To A Study of Our Decline by P Atkinson (2007 January)

In 1990 society threw me on the scrap heap of unwanted middle-aged men and released me from the bondage of work. The enforced leisure allowed contemplation of all those disconcerting experiences that daily toil had previously forbidden, and insensibly I became a full-time student of my community.

The inspiration for the book occurred while walking in the Blue Mountains (in 1991) during a conversation with a friend. He knew that I had written a paper explaining how the nation could get huge benefits from a simple countrywide computer network (before the appearance of, and nothing like, the Internet) and my time was spent in trying to sell the proposal. He asked about my success and, without thinking, I replied that some people liked my proposition, some didnʼt, but no one in authority did.

The truth of this last statement led me silently to consider why this was so. Certainly every bureaucrat who had been approached rejected the submission out of hand. An attitude completely contradicting the publicised calls, by the then Prime Minister Keating, to make Australia the smart country by advancing new ideas. Somehow the media rhetoric and reality were, as usual, completely different. The clever solution that promised to enrich our nation by utilising modern technology was of no interest to officialdom. No official had been able to point out a flaw in the suggestion, so until now the blanket refusal was interpreted as indifference, a temporary failure in marketing, but this did not explain why these people took longer to grasp the ideas than everyone else. Possibly my feeling that these officers were just uninterested was not the complete truth, maybe they were stupid. Perhaps a lack of intelligence was an essential qualification for officialdom.

This idle notion was rejected but immediately replaced by another. It was not that incompetence was a qualification, but ability meant disqualification, some process worked against the promotion of competent people into decision-making roles. Any officer who may have given serious consideration to bold and sensible innovations would long since have been weeded out of the service; discouraged and alienated until they gave up or resigned. Considering this idea was like discovering the key to a puzzle, it seemed to explain everything.

A recent (circa 1991) television re-enactment of events leading up to the Lockerbie air disaster sprang into mind. The terrorists who blew up the airliner as it flew over the small Scottish town had succeeded only with the aid of widespread official blundering. Despite a tip-off, confirmed by subsequent secret monitoring of the bombs being constructed, the West German anti-terrorist police failed to imprison the conspirators. The evidence needed to implicate the conspirators was only discovered by a search after most of the arrested suspects had been released for lack of evidence. Marwan Khreesat, the chief bomb builder, walked out of custody even though there was an outstanding warrant for his arrest for questioning about the previous 1972 El Al bombing.

Knowing full well his advice was being ignored, the internationally renowned security consultant employed by the airline, allowed the public to be re-assured by his reputation; choosing to accept his fee rather than maintain his integrity. Senior airline executives deliberately took only token security measures, maximising profit by spending enough money to reassure passengers but not inhibit terrorists. The one director who tried to take the exercise seriously was dismissed without explanation. So in all the blundering that lead to the tragedy, the only competent individual had been fired: clear confirmation of my suspicion.

The more I dwelt upon the idea, the more believable it became. Instead of recalled events easily disproving the notion, the opposite was true. Even contemporary fiction supported the idea of institutionalised incompetence. Modern films invariably depicted authority as blundering and corrupt. The fictional American detective Harry Callahan was popular because his magnum pistol not only cut down evil-doers but showed certainty and power; qualities in direct contrast to the confused weakness displayed by officialdom. "Make my day” were words spat out in contempt not just at the loathsome villain, but also at the pathetic bureaucracy that coddled such monsters.

These stories did not just suggest but presumed my theory. The common theme in many popular detective thrillers revealed that if an evil killer was to be caught and punished, it had to be done despite the useless authorities. Indeed, the forces of law and order were so inept that the only people they protected were the lawbreakers. In just about all contemporary fiction, for one reason or another, the authorities were unable to supply justice or protection; recourse to them invariably provided the opposite.

The movie box office success "Witness" portrayed the police as being hopelessly corrupt, and the popular American TV series "The Simpsons” invariably depicted the police as poltroons, with City Hall executives as self-seeking and cowardly. "Yes Minister", a television serial depicting English government as self-seeking and indifferent to public welfare, became enormously popular, with many of the audience claiming it was not just a comedy but a true depiction of bureaucracy.

The theory certainly explained the popular contempt felt for politicians, as these were the people presiding over the mess. The sentiments exposed by current fiction matched my experience too well. No wonder our country was steadily accumulating overseas debt along with rising unemployment, it was in the hands of buffoons! A horrible despair gripped my mind; if this were true, then real achievements were beyond authority. Officialdom could only feign accomplishments by posture and pretence. It was futile trying to persuade such charlatans of anything, they could not even meet their existing responsibilities; they were useless. Under the control of these incompetents our bureaucracy must be a liability dragging us into chaos. Their paralysing inability must pervade the whole nation, even civilisation. No wonder we were building speed bumps instead of colonising space; our community was lost and out of control.

Although this flash of inspiration seemed incredible, there was no good reason to disbelieve it. All previous civilisations had fallen, ours would just be another. Strong suspicions that the nation had fallen into the hands of bunglers squashed any enthusiasm to promote my computer suggestion; the community had not the ability to realise it. The most important aim was no longer trying to help Australians become the most powerful nation on earth, but to understand why they never could be; this book is the result.

Spending years clarifying my observations of the community and putting them down on paper slowly revealed a society beset by a fatal condition—an affliction that has been destroying us at an ever-increasing rate for two centuries and must eventually return us to barbarism. A final result that should be no surprise, as it has overtaken every other civilisation—a fate that appears as inevitable and as irreversible as old age, with its increasing feebleness and dementia. I was no longer interested in why our bureaucracy was full of incompetents, but rather why our society was full of incompetents? My original aim—to improve my community with technology—was replaced with answering the question, why does a community age like any other creature?

The exercise of defining what a community is and what makes it thrive or falter, has revealed a social blind spot, an unaddressed ignorance about ourselves. None of us are told what kind of organisation we all belong to, and how it functions. The nature of our society is not taught nor defined; its complete dependence on personal self-sacrifice demanded by duties, framed by tradition, remains unstated.

Our community neither teaches nor publicly declares that the overriding purpose of child-rearing is to create good citizens. The essential training necessary to achieve this end is out of fashion. Offspring are no longer disciplined but indulged; the control imposed by a strict father has been replaced by the laxity of a liberal mother. Communal reverence for age, experience, and wisdom has been displaced by love for youth, beauty, and novelty.

Nowhere is it recognised that marriage is essential for a stable community, with the failure of this institution resulting inevitably in social chaos. The general trend to get easy divorces and discard blame for marital failure is never interrupted by one voice of reason pointing out the obvious. All such truths have been discarded by a public hostile to restraint and indifferent to reason.

My observations have lead me to radically alter my opinion of history, no longer does the French Revolution appear as something to celebrate, but to grieve. Barbarians are not something the Ancient Romans fought, but creatures who appear with all social decay, whose dress and behaviour reveal a contempt for all tradition, and who now can be seen in just about any public place. My contemporaries seem less and less susceptible to reason, and more and more like a mob who would delight in burning witches. (Words written before seeing the television pictures of the rabble outside of a Pauline Hanson meeting in 1998, chanting "burn the witch”.) The passage of time no longer seems to be producing a slow improvement in our general condition, but an accelerating decay.

The years of reflection have also taught me the crucial role occupied by the church and the absolute importance of their teachings. Life without morality is life without meaning, a result that denies the value of truth and erodes our understanding of reality. My lack of faith in the existence of a god had previously blinded me to the importance of the Ten Commandments, and the existence of evil. This does not mean that I have stopped being a rationalist or started believing in a devil. Years of cataloguing incidents where the result was insane, absurd, unfair, wrong, unjust, ludicrous, obscene — left me struggling for a word that captured the general character of what was occurring — the only appropriate term is "evil”.

My view of the world around me has slowly changed to that depicted in the fifteenth-century paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. His painting titled ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ portrays a hell of obscenity and insanity; a world without reason or hope. A similar world to that revealed by the current (2000–2001) popular television series "One Foot in the Grave". A program that masqueraded as a comedy, but whose humour was simply revelations of the absurdities now rife in our community. All pretence at laughter was abandoned during the tragic final episode. The leading character, Victor Meldrew, was run down and killed by a careless driver, leaving a bitter widow railing against a community without justice, planning the murder of her husbandʼs killer and describing modern life as hell. Leering faces pierced with metal rings are no longer seen just in the five-hundred-year-old paintings of Bosch, but are now common in the streets of our cities.

My belief is that as a community and as individuals, we are losing our intelligence. This is not a unique claim; Edward Gibbon believed he saw the same result among the Ancient Romans. In his book ‘The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ (Vol. I, Ch. II), he stated:

"The minds of men were gradually reduced to the same level, the fire of genius was extinguished"

When Gibbon wrote about Rome he was in fact writing about Roman Civilisation; the stories about their arts, agriculture, armies and activities, which filled his book, were the expressions of the Roman communal mind. A communal mind is not an obscure idea but a tangible influence that affects us every day: every time we pick up a magazine, go to the movies, turn on the radio, read the newspapers or relax in front of the television; here is the public forum that controls and shapes the behaviour of our society; it is undeniable and inescapable. Our group thought processes are portrayed in the media—the media is the mirror of our communal mind.

My conclusion is that:

Civilisation is the blossoming, then withering, of a communal mind.

And we are now enduring the latter.