What do you know about the Dark Ages? More than me, I bet. I'm not a goddamn historian. But the subject came up recently at work, which gave me cause to look into it some. Specifically, I was looking into whether a person could make a reasonable argument that the period of time we sometimes refer to as the Dark Ages at all resembles the United States today. As you've probably gathered from the title(s) of this column, I say you can. We talk about that on this week's Unpopular Opinion podcast ...
... where I'm joined by musician Danger Van Gorder and the Internet's Randall Maynard. It's also what I'm talking about here today. I know it sounds like a stretch, and I suppose in some ways it is, but hear me out anyway. Here goes!
#5. The Dark Ages Weren't That Dark
Comparing the present-day United States to ancient civilizations is not a new thing. A quick scan of the shelves of your local Internet will reveal several articles comparing this country to the Roman Empire, mostly with the goal of deciding whether we're heading for a fall of the same magnitude.
Well, the Dark Ages refer to the period of time after that, when Western Europe is thought to have slipped into a period of cultural and economic decline. The name "Dark Ages" has actually fallen out of favor over the years, as we've come to understand more about the Middle Ages and the things society managed to accomplish during that time. If it's used at all today, it's mostly to describe just the early Middle Ages, but even then, there was enough happening in the world among intellectual types that the phrase is a little too negative to be completely accurate.
Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images
Like calling Trump a Nazi when he's really just a fascist
My point is that the Dark Ages didn't suffer from a complete and total lack of enlightenment among the masses, not even in the area of Europe that the term applies to. Definitely not in places like Asia or the Middle East, which were doing just fine culturally at the time. However, there were some characteristics of the Dark Ages that fit with the backwards thinking the name implies. A few key traits of the period (at least as they're mostly misunderstood by history):
- A lack of historical documents or records
- Feudalism was the class system of the day
- Violent conflicts were a constant occurrence
- Religious superstition was rampant
When you think of the Dark Ages strictly in terms of the handful of conditions that defined the time, comparisons to the state of American society today get a lot easier to make. I'll go over each of the above points in more detail as we move on. Let's get to that first one right now!
#4. Our Records Might Not Exist Forever Either
Cracked operates a lot like the FBI, in that we don't always communicate that well. As a result, sometimes we cover the same point in more than one article. In this case, I'm actually glad that we touched on what I'm about to talk about in a post that just went up yesterday. Why? Because it makes the overall premise of my column today seem just a little less insane.
Anyway, as mentioned earlier, the Dark Ages earned that name at least in part because there's a noticeable lack of contemporary records or information available from the time, for a variety of reasons. Some of it was destroyed in that "migration period" which saw Europe getting attacked from every angle by all manner of invaders. When you're constantly rebuilding your village because vikings burned it to the ground, eventually you just give up on writing things down until you're confident that it won't be set on fire again six months down the road.
In other cases, the influence of the Christian church at the time spelled doom for the availability of information. The result of all this destruction is that, in terms of historical records, the early Middle Ages are kind of a dark spot -- an empty point in time that used to be filled with all sorts of knowledge that we'll likely never have access to again.
What was brought up yesterday in that other Cracked article is how there's a really good chance we could be on a similar path with the methods of record-keeping today. What it didn't mention is that this problem has a lot of people who make it their job to protect this information among the most worried.
One huge name to sound the alarm over our at-risk history is Vint Cerf, vice president of Google and a man often recognized as one of the "Fathers of the Internet." He said this in a 2015 interview with The Guardian:
I haven't known someone who owns a printer for at least 10 years.
The problem is that as digital file types change, the software needed to convert them into something a person could actually read eventually becomes obsolete or altogether unavailable. Saving everything to a hard drive doesn't do you much good if the technology needed to get to it ceases to exist someday. Even more concerning is that it was a problem that had been identified well before Cerf called it out. Back in 2009, Ken Thibodeau, the man in charge of maintaining the digital records produced by the federal government and preserving them in the National Archives, said this:
He's talking about way more than your bullshit Facebook photos. Part of the reason the Dark Ages went "dark" is that information about how the Roman Empire came to be so advanced was lost in all the destruction. People were starting over from scratch in a lot of ways. What's mentioned in the above quote is the kind of thing you need to rebuild society in the event of a total collapse. If the United States really is headed for a fall on par with that of the Romans, then that's information the people who come out the other side intact will likely need, you know?
Interestingly enough, the eventual demise of the United States seems to be an important future milestone for the people in charge of keeping track of our history, seeing as how it's referenced in this interview with the people in charge at the Library of Congress:
What a quirky way to put it!
And also in the aforementioned article about the National Archives:
Are those words in the training materials?
That's an important point, though, because this country isn't that old. The Dark Ages, even when narrowed down to just the part of the Middle Ages where the term still kind of applies, covers a period of more than 500 years. If we lose the fight to maintain our digital records, it's not that outrageous to believe that the United States could eventually leave behind a similarly blank spot in the story of human history.
However, that's all stuff for the future to worry about. Are there any comparisons between the Dark Ages and things happening right now? Glad you asked!
#3. Feudalism Has A Lot Of Definitions
Feudalism was the defining social structure of the Dark Ages. It was a system that aimed to control the masses through land ownership and ensure that people stayed at the exact class level they were born into. If you were born a peasant, you had zero chance of becoming part of the landowning nobility. Obviously, we don't have a system of vassals and serfs dictating our daily lives currently, but that doesn't mean the term doesn't apply to us at all.
See, much like "Dark Ages" itself, "feudalism" is a term that's taken on a variety of meanings and definitions over the years. Or at the very least, people have come to think about it in a different way. Karl Marx, for example, saw an obvious parallel between this outdated system and the capitalist system we've come to know and love here in the United States. In the 2000 book Marx: A Brief Introduction, he's credited with this quote:
Is that last part true of the United States in its current form? Do the poor already have their paths in life laid out before birth? Is there an entire class of American who are doomed to stay in the same relative spot on the ladder, no matter what they do? In theory, the answer would be no. The American Dream is based on the idea that if a person works hard enough, they might become as rich and powerful as the people at the top.
Sounds great, but it's also an idea that fewer and fewer citizens have faith in as the years pass. In 2015, The Atlantic looked at a variety of polls that, over the past couple decades, have asked Americans about their thoughts on the possibility that a person really could advance in life and achieve those dreams that we're promised are made so very possible by the greatness of this country. What they revealed is that as time goes on, we're becoming less and less optimistic as a society about our chances of ever living like what passes for the nobility.
"I'm $65,000 in debt and addicted to prescription painkillers!"
In 1998, a Gallup poll showed that a whopping 68 percent of Americans thought the economic system we have in place provided everyone with an equal opportunity to advance in life. By 2013, that majority flipped, with 50 percent of the people who responded agreeing that the United States no longer offers all citizens an equal chance to succeed. A different poll conducted the same year put the number who felt that way at 64 percent.
Similarly, a 2015 Pew poll revealed that, when asked if they valued getting ahead in life more or less than just holding onto what they have currently, a jaw-dropping 92 percent indicated that the security of knowing they'd at least be able to stay in the same relative position in life that they're in now was far more important than improving that position.
So according to its strictest definition, feudalism no longer exists. However, if you were to ask the average American if they're currently living and working under a system that ensures that the people at the bottom stay there, most would say yes. It may not be feudalism in name, but it's damn close in practice.