AVIGNON, France — The Rhone River Valley in southern France is a storybook marriage of high technology, traditional vineyards, and ancestral villages. High-speed trains and well-designed toll roads crisscross majestic cathedrals, castles, and chateaus.
Traveling in a Europe at peace these days evokes both historical and literary allusions. As with the infrastructure and engineering of the late Roman Empire right before its erosion, the Continent rests at its pinnacle of technological achievement.
There is a Roman Empire-like sameness throughout Europe in fashion, popular culture, and government protocol — a welcome change from the deadly fault lines of 1914 and 1939.
Yet, as in the waning days of Rome, there is a growing uncertainly beneath the European calm.
The present generation has inherited the physical architecture and art of a once-great West — cathedrals, theaters, and museums. But it seems to lack the confidence that it could ever create the conditions to match, much less exceed, such achievement.
The sense of depression in Europe reminds one of novelist J. R. R. Tolkien’s description of the mythical land of Gondor in his epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings. Gondor’s huge walls, vaunted traditions, and rich history were testaments that it once served as bulwark of a humane Middle-earth.
But by the novel’s time, the people of Gondor had become militarily and spiritually enfeebled by self-doubt, decades of poor governance, depopulation, and indifference, paradoxically brought on by wealth and affluence.
Europeans are similarly confused about both their past and present. They claim to be building a new democratic culture. But the governing elites of the European Union prefer fiats to plebiscites. They are terrified of popular protest movements. And they consider voters little more than members of reckless mobs that cannot be properly taught what is good for them.