Thursday, April 14, 2005
THE DEATH OF EMPIRES
- Jon Carroll
Thursday, February 21, 2002
HISTORY TEACHES THREE pretty clear messages. One is that all empires die. Second, empires take a long time to die. Finally, the citizens of the empire rarely recognize the warning signs for what they are.
The necessity for change is immutable. Empires by their natures do not change very well. They have had positive feedback for not changing -- usually it's called "standing by our principles" -- for years, even centuries.
Empires think they have beaten the rule of change. They haven't. Empires think size will protect them. It won't. Empires think military might will protect them. It won't. Empires think charismatic leaders will protect them. They won't. Nothing will. The old makes way for the new.
The American empire is beginning to die. We will not see its death, nor will our grandchildren, but it is dying. Its leaders, sensing trouble, are fetishizing the "old ways," the ways that brought us power in a different world, a world in which America was young and the other empires were fading.
They have made denial a national creed. They have made arrogance a national stance. "We do not need the others because we are America," they say. A dying empire is like a dying dinosaur; the only question is how much damage the huge tail will do as it thrashes around.
I have some examples. Our foreign policy is governed by our need for oil, and yet we have no effective formal programs to reduce our need for oil. Instead, we purchase large vehicles that use gasoline with staggering inefficiency. We do it because we can, because God is on our side, and something will happen because something always does.
Dick Cheney is the prophet of this mind-set. Conservation is a hobby; use whatever you want; go to sleep, little citizens, your oil-based politicians will protect you.
WE ARE GRADUALLY killing the earth that gives us succor. We are poisoning the air and the water. We are cutting down the forests that give us life; we are killing the creatures of the ocean that feed us or feed the things we eat and use; we are ignoring the benefits of biodiversity.
Because something will happen. Because God is on our side. Because the scientists are wrong -- indeed, it is important to our whole way of life to marginalize science. Hey, they said we'd all be dead by the year 2000, and here we are. Fools.
We know more about the human body than we ever have. We understand more about nutrition than we ever have. We are a child-centered culture; we worship our little darlings and protect them from all harm. Except that childhood obesity is on the rise. Type 2 diabetes strikes children as young as 10. Only the very rich and very poor are thin.
We know more about the brain than we ever have. We use that knowledge to persuade children to eat food that will make their lives more difficult and place a greater burden on our medical system. This practice exists outside the morality that we are so very proud of.
Inside the morality is discouraging the use of condoms that can stop the spread of disease that also kills children. Death, where is thy sting? We are Americans.
WE ARE PROUD of our fine economic system, and yet our government routinely fails to punish profiteers and cheaters. We are proud of our Constitution, yet our government seeks to suspend parts of it when we enter an armed conflict. We are proud of our military, yet we spend billions on politically mandated weapons systems of no utility.
Maybe this is the way empires die. Maybe they weaken themselves from within. The structure is so rotten that any young and enthusiastic foe can push it over. I dunno. Heck, I've got mine; why should I care?
This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a fine speech.
For fifteen years, Jon Carroll has written a daily column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Check out JON CARROLLS HOME PAGE for more columns, bio, etc.