Monday, June 27, 2011

When Did America Become Rome?

There has been a fascinating discussion going on over at Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish concerning when America became Rome. That is, when did it forswear faith in its leaders and morality for greed and decadence.

The comparison, of course, is 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 its 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?

These, I suppose, are symptoms and the question is still begged of when American became Rome.

A favorite of Andrew's readers is when the American people, or at least a shockingly large number of them, accepted the notion 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 have not diminished one iota as she casts her beady eyes on the presidency three years on.

Alas, the McCain-Palin metaphor does not work. That nadir in our political history occurred in 2008, 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, their responsibility for the Bush Recession and its lingering effects.

But it took a recent New York Times op-ed piece by UCLA prof John McCumber to point me to where the decline and fall of Rome and the decline and fall of America probably 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.

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.

He 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 was 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, 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 doomsday preacher Harold Camping finally getting it right, it's hard to see how.

No comments: