What kind of civilization will America be in December 2117? Will it be reduced to a once-extravagant wonder, a country whose glory days are found in history books that nobody reads anymore?
In Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 novel, “The Transit of Venus,” a prosperous New York attorney tells his wife, a young woman from Australia: “Our great and secret fear is that America may turn out to be a phenomenon, rather than a civilization.”
Hazzard’s book takes its name from that rare transit of Venus when the planet crosses the sun, an event celebrated this month. The transit will not occur again until December 2117.
The publicity about it reminded me of that quote from Hazzard’s book. When the next transit visits our solar system, will America’s president still be referred to as the most powerful man in the world? Or will he be regarded as the most overrated man in the world?
An optimist could point to technology – look how advanced we are, look what we can do. But technology, despite the hype, is not all that new. Other cultures now extinct or in decline were once considered technologically advanced.
A pessimist could point to human nature, which hasn’t changed radically. It’s still easier to emote than think, easier to feel sorry than find a solution, easier to go along with the surrounding crowd than question.
“Gentlemen, we have to think in tune with the worldwide conscience. Or perhaps the word should be ‘throb,’ not ‘think,’ since our hearts are at issue, I’m sure you agree, not our heads. The moment this fleet set sail, a million human beings chose to cut themselves off from their homeland. Far be it for us to pass judgment. Far better to think of these poor, homeless souls as citizens of the world, in search of their promised land.”
Sounds like something an American politician might say or an editorial in a mainstream American newspaper.
It’s from Jean Raspail’s “The Camp of the Saints,” a fictional account of what happens when the Third World overflows its banks and turns the West into a sewer.
The Atlantic Monthly called Raspail’s book “one of the most disturbing novels of the late 20th Century.”
It’s the kind of novel that a fine literary writer like Shirley Hazzard would likely shudder to be associated with. But her quote about America’s future as either a phenomenon or a civilization, and Raspail’s book about the future of Western civilization, form a strange conjunction.
He wrote “The Camp of the Saints” in 1972. It initially received bad reviews. A few years later, though, came the “boat people,” and Raspail was hailed as a prophetic novelist.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization, calls the book a racist fantasy on its Website, adding that later editions were published by The Social Contract Press, “an outfit that specializes in hard-line anti-immigration propaganda.”
The law center’s Website doesn’t mention that “The Camp of the Saints” was initially published in the U.S. by the respectable Charles Scribner’s Sons. And it doesn’t acknowledge that some of that “propaganda” correctly warned three decades ago that we were headed for a world-wide population of 7 billion by the 21st Century – with environmental consequences. (There is some tolerance the Southern Poverty Law Center does not want to teach.)
In “The Camp of the Saints” a refugee fleet of 99 ships, dubbed “The Last Chance Armada” by the media, sets sail from India for the West. Celebrities, intellectuals and compassionate Western political leaders theoretically climb on board. A Catholic bishop literally climbs on board. The armada lands, and Western civilization surrenders to the mob.
“Now that the revolution’s finally here, the first thing to do is enjoy ourselves, right?” more than one character exults.
I read the book about 20 years ago. There are scenes that send a stench off the page and burn images in the mind. Over the years some of those scenes would pop into my head when I would read or hear certain news stories.
The earthquake in Haiti, for instance.
“Haitian ‘tent babies’ crisis in the making” said a headline in The Oregonian on Sept. 4, 2011.
“A population explosion is seen in squalid camps in the quake-ravaged nation,” the McClatchy-Tribune story reported.
Here’s Raspail describing life aboard The Last Chance Armada: “Young girls, barely ripe, lying together cheek to thigh, asleep in a languid maze of arms, and legs, and flowing hair, waking to the silent play of eager lips. Male organs mouthed to the hilt. … Everywhere, rivers of sperm.”
Another example is the continuous news about how America has locked up huge numbers of innocent men – or at least men who don’t deserve to be imprisoned even if they are guilty. It would be cheaper, we are told repeatedly, to send them all to college.
Here’s Raspail’s character Clement Dio, a celebrated journalist, who writes an editorial calling offenders “innocent victims of a social system that first destroys them, then refuses to save them, turning its back as they languish in disgrace.”
Dio will get a chance to see the fruits of his politics when the prisons are opened. The freed inmates don’t want jobs or school.
The cops, although armed, are rendered useless.
Here’s a quote from Raspail’s police commissioner: “I am anxious, at all costs, to avoid armed confrontation. … I’d like to invite all representatives of all those factions taking part in the movement, as well as those heads of the various public services . . . in the hope that in this noble theater of human dignity might come a more happy world for all mankind… .”
Remember that quote this summer if Occupy Portland once again seizes two downtown parks and refuses to leave.
What Raspail’s novel didn’t anticipate was the growing middle class in China and India. These are new middle classes, enjoying a high standard of living for the first time – not a shrinking American middle class, grown tired and complacent.
White politicians in the West didn’t have the stomach to control Raspail’s Last Chance Armada, but thriving Chinese and Indian middle classes might not have any reluctance to confront what needs to be done.
Raspail’s novel also avoided mention of women’s rights, contraceptives and abortion. Had he done so, he might have scored some points with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The next time Venus makes its rare transit, will America still have a need for a Southern Poverty Law Center?
If the organization even exists in 2112, perhaps some of its members will understand why a book like “The Camp of the Saints” shouldn’t be dismissed as only racist fantasy.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons