Thursday, April 21, 2011

The End of Empire

There is a breathless feeling in the air these days, is there not? A sensation that we’re hanging on near the edge of the world, that here there be dragons. There is undeniably something in the zeitgeist that tells us a massive change is afoot.

You can sense it everywhere--the day after I wrote the beginnings of this piece I came across these articles: ‘Mad Max in America: Our Republican Future’ and ‘Imperial Decline: How Does It Feel To Be Inside A Dying Empire.’

The first is an excellent if somewhat heavy-handed piece from Dangerous Minds that talks a lot about income imbalance, and the second is from Alternet and deals more with the notion of empire as a military occupational force.

(Sidebar: I swear I started writing along these lines Tuesday night at rehearsal. I think these articles and even the title of the second one might just serve to prove part of my point, that this is something in the air, and also that once an idea is released into the world, it circulates. Somehow.)

So, you can sense it everywhere--everywhere, that is, except in the halls of power. Those who occupy the aeries of Washington, the elites and those who serve them continue playing The Old Game apace, despite the naked fact of the rules having been recently rendered invalid and inapplicable, at least to them. The Elites are, as always, quite immune from reality. Only this time they have so blatantly rigged the game in their favor that a sour, poisonous feeling permeates the national mood outside the Beltway.

Across the country and the globe there is a tension, as if humankind were a rubber band pulled so taut that it must surely soon snap, that there must soon, any second come a reckoning, one that is likely to put out more than an eye. But our fearless leaders continue to lead as if we were still living in the 90s, or the 80s, or any other decade since World War Two. They talk as if this mad lie they laughably continue to call America or Democracy were still something noble, not an overgrown, petulant behemoth-child fattened on wealth and privilege, a retarded, inbred oaf crammed into too-small overalls, snot smeared on his sleeves, drool dangling from his jutting chin, accidentally crushing pets, mindlessly raping the nanny and hulking over even his parents, striking out at those around him even as they view him with a weird combination of fear and pity.

It is the looming end of empire, of course. That’s what many, many different groups of people sense but perhaps are ill-equipped to define (e.g. the tea party’s predictions about the socialist-led usurpation of some imagined Christian America; religious groups seeing Armageddon around every corner; everyone, left and right, predicting Obama will destroy us all.)

But of course, one must presume that people of every era felt something similar when their own time was nearing an end. Mustn’t the Aztecs have recognized their own doom reflected in the glittering armor of Cortez and his men as they swept ashore like a clanking, disease-ridden sea? Didn’t the Emperor of Japan see in the blood-red sails of Marco Polo the setting of his own sun? Surely the relics of the Roman peoples could smell the wolves and the wilderness closing in as the barbarians crashed the Civilization Party with increasing boldness, as weeds grew through the cracks in the piazza and the empire’s sphere of influence shrank until it was no more than the heavily-guarded palaces of the privileged.

Also, the world obviously spins on--without Romans, without Aztecs and with a much different Japan than Marco Polo (might have) encountered--yet it spins on nonetheless.

Yet I can’t help but think that the greedy and short-sighted who are running things now--and scrambling desperately to get their own golden ticket at the expense of everyone and everything else--are in a way hastening the end of their own power. As the sheer unprecedented scale of their selfishness shreds the fabric of the presumed fairness of our nation, they hasten the dissolution of that nation, and thus the very machinery that gave them all that wealth and power. As they do violence to a sense of shared sacrifice, a sense of shared goals, they do violence to the sense that we even are one nation.

And of course that’s reflected on the streets as well; the leaders who should be suffering for the war crimes and financial crimes they have committed continue to babble away on the news, advise congressmen, and generally ply their trade, which is generally to make money for themselves.

So how and why should regular Americans continue to believe that we are all in this together when we are so clearly not?

And perhaps I read too much into things, but is there not a sense on the street of a certain cold barbarism creeping into the way we deal with and think about one another? There is a turning-away at the mention of the hungry or the homeless or any of a thousand kinds of unfortunate circumstances that affect our fellow Americans that would have been unthinkable during the first Great Depression.

Certainly times were tough back then, certainly a hardness must have affected people and made them reluctant to help. Yet, help they did. And people saw emerging from the Depression as something that ALL of us would achieve, together. This two-tiered economy of today is poison to the notion that an America might continue to exist. It poisons all of us.

It could be argued that we are becoming them, the insensate, inhuman, moneyed titans who feel nothing for anyone but their own, and are only concerned with their own mountains of wealth, even if the nation and the very planet itself be damned in the process. This mad imbalance cannot hold.

But. But, but, but.

Perhaps it is a bit apocalyptic to announce that, because the way we are used to doing things is about to go away, it portends the end of everything always.

On the other hand, this particular era of empire is one that has controlled the world for a long, long time, and has so permeated everything we think of as reality that it promises to be particularly wrenching as it is forced to give up the ghost, whether by revolution or by the sheer weight of history. The people who have inherited the wealth and power of this American empire, the decadent and inbred bluebloods, the dim-witted, frayed threads of the tapestry of U.S. royalty who cling to their great-grandfathers’ fortunes, wealth grown obscene and cancerous, wealth so institutionalized that it threatens the very stability of our democracy, these behemoth-children will not give way easily.

click to embiggen. via.

And they have guns and tanks and all the weight of government on their side.

But as weeds spring up along the highways, as potholes remain unrepaired, as police calls go longer and longer unanswered, as we walk past bleeding people lying on the sidewalk, one can’t help but wonder at the road we’ve started along, and if there is any turning back now.

It's a nice day for a walk, come to think of it. I can almost see the crumbling edifice of the coliseum in the distance, shining in a brilliant, red-orange glow as the sun sets.


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