The Spiral Staircase Explained

Posted: April 9, 2006 in Culture

The Spiral Staircase is a metaphor for the ascent and descent of cultural values. There are many possible golden rules, or categorical imperatives. In interpersonal relationships, the classic is "Do unto others …." In the classroom or athletics, my favorite is "Try hard." In debate, it's "Be generous (and patient)." With respect to culture, it's "Contribute." (By "culture," I don't mean specifically the fine arts, though they are included. I think in terms of the armchair social critic, surveying the wider culture with a somewhat more comprehensive if disdainful view.)

The idea of contribution is to add something to the culture that enhances its value and stimulates ascent. We should want to improve — not in comparison to others especially but in comparison to the selves of our own past. While improvement and progress are worthy goals, they're not guaranteed results. Culture can evolve, or it can devolve.

Many analyses point to the devolution of American culture, not unlike the downward spiral into decadence and decay suffered by the Roman Empire before its fall. Like the Romans, we mostly can't help ourselves. Our desires and lack of self-restraint trump any sober planning we might make to avoid failure or extricate ourselves from the problems we create. Consider, just as a few examples, ecology, energy policy, population, urban sprawl, personal and government debt, the obesity epidemic, education, political apathy, smoking, racism, ageism, etc. With the application of a little wisdom and self-control, we could undoubtedly do better with these issues than we currently do. Basically, as a culture, we want what we want and are willing to sell out the future to get it.

We lack a magic bullet to fix the culture. It's too big, too broad, too varied in the U.S. to obey any sort of program, even if we could agree on one. However, we can choose as individuals to contribute what we may to make things better, to sacrifice some unneeded personal comforts in favor of conservation, and to develop a more refined, more circumspect appreciation of things. Our cultural fate is probably already sealed, and no wellspring of individual responsibility is likely to change that. However, fiddling through the fire is evidence of collapsed integrity. I prefer to hold my head high and resist the impulse to accept the inevitable without some struggle.

  1. colinc says:

    However, fiddling through the fire is evidence of collapsed integrity.

    My observations indicate that integrity hasn’t just collapsed, it’s been utterly eradicated and is completely absent in the preponderance of the population of the planet.

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