National Adolescence

I have been toying with a concept I am calling national adolescence.  My emerging theory is that civilizations go through phases much like that of a human male, and the most dangerous to all around it is adolescence.  Adolescent males can do crazy, unproductive things to show off, to count coup, to bolster their ego and perceived status.  They are more prone to being violent and dangerous, to pick stupid fights to prove their alpha-maleness rather than to achieve rational goals.

Nations often go through an adolescent phase.  Sometimes it can last for decades or centuries.  Two symptoms of this phase are 1) Imperialism and over-readiness to fight and 2) monument-building and other such show-offery.

I have written a number of times about monument building, for example here.  We see it in countries trying to build record-tall buildings -- note who is doing it, they are always the nouveau riche (e.g. Dubai).  We see it in cities wanting to have light rail systems in order to be considered a real city (ie as a status project).  We see it in every Thomas Friedman column about China doing big things while we are not.  And we see it now in the fear that somehow having China sending men into space 50 years after the US and USSR did so somehow is a marker in the decline and fall of the US.

I don't buy it.  What you are seeing, what Thomas Friedman is seeing, is adolescence.  We may regret lacking as much youthful vitality, but we should not aspire to the adolescent's poor judgement.  Our sixties space program went exactly nowhere, except to let us count coup on the rest of the world and cement our status.  The Chines space program as currently configured will achieve nothing more.

PS-  The Egyptians may be a good example.  All the great Pyramids were built when the Egyptian civilization was really young.  There are a variety of reasons why pyramid building ended, but surely a maturing confidence in their civilization's greatness must be one.

  • anon

    I don't think you're right about Egypt. Just taking from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Egyptian_Pyramids , there seem to have been three "bursts" of major pyramid activity -- a 300 year span from 2700 to 2400 BC, a 200 year span from 2000 to 1800 BC, and then two more in 720 and 660 BC. After 800 years, a civilization cannot be called "really young". After 2000 years... ditto.

  • jdgalt

    I'm always critical of the penchant of all levels of government for wasting our money on bread and circuses, but the '60s space program wasn't about that at all. There was real, and reasonable, fear that if the Soviets got to the moon first, they'd put a missile base on it and thus dominate the world. That possibility no longer makes much sense, but you can't fault Washington for acting on it during the Cold War.

    As for China's space program, it is merely a symptom but what we are seeing is the next round of nations jockeying for world domination, a process that usually ends in a major war. The Balkan wars that preceded WW1 are eerily similar to the one we're probably about to fight in the Middle East -- and we know where they led.

    I suggest moving well away from any city in the world that's big enough to be a nuke target for somebody else.

  • Earl Wertheimer

    I would be more worried about the gradual loss of independence. Each generation wants to make life easier for their children. Now we have a generation that sees the government as the sole provider and protector, and a government eager to assume that role.

    It's the 'Peter Principle' on a huge scale. The government grows to a point of incompetence and subsequently collapses under weight of their own inefficiencies.

    When the church was the center of life, we only had to provide a tenth of our earnings. Now the government's portion has risen to huge levels and we (wrongly) assume that they will actually provide something useful.

    In Canada, we work for the government until some time in June (Tax Freedom Day).

    As the state becomes larger and more bloated, it becomes slower and less efficient until there is a revolution.

    I would like to avoid that revolution.

  • Arthur Felter

    I'm glad you brought up Egypt. America is in such great decline, it has taken us 2,000+ years to build a pyramid! When are we going to get our act together?!

  • MingoV

    National adolescence is not surprising since our society has extended individual adolescence into the mid- to late-20s.

    @jdgalt: You are wrong about the space program in the 1960s. It was all about who had the biggest penis. It had nothing to do with national security. Missiles launched from 1,000 miles away are more difficult to handle than missiles launched from 250,000 miles away. Nearby nukes was the excuse for the Cuban missile crisis. (Note: We had nuclear missiles in Turkey that were no farther away from Moscow than Cuba was from Washington. Kennedy's invented crisis was the pot calling the kettle black.)

  • Caroline

    How interesting. I look forward to reading more of this. On a slightly parallel line of thought, I often think about how our society has prolonged adolescence by keeping all kids in compulsory conventional schools to 18 and treat them with tremendous disrespect in terms of not allowing them to legally do what they are capable of by the age of 10 or 12.

  • obloodyhell

    }}} Our sixties space program went exactly nowhere, except to let us count coup on the rest of the world and cement our status. The Chines space program as currently configured will achieve nothing more.

    Not necessarily. The Chinese have a much better record of taking a long view than the descendants of Greek civ, one going back well over a thousand years. It doesn't take a huge lot of development to make space travel financially viable. You just have to freaking DO it.

    That doesn't mean I advocate NASA be put in charge of a bake sale to raise funds for space exploration, but a lot of X prizes for desirable accomplishments would certainly give a suitable push for US industry to do the job.

  • obloodyhell

    Ummm... did you attempt to compare those periods to the developments of various dynasties? That seems the most likely argument against your points. No, I don't happen to care enough either way to do the research. But it would seem relevant. Over 2000 years there can be a great deal of ebb and flow in terms of an actual "nation". The UK today is hardly the same as the one that created the Magna Carta.

  • obloodyhell

    Boost up those RPMs, BAYBEE!!!

    This shit is spinning waaaay too slow. :-D

  • Zachriel
  • alex

    tangentially related-the space program, directly and indirectly, gave us many of the technologies we have today: gps, early detection breast cancer technologies, long distance telecom technologies, cordless power tools, household water filters, and much more.