The Billings Outpost

Is America, like Rome, in decline?



For The Outpost

Tenth-graders 40 years ago stumbled their way through a long section of Edward Gibbon’s "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" (Volume 1 was published in 1776). Teachers assured their students that this would guarantee that the United States never suffered a similar fate.

Rome started out as a city republic. However, just wars, fought to victory, gave the Romans a belief in their own infallibility.

"The thirst for military glory will ever be the vice of the most exalted character," wrote Gibbon. They became greedy for land and power and, over a period of a few decades, they controlled the known world.

Money gathered in the coffers of the few, and political power became a saleable commodity.

Even Roman citizenship could be purchased. The deification of general Julius Caesar led to the god-emperors. While the wealthy lived in marble palaces, the middle class slowly disappeared.

Bread and circuses kept the poor in check. Morals decayed. Finally, the Vandals sacked Rome in 476 A.D., and the whole top-heavy culture collapsed.

For Americans, the 1950s were a time of peace and prosperity. We had saved the world for democracy. God was on our side and we were invincible. But the just cause of World War II faded into Korea, then Vietnam, then three more wars, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, all costly in both lives and dollars.

A Montana World War II vet, coming home from the Honor Flight, said that he wished the country were still united, as it had been in his war years. Americans today are cynical, angry and looking for a reason for 11 years of war and the worst economy since the Great Depression. Life is marked by a continual low-level anxiety.

In republican Rome, citizens had the hope of possession and enjoyment of property. Ditto those World War II vets. They married, found work and bought modest two-bedroom homes in the suburbs.

Last week, a Billings real estate brochure featured three homes for sale at roughly $2 million apiece. "What do you have to do to afford those houses?" someone said.

The median price of a home in Billings is $212,532 (Howard Sumner, July 29, 2012.) That requires, in today’s mortgage market, an average down payment of $42,000, plus another $9,000 to close.

Two married teachers said that they can’t afford to buy a house. They’re renting. Montanans who have no way to cash in on the Bakken boom are priced out of the market.

Caesar kept the masses happy with bread and circuses. Last year, the cost of groceries in the U.S. rose by 11 percent. Some of the more common items, like tomato soup, went up more than that.

Hamburger, that staple of American cuisine, now costs $3.50 per pound. With no jobs, 45 million citizens are on food stamps. Congress, in the last budget wrangle, cut $20 out of each food stamp recipient’s stipend, saving the feds $9 billion per year. They did this by cutting the utility allowance. To buy food or keep the lights on, that is the question. So maybe, bread’s off the list.

Circuses? Yelling for your favorite major league team dispels some of the rage that should be directed at our elected officials. If football’s not violent enough for you, turn on the television. You’ll find as much mayhem as you can stomach.

PBS offers "World War II in living color." On Aug. 13, you could have tuned in to NBC’s "Stars Earn Stripes," a reality show that promises "live ammo, real explosives, real danger." Sounds like the gladiators to me. And let’s not forget "Dexter," a serial killer who, while the audience watches, gets to torture and kill another human at the end of each episode.

Cultural social norms are collapsing. Fifty years ago, it was "Murder, yes, divorce, no." The divorce rate is now 50 percent. The shotgun wedding is defunct. Many young couples marry after the birth of their first child, or they never bother with a ceremony, civil or religious. The National Association of Broadcasters once banned commercials where bras were displayed on live models. Now we’re all treated to nightly discussions of erectile dysfunction, low testosterone and leaky, aging bladders.

Gibbons wrote of a ruler "promising only to betray, swearing oaths he didn’t keep." No one doubts, any more, that the government’s for sale. The U.S. Supreme Court has granted corporations the rights of a citizen, and they are citizens with incredibly deep pockets. Their millions in donations buy them the U.S. Congress, the Executive branch, and, it would appear, the Supreme Court. The largess flows down to the most humble public official.

Before the rise of the caesars, the Roman republic had no state religion. When Caesar promoted himself to god, inhabitants were required to offer him a pinch of incense. This posed no problem for the average polytheist. It was, after all, to most, nothing more than a pledge of allegiance.

Christians refused and went proudly to their deaths.

But when Christianity became the state religion, the tides were turned. "A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion, still." Forced converts to the cross carried deep resentments that added to civil unrest. Now, in this country, the self-righteous right lobbies for a state religion, Christianity, and their particular interpretation, to boot.

The comparison of Rome and the United States shrieks out a warning. The time is short. Or is it already too late? America has so many pressing issues, it’s hard to know where to start. The Huns are at the gates ... whoever they are.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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