What will it look like when we lose our civilization?

Civilizations are tested in a crisis.  Their strengths and weaknesses are revealed in such events as earthquakes, the sinking of ships, and social or political eruptions.  Recent events in Hong Kong have illustrated how an area with strong civilizational characteristics performs.  A massive demonstration was conducted peacefully, without property damage and without leaving behind an area strewn with garbage.

The values that allow advancement in a society are often described as "Western values."  They are not "Western," "Chinese," or "Catholic."  They are universal values and no more "Western" than 2 + 2 = 4.

A dramatic example of these values was provided in 1852, when HMS Birkenhead sank off the coast of Africa.  Its sinking was immortalized by Rudyard Kipling in his poem, "Soldier an' Sailor Too."  There were, as on the Titanic, insufficient lifeboats.  The women and children were escorted to the ship's lifeboat.  The men were mustered on deck, and Captain Seton drew his sword, ordering men to "Stand an' be still."  They stood stiffly at their posts as the ship disappeared beneath the waves.  As Kipling wrote: "We're most of us liars, we're 'arf of us thieves, an' the rest of us rank as can be, But once in a while we can finish in style (which I 'ope it won't 'appen to me)."

The sinking of the Titanic provides another example, where 74% of the females survived and only 20% of the males.  One of the richest men in the world, John Jacob Astor, is said to have fought his way to a boat, put his wife in it, and stepped back and waved her goodbye.  This behavior was expected.  When a surviving ship's officer was asked whether this "women and children first" policy was the captain's rule or the rule of the sea, he replied that it was the rule of nature.

Helen Raleigh reported that 2 million people walked through central Hong Kong demanding freedom.  People moved to the side in an orderly fashion to let an ambulance pass without anyone directing them.  Young protesters stayed to ensure there was no litter left on the streets.  Not a trash can, car, or building was burned down.  There was no need to pick up feces.  Raleigh attributed this behavior to the heavy influence of the Catholic Church.  More than likely, it was the result of a combination of influences: Chinese, Catholic, and British.

This behavior is an indictment of the values promoted by progressives and must be discredited.  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof revealed the Western attitude toward Japanese behavior in his account of the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in 1995 that killed 5,200 people.  He wrote, "I looked all over for a case of looting, or violent jostling over rescue supplies.  Finally, I was delighted to find a store owner who told me that he'd been robbed by two men."  Mr. Kristof was later disappointed to learn that the looters were Iranians.

When James Cameron made the movie about the Titanic, he portrayed First Officer William Murdoch, who went down with the ship, as taking a bribe and murdering a third-class passenger.  Cameron later apologized to the first officer's hometown in Scotland and offered £5,000 toward a memorial.  The movie's portraying of cowardly first-class passengers represented his view of the capitalist ethic.  It was total fiction.

People who see this decline in virtue are described as "nostalgia merchants."  Hillary Clinton wrote, "The nostalgia merchants sell an appealing Norman Rockwell–like picture of American life half a century ago, one in which every household was made up of stable parents, two kids, a dog, and a cat who all lived in a house with a manicured lawn and a station wagon in the driveway.  I understand that nostalgia.  I feel it myself when the world seems too much to take.  There were many good things about our way of life back then.  But in reality, our past was not so picture-perfect."  Historian David Halberstam wrote, "One reason that Americans as a people became nostalgic about the fifties more than twenty-five years later was not so much that life was better in the fifties (though in some ways it was), but because at the time it had been portrayed so idyllically on television."  In other words, this nostalgia is an illusion.

However, the decline has become so obvious that it cannot be denied.  William Bennett pointed out that "[o]ver the years teachers have been asked to identify the top problems in America's public schools.  In 1940, teachers identified talking out of turn; chewing gum; making noise; running in the halls; cutting in line; dress code infractions; and littering.  When asked the same question in 1990, teachers identified drug abuse; alcohol abuse; pregnancy; suicide; rape; robbery; and assault."  We are operating under a completely new set of values.

In 1991, the cruise ship MTS Oceanos sank.  The crew fled in panic without raising an alarm.  Passengers realized that the ship was in trouble only when they witnessed flooding in the lower decks.  Eyewitnesses claim that many of the crew, including Captain Avranas, were already packed and ready to depart, apparently unconcerned about the safety of the passengers.

Another passenger liner, Costa Concordia, provides another example of what might be called the collapse.  Captain Schettino claimed that when the vessel listed suddenly, he fell into a lifeboat and was unable to climb out.  Otherwise, I suppose he would have gone down with his ship.  When the Coast Guard ordered him to return to his ship, he refused.  One female passenger claimed, "There were big men, crew members, pushing their way past us to get into the lifeboat."

The sinking of the M.V. Estonia in 1994 resulted in 852 deaths.  Roger Kohen of the International Maritime Organization told Time magazine: "There is no law that says women and children first.  That is something from the age of chivalry."

John Dietrich is a freelance writer and the author of The Morgenthau Plan: Soviet Influence on American Postwar Policy (Algora Publishing).  He has a Master of Arts degree in international relations from St. Mary's University.  He is retired from the Defense Intelligence Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.