Thursday, December 4, 2008

the end of empire

It has been posited (and largely debunked) that the Romans' extensive use of lead in water pipes, pottery glaze and cosmetics may have led, in part, to the end of the empire. The idea is that lead poisoning caused a vast, multi-generational, neurological degeneration so acute it led to malaise and finally madness across the empire.

And while further research shows that the Romans were at least aware of the ill effects of prolonged exposure to lead, it seems almost undeniable that SOMETHING happened to these people to cause them to just fade away, albeit over many centuries. Hell, it could be argued that the DECLINE of the Roman Empire lasted longer than this nation has even been in existence -- what makes us think we're going to go on forever? Or even much longer?

At any rate, reports of the excesses among the aristocratic classes of the Romans point to some sort of sickness at the heart of an empire that, for a time, controlled three-fourths of the known world.

Perhaps that very success is what begins the inevitable clock of entropy ticking for an empire. Perhaps individuals in an aristocratic class having almost literally anything they want leads to a sickness of the soul.

There is a jadedness of that sort at work today in this country, a sense that there is nothing new under the sun, that nothing is left that could possibly impress us. Lies become truth, the extraordinary becomes ordinary and ulterior motives become the only reasonable motivation for every action.

I started thinking about this 'end of empire' scenario and how it might work today in America when I re-read Phillip K. Dick's 'Valis' recently. He posits that the empire never really ended, that we humans were just unable to see it as continuous over centuries and millennia. (It's a long explanation -- read the book. It's amazing.)

But lately I've been thinking about the possible effects of the sickness that is at work over vast swaths of television, and in certain corners of the internet. In large part, these two means of transmitting media not only convey our culture to us -- they ARE our culture. Therefore they must be a fairly accurate barometer of who we are.

Now, I am by no means a Moral Majority type. I don't believe in whitewashing, in Disneyfying the world and pretending that everything is sunshine and roses. I believe there is a sickness at work there too, that people who can pretend that the world was just peachy in 1955 -- when people still got polio, institutional racism was the law of the land, and women were regarded as little more than objects to woo and marry in order to reproduce -- those people suffer from a blind kind of sickness, an ignorance of the soul. There is a deep sickness of denial in putting on blinders and pretending that humans aren't violent, sexual, visceral animals as well as poets and musicians and writers -- we are creators of beauty as well as 'creators of destruction,' as it were.

But perhaps there is a sickness in allowing ourselves to see too much as well. The other end of the scale, seeking out the most titillating, foul and degrading forms of entertainment cannot be without effect. It's at least possible that viewing these images and reading these words may at least create a sort of feedback loop that taps into the potential sickness in our souls and begets more of it. I'm talking about 'reality' television -- that vast bowl of shit and human self-degradation that pretty much IS television these days -- I'm talking about the chanboards, I'm talking about the hate-filled chat rooms, the hate-filled blogs -- I'm talking about the sheer, unprecedented quantity of dumbness and bile that surrounds us online and on television.

And I'm not saying that I'M somehow too cool or too smart or aloof to succumb to the guilty pleasure of these things. I just wonder what we are doing to ourselves when we do succumb.

There are times when I believe that humans in general are little more than monsters in disguise, that we are all Patrick Bateman in American Psycho: perfectly tailored, slathered in expensive oils and lotions, ripped from countless hours of working out -- a perfect beautiful form on the outside, but sick unto death at the heart.

And there are times I believe we are angels, creatures of potentiality that have a unique choice and ability to rise above our animal roots and become something almost god-like.

Perhaps there's a fine line, a place where we can -- while retaining an honest understanding of the very real underpinnings of our animal nature -- choose to rise above it, to react to our world and our fellow humans through something larger than revenge, or anger, or simple fear. Perhaps...

Or will the vast twin toilets of television and the internet, combined with easy consumerism promising us everything we could ever desire turn out to be our empire's lead paint?


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