Are We Fiddling Around Like Nero?

25 Sep

by Roger White

“The decline . . . was the natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness. Prosperity ripened the principle of decay; the causes of destruction multiplied with the extent of conquest; and, as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight. . . .”

—Historian Edward Gibbon on the decay and fall of Rome

“Why Bieber’s mom won’t have sex”

—CNN web site headline dated September 19, 2012

At first blush it may appear that these two quotes have about as much to do with each other as atomic theory and bacon grease, but to the keen observer inhabiting the proper frame of mind and sipping the necessary amount of espresso, the connection is readily apparent. The former is an explanation of one of an interconnected tangle of reasons for the decline of a great civilization. The latter is a symptom of same.

Ancient Rome didn’t have the internet, but you can be sure that at the height of the empire’s power, with little to challenge Romans but their own idleness, the scuttlebutt among the average corpulent, indolent citizens lounging about their atriums had much to do with which senator’s wife had been seen with a certain centurion after hours near the Pantheon. Or perhaps who would be featured next weekend at the Colosseum in “Gladiating with the Stars.”

Throughout America’s rise to power, particularly after World War II and again with the fall of the Soviet Union, many casual historians likened the U.S. to ancient Rome, both as a comparative study and a cautionary tale. From many of these same armchair history buffs came the postulate-cum-warning that Rome fell from within. Both statements are greatly oversimplified—America is certainly not the Roman Empire; and the decline of Rome occurred for many complex reasons—however, the tantalizing prospect of a circumstantial connection between the two is too intriguing to ignore.

By the time the Huns and Vandals were threatening the very walls of Rome herself in the 5th century A.D., the empire had been degraded through years and years of decay, corruption, internal strife, and general malaise. The culture that had built the world’s mightiest civilization had stagnated. In other words, Rome had grown lazy and fat. Its armies were so far-flung across the known globe that the once invincible legions could not defend even the capital city.

I’m not holding forth that the descendants of Attila will come rampaging up Pennsylvania Avenue anytime soon, but you must admit that events and trends from within and without our great country give any thinking person pause. We, as a nation, are fat and lazy. Most Americans don’t do much physical labor on a daily basis anymore. We are at our most overweight and short of breath than we’ve ever been. We don’t save anymore; the average American family carries about $5,000 in credit card debt—at a time when job security is at its worst in decades. We used to buy only when we had the money. Our national economy, anchored by financial institutions with questionable lending practices and regulated by insiders with personal interests at stake, teeters like a house of cards. Our arts—literature, music, film and television—are in a state of upheaval as publishers, producers, and purveyors of entertainment chart confused courses in their attempts to grasp new media, often leading to drastic actions such bookstore and music outlet closings, the demise of longtime news and publishing houses, and frustration and despair for many promising artists and writers. With more channels to choose from than ever before, TV now offers arguably the worst product in its history. Ironically, the great many cable choices chopped up major advertising dollars, which has prompted producers to grind out lower- and lower-budget shows in a pathetic race to the bottom. And perhaps most telling, news isn’t news anymore. It’s gossip. With an unlimited number of outlets, through practically boundless media technology, the goal is not to inform anymore—the bottom line is to attract the most viewers with the most lurid headlines; thus, to nab the precious advertising dollars. Hence, you have an intrepid reporter telling you why Bieber’s mom won’t have sex.

Last but least, our self-seeking politicians have abandoned any semblance of civil discourse to rabidly defend their respective party lines to the complete detriment of any action toward the advance of our society. They should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves, yet no one among them stands to say so. And nothing gets done.

There are those historians who argue that Rome never really fell. It simply degenerated into irrelevance. Sure sounds like a cautionary tale to me.

Roger White is a freelance writer living in Austin, Texas, with his lovely wife, two precocious daughters, a very fat dachshund, and a self-absorbed cat. For further adventures, visit oldspouse.wordpress.com.

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One Response to “Are We Fiddling Around Like Nero?”

  1. Craig September 25, 2012 at 6:29 pm #

    I recently came across this interesting historical perspective. A study of the decline of a number of past empires found that the thing most closely linked to their collapse was the rise of celebrity chefs. Maybe things are more grim than we think?

    The historian Livy thought the Roman empire started to decay when cooks acquired celebrity status. “For the beginnings of foreign luxury were introduced into the City
    by the army from Asia. … the banquets themselves … began to be planned with both greater care and greater expense. At that time the cook, to the ancient Romans the most worthless of slaves, both in their judgment of values and in what use they made of him,
    began to have value, and what had been merely a necessary service came to be regarded as an art. Yet those things which were then looked upon as remarkable were hardly even the germs of the luxury to come.”

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