I have a simple request. As we celebrate the birth of the American Republic, can we all stop predicting its death? It's getting depressing. The last time I strolled through the local Barnes & Noble, there were so many books announcing the end of American power, wealth, influence, or just America itself, that I began to wonder whether my dollars would be worth anything by the time I hit the checkout counter....
As a historian, I find this trend fascinating. After all, since humans climbed out of the trees and began surveying the lion-infested Savannah, none have ever lived in a period more prosperous, secure and stable than Americans do today. The U.S. is not only the wealthiest and most powerful country on earth now, but in all of history. There's never been a better time and place to be alive than America in the 21st century.
So why all the decline theorists? 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.
Of course America could be falling, but I have my doubts. For one thing, the book market is too strong. So, on this Fourth of July, I am going to watch the fireworks and be grateful for the place and time in which I live. When Polybius, Sallust and Livy wrote their books the Roman state still had more than a millennium of life in it. Perhaps ours does too.
Posted by John Ray. For a daily critique of Leftist activities, see DISSECTING LEFTISM. For a daily survey of Australian politics, see AUSTRALIAN POLITICS Also, don't forget your roundup of Obama news and commentary at OBAMA WATCH