"We're All Gonna Die!!!!!!!!!!!"
By Pejman Yousefzadeh Posted in America | History — Comments (44) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Historian Thomas Madden explores the reasons for the spate of declinist literature concerning the future of American power:
Here's my theory: Prosperity and security are boring. Nobody wants to read about them. The same phenomenon occurred in ancient Rome, the last state to acquire such a firm hegemony. By the second century B.C., Roman citizens were affluent and their empire no longer had any serious rivals. With the dangers past and the money rolling in, they developed a taste for jeremiads. If you had a stylus, ink and scroll you could hardly go broke telling the Romans their empire, culture and way of life were yesterday's news.
Polybius blamed pandering politicians, who, he predicted, would transform the noble Republic into mob rule. Sallust claimed that Rome's vicious political parties had "torn the Republic asunder." Livy wrote his entire "History of Rome" just so that his fellow citizens could "follow the decay of the national character . . . until it reaches these days in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies."
The Romans may have been unquestioned masters of their world, but they sure didn't like reading about it. And when the empire actually did start its decline in the third century A.D., criticisms and predictions of collapse became noticeably thinner on the ground.
The military dictators who seized power in Rome and led the empire on its downward spiral did not much like reading about their own shortcomings, and they had ways of making sure that they didn't have to. These were the days of the panegyric - an obsequious form of literature that praised the emperor and empire to the skies. When you start seeing those, it's time to worry.
We're certainly not seeing that yet. Of course, I remember back in the 1980s and 1990s when a previous spate of declinist literature hit the bookstores. We've done fine since then. I suppose that there is a certain cache in looking at a crystal ball, seeing doom and spreading the message of doom to the masses. It makes you look really far-sighted in the eyes of some, as opposed to people like Madden who actually resist trendiness and keep some semblance of nerve as they cast a prophetic eye to divine the true state of America's destiny.
But thus far, in America's story, the optimists have been right far, far, far more often than the pessimists have.
Or as Ben Franklin put it after the Constitutional Convention:
I have often and often in the course of the Session, and the vicisitudes of my hopes and fears as to its issue, looked at that behind the President without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting: But now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting Sun.
It still is.