrant civilization. We are cannibalizing it, feeding off its decaying carcass. Its scraps—deracinated fragments of near-forgotten great books, of once-awe-inspiring religious traditions, of heroic deeds now devalued, of grand ideas that used to breathe life into peoples and nations, of formerly strong institutions forged in toil and turmoil—progressively are being hollowed out more and more with every passing year. We pay lip service to them on occasion, though even those occasions are coming with diminishing frequency. Still, they are all that confer upon us what little forward momentum we may yet retain. Our civilization is grinding to a halt.

The Hassidic Jew awakens from what looks to have been a long slumber, swivels his prolific beard left and right, his still-dazed eyes following a bit behind and, as though retreating in dismay from a world complexified and coded far beyond the parameters of his comprehension, promptly flips open his prayer book and plunges in, his body settling into the calming, familiar, rhythmic, meditative undulation of the ticking clock, of the beating heart, of the rocking cradle. I hope he is praying not just for himself but for us all, asking a God in whom we as a people no longer believe to send our way at least one clear, piercing beam of light to guide us through the coming dark ages.

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About Alexander Zubatov

Alexander Zubatov is a practicing attorney specializing in general commercial litigation. He is also a practicing writer specializing in general non-commercial poetry, fiction, essays, and polemics that have been featured in a wide variety of publications. He lives in the belly of the beast in New York, New York. He can be found on Twitter @Zoobahtov.

Photo: The Print Collector via Getty Images