American Culture

The Fall of Rome, pt 2


This country looks like one that’s about to learn some things the hard way.

Riffing on Sam’s post about Rome… We all got taught that Rome fell when the barbarians sacked Rome. Of course those barbarians had mostly been living inside the borders of the empire for a long time or had an established relationship with the empire. It’s inconvenient and too much trouble to teach us the deeper history of how another periodic push by nomadic tribes from the steppe was able to fracture and destroy an empire that had withstood similar events in the past.

There’s not a great word for it, but decadence might be closest. Not decadence in social mores meaning as much as our modern conservatives would like to use it to blame abortion and the gays for all our problems. Decadence in politics and administration. The vital details are complicated, but one of them then was the rise of Christianity as the state religion. Not because Christianity is wrong (it is) but because politically the administration of the empire was undermined by ideological-political matters of the church. It didn’t matter if you were the most talented person for a position, it mattered whether you were not only Christian, but the right kind of Christian. The empire, conceived as god-given, was assumed and perpetual.

Sound familiar? We’re America. We’re the best at everything not because we strive to be the best but because it’s the natural course of things. We’ve acted this way for decades, though it’s much more obvious with a president who’s clearly stupid since he’s incapable of articulating anything except that concept. Once upon a time we probably would have been the leader in science and technology to address a viral pandemic. Once upon a time we probably would have been the nation that could have developed and ramped up a test for any particular virus. Granted, we had to rely on Nazis, but we went from almost no space program to landing on the moon in a decade.

And example closer to our time might come from the USSR. Gorbachev had few options for reforming the nation because it had been famously run by a series of men on their deathbeds. Its systemic decadence was sclerotic. Gorbachev hoped to reform the system, but even his minor reforms were such a shock to it that it collapsed.

I’m reaching a point of historical confidence that we’re there. At least in terms of us not being able to pretend anymore. Because the reality of it is (and this is non-partisan) we’ve hollowed out our society in ways that are obvious but mostly untested. We limp along after minor shocks to the system that are relatively isolated with an aversion to addressing any underlying causes of those shocks. Slap a bandaid on it, drop a few bombs, make some political hay and get the markets churning.

Now we’re faced with something that’s real shitty but not intractable. This is a flu virus (and that’s not to minimize it – 1918’s epidemic was a flu virus too). It’s a new one, virulent, and appears to be particularly dangerous to a subset of the population. But our decadence has left us wholly unprepared. Worse, we’re responding in our habitual band-aid manner. We’ve got a perfect encapsulation of modern America in the WH: a man who’s “successful” for reasons unknown beyond being on TV; a person who’s inordinately proud of his ignorance; a man who thinks that because he says the US is great it must be; a man who only knows political ideology – not as set of philosophical ideals, though, but rather as a set of of rooting interests; and a person without any particular skill or knowledge, but an endless capacity for believing himself great because he happened to be born in the United States.

The barbarians didn’t destroy Rome. The Romans did all the heavy lifting. The barbarians were just there to knock down the fractured edifice of prior greatness.

This virus isn’t enough to destroy the empire, but it is enough to lay bare the folly we’ve erected and called “the greatest country on earth.” The greatest country on earth would have been the most prepared and the quickest to act. The greatest country on earth would be able to develop a plan and leverage its capabilities and wealth to weather the storm.

This country doesn’t have a plan. It sold off its capabilities for a quick buck that it tried to call wealth. This country refuses to be prepared because that might require providing some degree of general protections like healthcare and a social safety net. This country has leadership (on both sides of the aisle) that only sees as far the next election … the word leadership as applied to anyone in this country is a pitiful hollowing of the definition. This country only has its past glories and a belief that they are immutable.

History, however, teaches the opposite. And this country looks like one that is about to learn some things the hard way.