Paul Andersen: Fighting back against the barbarians
Ancient Rome and Washington, D.C., have a lot in common. Both have been sacked by barbarians.
It was a “cakewalk” for the northern hordes in 410 AD because Rome was mired in decadence and corruption. The barbarians walked in, and the Western Roman Empire was theirs.
It has been the same in Washington, where decadence and corruption paved the way for a different brand of barbarism that placed Donald Trump on the throne in the Oval Office. The “Trump revolution” was not a revolution. It was an incremental nudge toward the moral decay that was extant long before Trump.
John Stuart Mill, in his essay “On Liberty,” warned of this: “A civilization that can succumb to its once vanquished enemy must first have become so degenerate that neither its appointed priests nor teachers has the capacity to stand up for it. The sooner such a civilization receives notice to quit, the better.”
It’s hard to stand up for a nation that’s run as a for-profit enterprise serving the banks and corporations that together perpetuate a vast disparity of wealth between the getting-richer and the getting-poorer.
It’s hard to stand up for a nation that encourages and feeds insatiable consumerism as a state religion, plundering global natural resources and dumping a tsunami of disposable products that overflow landfills and clog the high seas.
It’s hard to stand up for a nation that marginalizes the higher values of social responsibility at the irreparable expense of species extinctions, habitat destruction, air and water pollution, and climate change.
It’s especially hard to stand up for a nation that has long perpetrated the greatest waste of all — war — by squandering blood and treasure and then abandoning its veterans to isolation and suicide.
New York Times columnist David Brooks called recently for “remoralizing” the market as an antidote to the root causes of moral decay: “We ripped the market out of its moral and social context and let it operate purely by its own rules. We made the market its own priest and confessor. Society came to be seen as an atomized collection of individual economic units pursuing self-interest. Selfishness was normalized.”
Brooks quoted from Steven Pearlstein’s book, “Can American Capitalism Survive?”: “Old-fashioned norms around loyalty, cooperation, honesty, equality, fairness and compassion no longer seem to apply in the economic sphere.”
Modern capitalists have proven smarter than the despots of old by making the citizenry complicit co-conspirators in the decadence from which the most powerful capitalists profit.
The masses have been placated with irresistible material allures, titillating entertainments and absurd corporeal indulgence. Fake news and fake science prop up denials of climate change, the biggest moral issue of our time, and the people love to hear it.
Since economic amorality has become the dominant cultural paradigm, it has been an easy takeover for the neo-barbarians — Republican toadies, Trump acolytes, racists and xenophobes, talk show hate mongers and neo-robber barons.
The barbarians conquered America and Trump became chief Visigoth, launching a brutal campaign against decency and a war against the biosphere. Trump handily displaced the “elites” of American culture by marginalizing them as flaccid aristocrats consumed by their own excesses and entitlements.
This reckless riot of appetites is written in carbon emissions that spiked 3.4 percent in 2018 (the highest in eight years), leaving future generations to curse their forebears for living large at the expense of their unborn progeny. America is mortgaging the future for the expedience of the present.
The collective conscience should have tempered it, but conscience requires moral grounding. Instead, self-interest overrides responsibility, dims the long view, and undercuts altruism. Such are the accepted cultural norms that have come to define popular American culture.
George H.W. Bush declared at the onset of Kyoto: “The American lifestyle is not negotiable.” His son, George W. Bush, advised after 9/11: “Go shopping.” Both presidential dictums form today’s social norms.
The present owes the future something brighter, something more hopeful than a fevered world. The light of reason must eventually enlighten humanity with deeper values. Moral force and real human progress must again push the barbarians beyond the fringe of civilization.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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