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11/19/2005 Archived Entry: "The vices of a declining empire."
THE VICES OF A DECLINING EMPIRE
of which he had long been a victim; the cruel absurdity of the princes, unable to protect their subjects against the public enemy, unwilling to trust them with arms for their own defense, the intolerable weight of taxes, rendered still more oppressive by the intricate or arbitrary modes of collection, the obscurity of numerous and contradictory laws, the tedious and expensive forms of judicial proceedings, the partial administration of justice, and the universal corruption which increased the influence of the rich and aggravated the misfortunes of the poor.
Iíve been traveling a lot lately, spending far too many hours waiting in the temporary gulags of the modern American airport. I can never get any serious work down in ďloungesĒ crammed with screaming kids, people shouting into cell phones, and the incessant ďsecurityĒ announcements blasted from dozens of hidden loudspeakers. But I always get to the place an hour or two early, lest my demeanor or mere chance find me selected for special attention by the Gestapo, and cause me to miss my flight.
I canít work, but I can read, and lately Iíve been studying Gibbonís The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Iím only halfway though the nearly 1,500 pages of the abridged edition. Silly as it may seem, many people are impressed, or at least curious, at the sight of a man studying a thick volume, and Iíve had many discussions with my fellow detainees about the book, which everyone seems to know about, but very few have read.
Reading Gibbonís masterpiece feels like being hit in the face with a 2x4 over and over again. The parallels of the decaying Roman empire with those of modern America are frequent, obvious, and always dismaying. It is simply astonishing that a work written in the 1770ís about events that occurred nearly 2,000 years ago should so frequently, and devastatingly, describe our plight. The passage I quoted above is not the best, it is simply the last one I read. It is rare to read as much as 10 pages without encountering something equally sobering.
What I find remarkable is not the painful parallels, which many learned and eloquent writers have been pointing out for decades. My airport discussions have invariably turned to the subject of the declining American empire. When I mention the striking similarity of decaying Roman society to our own, the response is always
ďYes, but the fall of the Roman empire took four hundred years.Ē
This is perfectly true, although Greece and Rome itself were invaded and sacked long before the final collapse of the empire of the west. (The eastern empire, governed from Constantinople, persisted a full thousand years longer, but I have not yet read that part of the story.) I am struck that no one disagrees with the statement that we live in the ebb times of a once mighty nation. No one argues that our best days lie ahead of us. No one protests that we will overcome our numerous problems and achieve even greater wealth, freedom, and prosperity in the times to come.
A survey conducted in the gloomy environment of government-controlled waiting rooms may not accurately reflect the sentiments of the entire nation, but the calm acceptance of our societyís decline is troubling, if understandable. The implicit wish contained in the reminder that Roman society took four centuries to collapse is that our own destiny lies far enough in the future that none of us will live to see it.
Iím not so sure. Things happen a lot faster these days, and by some reckonings America has been going downhill for a hundred years or so. History does not repeat itself, but it rhymes, and Iím not looking forward to verses that will be written by millions of people who calmly accept the decline of a nation that was once prosperous, proud, and free.
Posted by Silver @ 06:56 AM CST