You might not believe this, but the first summer I was home from college I still thought I wanted to be president, and had spent two semesters studying history, with the eventual goal of following the cursus honorum to the very top, going to a good law school, practicing for a few years, and eventually running for increasingly important political offices. The first step was to study history at a decent liberal arts college, and I had taken it; the second was to intern in a law office, and I took that, as well. I spent the summer commuting back and forth to Bangor, a total of three hours a day before I owned any sort of i-Product, and it was thanks to this experience that for five years or so I abandoned all thought of law or politics, because instead of equalling glory and fame and excitement these pursuits instead came to mean endless paperwork and hours spent in an office bored out of my mind editing or transcribing documents on MS Word, staring at the clock every five minutes, begging it to go faster, and scribbling out my own literary works—like Petrarch, another failed lawyer—whenever I had the chance.
But the law office had its moments. Everyone was nice and polite, and the man I worked for was and probably still is a rabid communist who had a winning streak stretching back for years. Case after case exposed the wealthier job creators of Maine as exploiters, abusers, and firers of their handicapped workers, actions which are not just blatantly illegal but also fairly compelling for most juries, and most people, because, seriously, how could you kick poor weak people like that when they’re already down? One woman, who worked behind the counter of a convenience store, had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia after acquiring her job, and requested that she be allowed to sit on a stool while ringing people up at the front of the store, rather than standing all day, which caused her extreme pain. Her employers denied her this ostentatious luxury and fired her for stepping out of line even though Maine law states rather explicitly that employers must make reasonable accommodations for handicapped employees. She sued, won over a hundred thousand dollars, and prompted the lawyer in question—as he was celebrating with the partners at his office—to exclaim that stupid bosses kept him in business. It would have cost them a few dollars to get the woman a stool. There was no reason to their behavior, and even their defense lawyer was incompetent, showing up to the courtroom in an ugly yellow wrinkled skirt; nonetheless these stupid bosses will never lose their jobs and will persist in squashing little people into (occasionally litigious) jelly until, thank god, old age forces them into retirement.
I only remember one detail of another case we were working on which involved an old truck driver who had retired from his previous job only to decide within several months that the couch potato life was not for him and that he wanted to return to his previous profession. He did this because, as his wife explained in her written deposition, “he’s just like the Energizer Bunny. He keeps going and going and going…”
For years I haven’t been able to knock this memory out of my head, and I hope that by putting it down here it will finally leave me alone: this woman has been weighing down my consciousness like a succubus because in that one line I saw how she had spent her entire life in front of the television and was now unable to express herself except in the language of commercials. In my elitist way I pitied her for it, but catch myself all the time blurting out slogans that screamed at me repeatedly from the television during that long period in my youth when I still thought that it was worthwhile (although Survivorman is the best show ever).
George Orwell wrote something about this in his first novel, concerning his experiences in Burma:
Dull boozing witless porkers! Was it possible that they could go
on week after week, year after year, repeating word for word the
same evil-minded drivel, like a parody of a fifth-rate story in
Blackwood’s? Would none of them EVER think of anything new to say?
Oh, what a place, what people! What a civilization is this of
ours—this godless civilization founded on whisky, Blackwood’s and
the ‘Bonzo’ pictures! God have mercy on us, for all of us are part
This ties in a bit to his first rule about writing: “1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.”—though he breaks this rule often enough. There is mention of rioting flowers in Burmese Days, and any student of literature will recognize that flowers did not do anything except riot for at least a century whenever any English writer decided to describe them.
This novel, Burmese Days, is about the decay of The British Raj. Several of its nincompoop imperialist characters lament that the glory days have passed when they could send their servants to jail to get fifteen lashes for looking at them the wrong way; now the native schoolchildren laugh and sneer at them every time they go outside. Those glory days probably never existed, as colonialism—in Korean the world also means domination—is always a form of extreme decay and degradation.
Mitt Romney recently said and then unsaid that America was in decline, which seems to be the general consensus, though I doubt I was the only one who hoped for a golden age after the election of Barack Obama; Romney neglected to clarify that the nation is declining because super-rich fellows like himself are using social issues (a black man in the White House) to win votes from unsubtle and elderly rural conservatives, the same people who are still unknowingly paying for America Online—still propping it up, even though they no longer use it, in the same way they get nothing in return for voting for the Republican Party.
When we talk about America’s decline we always have to talk about Rome’s decline, because America is a lot like Rome. I’ve written about this before since there are many parallels, although my dad was surprised to learn that it probably took at least ten centuries for Rome to disappear as a national entity.
America’s decline can probably be traced to the assassination of JFK, which gives us plenty of time left; in looking at the Roman decline, or at least reading about it in Gibbon, it’s easy to see that after all the early good emperors were dead and buried, the army became too powerful, the senate and the people became too weak, and there was no officially recognized means by which one emperor could pass his rule on to another. For a century nearly every emperor died the same way, usually within just a few years (but sometimes within weeks or months) of coming to power: some group of jealous or frightened soldiers would assassinate him.
There were many good, strong, smart, and talented emperors who reigned in these nasty times (roughly between the end of Hadrian and the beginning of Diocletian), but as I read about them it seems as if the forces working against them are too strong for anyone to overcome. Many seem to know that the army is too powerful, but none of them know what to do about it, because if they become weak then the barbarians invade and kill everyone; the solution in my mind is introducing suffrage to the Empire, even if most people in those days were illiterate, and could not become literate without the printing press, which would not be invented for over a millennium. Nonetheless I think this would break the power of the military, solve the succession problems, and unify the Romans against the barbarian invaders. It’s easy to say so in hindsight, especially when we have so little information about these times, which has a way of making them look simple rather than as maddeningly complex as they must have seemed to all those doomed emperors who couldn’t blink without breaking out into a sweat.
Future historians will probably say the same sorts of things about these times: that while Barack Obama was a decent president, the forces lined up against him were too great for anyone to overcome. I would say, crazily, that the economy needs to be democratized—as wild an idea to us as universal suffrage would have been to people living under the Roman Emperors—in order to break the power of the one percent, as employees rather than shareholders would be able to choose their CEOs if something so momentous were to occur. But it won’t, because it’s too outlandish, and the problems we see today will only get worse, as they only got worse for the Romans. To be sure, in their case there were high points when it must have seemed as though they had finally turned the tide (such as when Justinian launched invasions to take back Africa, Italy, and Spain), and it has been and will be the same for us (Bill Clinton’s relatively placid and prosperous reign, when the biggest problem facing the country was a blowjob; Barack Obama’s election), but because there are no serious reforms and only, at best, stopgap measures, America will eventually vanish.