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.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on May 7, 2015, on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.