Heinlein on the marks of a sick culture

Boss made a notation. “We’ll discuss it later. What are the marks of a sick culture?”

“Boss, fer Gossake! I’m still learning the full shape of the Shipstone complex.”

“You will never learn its full shape. I gave you two assignments at once so that you could rest your mind with a change of pace. Don’t tell me that you’ve given no thought to the second assignment.”

“Thought is about all I’ve given to it. I’ve been reading Gibbon and studying the French Revolution. Also Smith’s From the Yalu to the Precipice.”

“A very doctrinaire treatment. Read also Penn’s The Last Days of the Sweet Land of Liberty.”

“Yes, sir. I did start making tallies. It is a bad sign when the people of a country stop identifying themselves with the country and start identifying with a group. A racial group. Or religion. Or a language. Anything, as long as it isn’t the whole population.”

“A very bad sign. Particularism. It was once considered a Spanish vice but any country can fall sick with it.”

“I don’t really know Spain. Dominance of males over females seems to be one of the symptoms. I suppose the reverse would be true but I haven’t run across it in any of the history I’ve listened. Why not, Boss?”

“You tell me. Continue.”

“So far as I have listened, before a revolution can take place the population must lose faith in both the police and the courts.”

“Elementary. Go on.”

“Well. . . high taxation is important and so is inflation of the currency and the ratio of the productive to those on the public payroll. But that’s old hat; everybody knows that a country is on the skids when its income and outgo get out of balance and stay that way—even though there are always endless attempts to wish it away by legislation. But I started looking for little signs, what some call silly-season symptoms. For example, did you know that it is against the law here to be naked outside your own home? Even in your own home if anybody can see in?”

“Rather difficult to enforce, I suspect. What significance do you see in it?”

“Oh, it isn’t enforced. But it can’t be repealed, either. The Confederacy is loaded with such laws. It seems to me that any law that is not enforced and can’t be enforced weakens all other laws. Boss, did you know that the California Confederacy subsidizes whores?”

“I had not noticed it. To what end? For their armed forces? For their prison population? Or as a public utility? I confess to some surprise.”

“Oh, not that way at all! The government pays them to keep their legs crossed. Take it off the market entirely. They are trained, licensed, examined—and stockpiled. Only it doesn’t work. The designated ‘surplus artists’ draw their subsidy checks… then go right ahead peddling tail. When they aren’t supposed to do it even for fun because that hurts the market for the unsubsidized whores. So the hookers’ union, who sponsored the original legislation to support the union scale, is now trying to work out a voucher system to plug up the holes in the subsidy law. And that won’t work either.”

“Why won’t it work, Friday?”

“Boss, laws to sweep back the tide never do work; that’s what King Canute was saying. Surely you know that?”

“I wanted to be sure that you knew it.”

“I think I’ve been insulted. I ran across a goody. In the California Confederacy it is against the law to refuse credit to a person merely because that person has taken bankruptcy. Credit is a civil right.”

“I assume that it does not work but what form does noncompliance take?”

“I have not yet investigated, Boss. But I think a deadbeat would be at a disadvantage in trying to bribe a judge. I want to mention one of the obvious symptoms: Violence. Muggings. Sniping. Arson. Bombing. Terrorism of any sort. Riots of course—but I suspect that little incidents of violence, pecking away at people day after day, damage a culture even more than riots that flare up and then die down. I guess that’s all for now. Oh, conscription and slavery and arbitrary compulsion of all sorts and imprisonment without bail and without speedy trial— but those things are obvious; all the histories list them.”

“Friday, I think you have missed the most alarming symptom of all.”

“I have? Are you going to tell me? Or am I going to have to grope around in the dark for it?”

“Mmm. This once I shall tell you. But go back and search for it. Examine it. Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms such as you have named. . . but a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor matters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.”


“Pfui. I should have forced you to dig it out for yourself; then you would know it. This symptom is especially serious in that an individual displaying it never thinks of it as a sign of ill health but as proof of his/her strength. Look for it. Study it. Friday, it is too late to save this culture—this worldwide culture, not just the freak show here in California. Therefore we must now prepare the monasteries for the coming Dark Age. Electronic records are too fragile; we must again have books, of stable inks and resistant paper. But that may not be enough. The reservoir for the next renaissance may have to come from beyond the sky.”

Friday, Chapter XXIII, By Robert A. Heinlein




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