Thursday, December 2, 2010

Is America repeating the mistakes of ancient Rome?

In 2001, a book published by a small publishing company in the US came and went without receiving much fanfare.  Nestled among the many glossy get-rich-quick, positive thinking and self- help books that one commonly finds in Christian bookstores, "When the Empire Strikes Out: Are We Repeating the Pattern of Past Civilizations?", with its serious title and earnest, analytical tone, could not have seemed less untimely.  

After all, America had just experienced a whole decade of growth, peace and self-indulgence. The economy was booming, after a few "setbacks" like the dot com bubble that burst in 2000. The Soviet Union, long considered America's archenemy, had collapsed. The cold war was over, and Clinton had promised a "peace dividend". What could go wrong?

The book's author, William R. Goetz, delved into a theory with which most Americans are unfamiliar- Sir John Glubb's theory of the rise and fall of empires- and what this theory could mean to Americans- namely, that the United States was in the throes of its imminent collapse and death. Needless to say, the book was not terribly popular. Truth never is.

At the time, I found a copy in my local Christian bookstore, and read it with great eagerness. Goetz explains how Sir John Glubb's famed book The fate of empires and Search for survivalThe Fate of Empires and the Search for Survival outlined seven phases in the life span of an empire, from the first, the Age of Outburst, to the last, the Age of Decline and Collapse.

Goetz's book applied this theory to the history of the United States, and came to the almost inevitable conclusion that the United States was heading for disaster.

The parallels between the last days of Rome and the last few decades of the United States are appallingly clear -the political corruption, obsession with luxury, huge disparity of wealth, and above all, obsession with triviality, wealth and sex are found in both . Of course, we have all heard of the decadence of Rome's final years. In Caesar and Christ, Will Durant described Rome's final days as follows: 

"Prostitution flourished....  many rich men paid a talent ($3,600) for a male favorite; Cato complained that a pretty boy cost more than a farm. Marc Antony surrendered to such sensuality that his subjects lost respect for his authority. He surrounded himself with dancers, musicians, courtesans and roisterers, and took wives and concubines whenever a fine woman struck his fancy."

The worst ruler, Nero "divorced one wife, murdered his own mother, killed a pregnant second wife, then in regret found a youth who closely resembled her, had him emasculated, married him and used him in every way like a woman." 

Has it gotten this bad in the US yet? Thankfully, America has not yet produced a new Nero, but the many sexual scandals (including Bill Clinton's famed cigar incident with intern Monica Lewinsky) should give us cause to consider. 

Goetz quotes Henry Cabot Lodge in The History of Nations: "Perhaps the most significant mark of the corruption of the age is the frequency of divorce and the general aversion to marriage..... immorality was the rule." Another sign of a society in decline is the division of wealth: "(There were) two predominant classes in the state... the mass of beggars and the (incredibly wealthy). 

The "economic and social disintegration", as Lodge put it, caused the Romans to become lazy, overly fond of luxury and adverse to hard work.  The indolence of its citizens, the endless internal struggles brought about by societal disunity, and the financial burden of providing free bread for thousands- these were the first cracks in Rome's invincible facade. 

Add to this the assimilation of thousands of barbarians  into Rome, the frequent invasions from without and the many foreign wars designed to bring in much-needed funds to pay for the bloated military, public welfare and luxurious decadence of the Roman aristocracy, and you have the makings of disaster. 

To be sure, the long, slow decline of Rome has long been a favorite of historians, and innumerable books have pondered the causes for her fall. While few have read all of Edward Gibbon's momentous seventeen- volume work, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the gist of the book's chronicle of Rome's downfall can be summed up in what Gibbons describes as the five significant factors in her inglorious end: a rapid increase in divorce, a craze for pleasure, a bloated military coupled with ignorance of enemies within, an increase in violence and a decline in religious morals. This, yet again, reads like a perfect description of American society today. 

The frivolity, hedonism, obsession with convenience (so that even walking five minutes is considered an undue burden) are one side of America's decline, and are even looked upon as comical. Home-grown terrorists, school massacres, a sudden rash of child abductions by predatory pedophiles and the splintering of society are the darker side. 

Selfishness and individualism cause children to be seen as a burden, instead of a blessing, as Goetz points out. One result is an increase in abortion, long a hot topic of controversy in the US. However, this, too, is nothing new. Ancient Romans  practiced not only abortion, but infanticide, as well. Moreover, while most Americans think of Europeans as "liberal", many of the late term-abortions performed stateside would be illegal in Ireland, Poland or Germany. America now has the dubious distinction of being one of the few countries on earth that allows abortions up to the last week of pregnancy, without restrictions.  

American hedonism has also brought us the "Great Recession" we are now seeing: a nation that, for decades, consumed without producing, bought what it couldn't afford and demanded more wages for itself, while consuming cheap goods from overseas, is destined for defeat.

When he wrote his book in the last years of the nineties, Goetz could hardly have seen just how horribly wrong America's short- sighted economic policies could have gone- we now see Washington sending trillions of dollars to rich banking billionaires, while a whole generation of kids will spend their formative years living in tents, sleeping in motels or in their parents' cars. 

Meanwhile, the open borders with Mexico means that the modern day "barbarians" will continue their invasion. Why do they keep coming? Again, America's short- sighted economic policies, such as NAFTA, forced millions of desperate Mexicans into poverty and hunger. With a drug war out of control, many now have little choice but to risk their lives fleeing from danger.

At the same time, millions of American citizens, out of work, are depending on extended unemployment benefits and food stamps, some living in their cars or in tents; all the while, America's wealthy elite would rather hire illegal immigrants than US citizens.     

On the political level, we see other signs of decay: the growth of a centralized, bloated bureaucracy, an inefficient, bloated military, the increase in expensive overseas battles, and a buildup in debt and ongoing corruption. No nation has ever successfully fought two wars on two fronts simultaneously and survived. The last two to try were Napoleon and Hitler, and both were defeated. The arrogance of our nation's leaders to think that they could succeed at such a task is astounding.

Interestingly, in chapter ten, Goetz enumerates the many threats facing America, many of which have, in the following years, come to pass. The Chinese have already committed many of the attacks that Goetz described a decade ago, including infiltration of the food supply (the melamine poisoning), shutting down power grids (which happened in 2003) and attacking the economic system through hacking (which happened last year). China's "information warfare" program is the second largest in the world- after the US. Because of America's dwindling number of native-born IT specialists (another product of the failed school and university system), we can expect the quality of China's program to soon exceed that of the US, if it hasn't already. 

In When Nations Die, Jim Nelson Black writes: "As I examine the parallels between American society and other great empires in history, I am often stunned by the way our civilization mirrors the fallen giants of the past."  If we want to see the future, we need only look at the past. Goetz's book now seems chillingly prophetic in its warnings. Too bad America's leaders were too busy playing golf, conducting sexual affairs or attending campaign fundraisers to pay attention to his dire warnings.