Thursday, May 07, 2015

Onward Through The Fog: Has America Become The New Rome?


When did America became Rome? That is, when did it forswear faith in its leaders and morality for greed and decadence?

That question is no more or less relevant today than it was four or fourteen years ago, but came up in a backhanded sort of way in a discussion on a recent post on Hillary Clinton's frontrunner status when I was challenged for writing that Hillary "has never adequately come to terms publicly with her husband's serial indiscretions."  I was challenged for using a double standard, which my voluminous archive of posts on spousal infidelities proves otherwise.  And while commenters were kind enough to stop short of calling me sexist, among other ad hominem epithets, the question of why William Jefferson Clinton's indiscretions are so darned important in the context of his wife, the likely next president, who ran from the issue in 1998 amidst the Republican-led impeachment circus and has kept on running since then is, by my lights, still valid.

But allow me to digress.

The comparison between ancient Rome and modern America is, of course, somewhat precious as well as a time-worn cliche, but it works well enough for the purposes of trying to figure out why we are going to hell in a hand basket.
The reasons that I enunciated in a post titled "Why The American Dream Is Dead" included the usual suspects: The abandonment of our elderly and poor, imprisoning millions of citizens for the most trivial of offenses, suffocating the middle class, an enormously powerful corporatocracy, government by paralysis, and ignorance of our own history. In another post titled "We Have The World's Finest Universities, Why Then Is America Such A Mess?", I agreed with 19th century journalist-historian Henry Adams that going to a university is "time wasted" and that self-education through life experiences, friendships and reading are ultimately more important. How else to explain the fact that America boasts the best higher education system anywhere but itself is so screwed up?  And in yet another post titled "U.S. A Humiliating Also-Ran When It Comes To Stuff That Really Matters," I bemoaned the fraying of the American colossus and the "So What?" attitude of many Americans when confronted by that inconvenient truth, while I concluded that the chances of being treated fairly when you're in the legal crosshairs are slim to none in a fourth post titled "Plain Talk On The Criminal Justice System."
The grim realities enunciated in these posts surely are symptoms of the hand basket (as in going to hell in) replacing the bald eagle as our national symbol, and the question is still begged of when American became Rome.
One possibility is that when the American people, or at least a shockingly large number of them, accepted the notion in 2008 that John McCain believed that Sarah Palin was qualified to be president should he be elected and something happened to him. It either did not register -- or matter -- that Palin was unqualified to be president because of an appalling ignorance, the Christianist bilge she spouted, and was a serial liar to boot, attributes that had not diminished one iota when she cast her beady eyes on the presidency in 2012 and has continued to make a nuisance of herself .  After all, the former half-term Alaska governor turned author and reality show princess and most recently Tea Party carnival sideshow freak, not only has not gone away, but continues to inject herself into national politics, most recently attacks on Hillary Clinton, whom she infers is brain damaged and should release her medical records.   

Alas, the McCain-Palin metaphor does not work. That sinkhole in our political history occurred well after America's downward drift had accelerated. Besides which, no single event -- whether in Rome or in America -- can be attributed as turning points.
That so noted, if you put a gun to my head and forced me to name a single event my nominee would be when Bill Clinton swore on national television in 1998 that he "never had sex with that woman . . . Monica Lewinsky." Beyond setting off a fierce debate on whether blowjobs are in fact sex, Clinton in one fell swoop undermined the credibility of the presidency as not even Richard Nixon had been able. The Oval Office has never been the same.

* * * * *

So much for faith in leaders, and so on to morality. Which is to say greed trumping morality and its little brother ethics.
Like Rome, there have been merchants of greed in America since its founding. Think robber barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt, John D. Rockefeller, Jay Gould, and more recently Ken Lay of Enron. But on the cusp of the new millennium the number of greed merchants and even institutions built on greed (think of investment banks) are staggering in number and, lest we need a reminder of their power to inflict enormous harm, consider their responsibility for the Bush Recession and its lingering effects.
UCLA prof John McCumber believes he has pinpointed where the decline and fall of Rome and the decline and fall of America intersected. This was the early Cold War years when the nation's best and brightest, including RAND Corporation analysts and other brainiacs, sought to understand the inner workings of American individualism with mathematical models first used to understand voting behavior as part of a government-funded effort to push back against the Communist and socialist collectivism then very much in vogue abroad.
America, of course, once accorded unique rights and freedoms to individuals. Putting aside for a moment the fact that the Roberts Supreme Court is chipping away at those rights and freedoms while deciding that corporations are individuals who are to be accorded the rights and freedoms the Founders granted true individuals, McCumber says the overall conclusion of the studies into what makes individualism tick was that the choice inherent in individualism begets, in philosopher G.F.W. Hegel's terms, a clear and compelling imperative to increase ones wealth and power.
McCumber notes that individualism comes in several flavors. There is the selfish individualism that Tocqueville attributed to post-Colonial America and the expressive individualism of touchy feelys like Emerson and Whitman, while after World War II a third variant emerged defining individualism as the making of choices so as to maximize one's preferences, a wave that was helped along by the novels of another Rand (Ayn).
Like kudzu weed, this so-called rational choice philosophy -- what McCumber refers to as "a point-for-point antidote to the collective dialectics of Marxism" -- gradually insinuated itself into university curricula and then out into the real world of business and government. A consequence was that morality and ethics took a hike, something that was oft noted when Wall Street drove the economy into the toilet in 2008 but of course has been quickly forgotten.

 * * * * *
Hey, I'm inherently suspicious of any explanation for the decline of America that is framed in absolutist terms and includes catchphrases like selfish individualism and, for that matter, a stained blue Gap dress, but absent a more cogent explanation it works well enough for me.
This leaves a big question unanswered: Can America avoid Rome's fate? Absent a very close encounter with a meteor or End Times finally showing up after so many misfires, it's hard to see how.


michael fahey said...

I agree with all of your main threads, and well done at that.
Re: Clinton and Monica and Hilary. Dante's innermost circle of Hell is for the chisElers. The short term day trading Mac mansion denizens who ARE now in control of the levers of powerAND WHO quite brazenly sTrut center stage, not a whiff of shame coming off their styled pelts.
Bill 's problem ,as per Dante, does not sink to their LEVEL. Does McCumber(sp?) know that John Hiatt song: "When The Little Head Does The Thinking?".
I find Reagan's presidency the real watershed event.Overlooked is the high ground Jimmy Carter had maintained and the events far from his or any Americans control, that opened the door for the purest bunch of baloney ever bought and sold in my lifetime. It tops W's "Compassionate Conservatism" by a lot. The death knell to unions was vastly accelerated here. The imperative that we must at all times be at war, no enemy too small: Grenada. The exploitation of race(post Civil Rights era) for political gain :Reagan declares his candidacy in Philadelphia,Miss. Welfare queens and their cadilacs. His work as GE's television voice had honed his ability to seem reasonable while taking naps and confusing B movie plots with foreign policy real politik. A sugar coated disaster . And notice this...Hell will freeze over before any GOP Convention utters the name Eisenhower ....don't want to go near that Military-Congressional-Industrial complex speech. But Ronnie!!He was the greatest.
So, that is my take. It has been a disaterous thing to witness and the Roman parallel is apt. They lasted a lot longer than the American Empire but the sooner this gets over with the better. Uneasy rests the crown of SuperPowerdom.Mihael F

Shaun Mullen said...

Great to hear from you, Michael. Provocative, well said and all too true.

Laura in IA said...

Where do you place the $70 million, 6 year debacle of independent counsel for Whitewatergate, Paula Jones, and finally Monica all run by conservative lawyers and judges? Never mind the same sin committed by many males in government positions of power.

Shaun Mullen said...


I place it at the bottom of a deep well along with all the other right-wing bilge.

We Americans are prudish beyond belief, but this was less about sex than getting Bill, no matter the excuse. Same with Obama, there's just no stained blue Gap dress.

Buschmann said...

I was challenged for writing that Hillary "has never adequately come to terms publicly with her husband's serial indiscretions."

What could she say that would satisfy you? I really don't understand.

We know that a black president (or any black person) has to be EXCEPTIONAL to make it in this country, while scores of mediocre and downright stupid whites fail upward (Carly Fiorina anyone?)

Here is a link to an early story of college student Hillary Clinton:

Impressive stuff for a young lady. But hey, her husband was unfaithful, so she's disqualified.

Shaun Mullen said...


I congratulate you for cramming so much willful misinterpretation into such a short comment.

I did not Hillary was disqualified because of Bill. In fact, she has worked very hard to repeatedly break through that old glass ceiling, and she was an excellent secretary of state. That was because of her efforts, not necessarily anything Bill did. And she will no doubt be a good president, if a little hawkish for my taste.

As noted, I will vote for her. But . . . but I believe she still has an obligation to speak to the Mister's bad behavior. And no, it's just not about s-e-x.

Finally, you are spot on about the vile double standard under which blacks must labor. It's tough enough for women.

Laura in IA said...

The question remains, what would you have her say about Bill's behavior? Why does she have to answer for his behavior? Too bad we cannot let their personal relationship exist behind closed doors where it should be. Who among us would want their dirty laundry air as theirs was? I kind of think it would be helpful if someone who writes as well as you do would focus his comments on her positives and leave the negative to the Republican lies.

Shaun Mullen said...


Hillary Clinton has repeatedly broken through the glass ceiling less because of her husband than because of her own clear-headed smarts. She was a terrific secretary of state and an exemplar of how the Obama foreign policy doctrine, such as it is, can work in a conflict-filled world. She will be a good president, if not an excellent one, despite being a bit too hawkish for my taste.

Having said all that, an argument can be made that Bill soiled her 2008 campaign, and while he was and remains enormously popular, she should have run her campaign, not a hybrid campaign in which he had much too much influence.

What she should say about Bill's infidelities is something like: While his behavior was deeply troubling and threatened to destroy our marriage and our family, we have all learned from it and become stronger from it. Adversity of all sorts has made me a better and more capable person, and I'm going to be a kick-ass president.


Laura in IA said...