The biggest mystery and conundrum of our time is not whether Stalin died a natural death, or why the CIA had Kennedy killed, but the difference between the types of individual that rise socially in the West and, respectively, in Russia or China.  In the 1980’s my father wrote extensively of the problem of the distribution of intellectual resources, comparing Western patterns with those of the Soviet model, and I in turn took up the subject in the 1990’s.  To my mind, it remains the great unquantifiable of the century.

Who works for lucre, and who for glory?  Who, in a given culture, bakes cinnamon rolls, and who eats them?  What sort of person sells door to door, and what sort designs intercontinental ballistic missiles?  Why do babblers or fools rise to the top under one system when they are sent to log wood north of Turukhansk under another?  We are somewhere between sociology and common sense here, between history book and personal experience, between business management and luck of the draw, yet it is no exaggeration that our civilization’s survival as the freest of political organisms existing in the world today depends on the accuracy and depth of the answers.

Broadly put, the West is a civilization, from the Latin word meaning city.  Its global competitor, for most of the 20th century and just as starkly now in the 21st, is a militarization, from the Latin word meaning base, camp, encampment.  Semantics, of course, is hardly the issue here.

Existence in the city means peaceful pursuit of pleasure, with the entire social edifice having been configured in such a way as to make that pursuit synonymous with life, and if the citizen is informed, educated, and entertained in the process, his pleasure is thought to have been enhanced.  Existence in the encampment means obedience to one’s superiors, since in wars of conquest all impulse to action must proceed from the top and travel down a continuous chain of command—in contrast to defensive wars, where that impulse, metaphorically speaking, originates with a common soldier armed with a pair of binoculars who espies the invader crossing the bridge.  The denizen of the camp is informed, educated, and entertained only to the extent it improves his ability to carry out orders.

My semantic allegory is not nearly as judgmental as it may seem at first glance.  Army mentality has its share of positive consequences, including a benign effect on education, just as pleasure mentality has its share of negative ones.  A child can hardly master the three R’s, for instance, without the discipline that is more a feature of the drill than of an afternoon at the circus.

Where physical danger, omnipresent in a militarization, sharpens the mind, making it more sensible to external stimuli, a civilized man’s brain turns inward, orienting itself to his private concerns and preoccupations.  The encampment man does not merely follow orders; he anticipates them, feeling his superiors’ strategy viscerally, as though in the pit of his stomach.  The city man has only a vague idea of collective strategy; his culture has taught him to focus on his own stomach.

In fact, behavioral inconsistencies on both sides of the divide are as glaring as they are counterintuitive.  Where “individual creativity is stifled” in the camp, the city brims over with simulacra of creativity that are, more often than not, sterile ego projections, valueless and inutile.  If, in a militarization, “the collective is above the individual,” then why are theft and brigandage second nature for its denizens?  Why is the Russian president, whose annual salary is $187,000, worth well over $40 billion, with 20 homes, 4 yachts and 58 aircraft, including an Airbus, two Dassault Falcon jets, and an Ilyushin airliner boasting an $18 million cabin outfitted by a jeweler?  And if, in a civilization, “helping young people” is a public tenet, how is it that infanticide can be legally performed on the unborn?  Or, if they really “care for the elderly,” why do their cemeteries resemble vacant lots in urban wastelands, with concrete bollards for tombstones?

The British Broadcasting Corporation is a classic instance of a typical Western institution.  Among the 23,000 staff of the BBC, whose stated purpose is “to inform, educate and entertain,” 91 executives are paid salaries higher than the prime minister of the United Kingdom, 11 of these receiving twice what he earns.  Thus a Merseyside lad called Paul Hollywood—to choose an example onomatologically, as one often does—who is by profession a baker and hosts a TV program called The Great British Bake Off, receives an annual salary of $400,000, as compared with David Cameron’s $200,000.

I have nothing but admiration for the degree of eminence attained in peacetime by the author of 100 Great Breads.  Yet a sense of cosmic doom comes upon me at the thought that the man charged with the survival of a civilization is less valued by that civilization than a purveyor of bread and—let’s be precise—circuses.  Where would Mr. Hollywood be if he lived in Russia, I wonder?  Logging wood north of Turukhansk?