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Monday, November 28, 2005

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi.

Fr. Jim Tucker offers a fascinating rumination on a story reporting that ABC is developing a couple of futuristic shows set after the fall of America. He wonders--gloom being the mood of the times--about other blog inquests into the future death of the Republic.

After all, every great civilization eventually dies.

Or does it?

Certainly the city-states of the Greeks, Alexander's empire, the Egypt of the Pharaohs, Zoroastrian Persia, and, everyone's favorite comparator, the Rome of the Augusti, have all passed into history. But what is striking is the persistence of some civilizations, namely China, India and Japan, and even the pedigree of some European nations: England, France and Russia, to name three. Granted, none of the above exists in the same form or currently speaks similar languages to the time of their respective foundings, but the national idea has existed in the collective consciousness of each for more than a millenium, often in the face of pestilence, invasion, crushing defeat, colonization, or near-slavery.

So it is overstating the case somewhat to assert that America will vanish from the face of the Earth a la Imperial Rome or Athens. Yes, I can see a similar scenario along the lines of Fr. Tucker. Absent the arrest and reversal of the continuing declines of civic republican (note the small "r") virtue, a common culture and a basic natural law ethics, it is pretty easy to see the rise of governmental power to the authoritarian level posited by the good Father. I like to remind people that, in a republic, you can have a critical mass of individuals who practice certain essential virtues (amongst which are , say, self-restraint, willingness to delay gratification, and commitment to an open public square for the presentation of grievances and the advancement of ideas) or you can have government attempt to make up for the lack of virtue with the old iron fist standby--coercion. There is no option "c."

So, can I see some future Gibbon setting forth the decline and fall of North America (sorry, Canucks and Mexicans--you get to go down with us)? Sure. Huxley's Brave New World seems to get a little closer every day.

But. While I am a naturally gloomy individual inclined to agree with a sic transit viewpoint, I also must point out a common flaw of such hypothesizing: namely, the error of the "straight-line projection." It presumes that all the negative trends will either continue or accelerate, and any self-correcting or countervailing trends will necessarily fail. It doesn't work that way, and I'll use an example from Fr. Tucker's list: gun control. A few years ago, the pro-control forces (I own three long guns, so guess where I stand?) were on the march, everywhere verging on triumph. The passage of the Brady Bill and gun-free zones laws were acheived and even registration was on the menu. The Columbine massacre was the cultural marker showing the self-evident stupidity of "unregulated" gun ownership.

Today? The "assault weapons [read: mean-looking guns]" ban expired last year without Sen. Kerry being able to pluck a straw of political hay out of it on the campaign trail. Laws liberalizing the carrying of concealed weapons continue to spread. Over initial Bush administration objections, Congress authorized the arming of pilots. There is even recent federal court precedent (finally) recognizing that a citizen has a constitutional right to keep and bear arms. You are free to find fault with any or all of these things (remember that open public square idea), but a fair minded observer would have to concede that the trends of the late 1990s would not have predicted it.

So, that's why I wouldn't bet against some form of America being extant a few centuries hence--and possibly even a recognizably republican one, at that. It's hard to account for all of the variables when people are involved.

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