“The Decline of America” is a hot topic this summer. Soul-searchers ask how and when American culture degenerated to a point where 24/7 media coverage of Rep. Weiner’s puerile self-indulgence is tolerated. To many, it exemplifies the embarrassing and peculiarly American fetish around politics, personality and sex. Why Weiner’s antics triggered comparisons to the decadence of ancient Rome, when Sarah Palin’s rise to VP candidate didn’t, is beyond me.
A few musings first published in The Week:
Rome in the first two centuries A.D. faced a yawning gulf between rich and poor. The mighty empire built on tribute reached its geographic limits. Its economy created few exportable goods. Slaves acquired by conquest built most of its bridges, roads and aqueducts and took jobs in farming, mining and construction. As this cheaper labor replaced Roman citizens, idle, unemployed, hungry people filled the capital. – Alice Schroeder, Bloomberg News
Historians, for decades to come, will be unfoldingly horrified and appalled at the Bush administration’s alternating recklessness and indifference; levels that make James Buchanan, by comparison, look like a Lincoln. – P.M. Carpenter
Personally, I think it was some moment between the Congress’s assent to torture in 2006 and when Sarah Palin was selected as a serious vice-presidential nominee in 2008. – Andrew Sullivan, The Daily Beast
I for one believe the publication of People Magazine by Time Inc.in 1975 signaled America’s cultural decline. It was a brilliant business move. The magazine captured the mood of a nation turning inward and craving distraction after the divisive debates of Vietnam and Watergate. People validated a weird, collective self-absorption (the ‘me generation’) sweeping the country and set in motion the triumph of Personality over ideas, culture, politics, even religion and morals. Added bonus: if readers were dissatisfied with their own lives, they could live vicariously through others.
Glorification of the individual, the personality, the ‘self’ dove-tailed nicely with the heightened ethics of greed and ruthlessness marking a major shift on Wall Street and in the economy during the ’80s. Captured brilliantly in the best-seller “Barbarians at the Gate”, the creation of wealth was moving away from production and building towards finance, money off of money. Financier replaced industrialist. Carl Ichan, Michael Milkin and Henry Kravitz were Big Personalities, innovators for using debt to finance corporate take-overs. Factories closed. Dynasty and J.R. Ewing dominated TV. Wall Street was a block- buster movie. Conspicuous consumption ruled. Kids killed for a pair of high-end sneakers. Coke became drug of choice for the elite while the crack epidemic underwrote crime and urban decay. Steel mills closed. Textiles moved overseas. Auto makers shed thousands of jobs. But an unending parade of Personalities could take your mind off things.
Personality and greed drive our culture even more today. Conservatives, after all, have the Biggest and Baddest Personalities. The People Magazine credo reached its apex with Sarah Palin’s 2008 candidacy. Finally, a Big Personality broke through the glass ceiling, overcoming ideas and deliberation, substituting the colorful background bio for lengthy (boring) C.V. Personalities in sports get nine lives in addition to multiple million dollar contracts. Personalities in news are the news. And once they become ‘the news’, they’re qualified to write books that become best-sellers. Governance is a thing of the past: too many Personalities vying for power. Big Personalities in finance try to control theirs: greed sells better under the radar screen.
Poor Representative Weiner. His penis bulge was really minor after the likes of Clinton, Spitzer and Newt. He never started a needless war under false claims of WMD, never tortured a soul. On the contrary, he was on the road to becoming the Biggest Personality in the Democratic party. The 2012 nomination for Vice-President seemed just around the corner!
Weiner did ace one part of last week’s ordeal Whenever the Big Personality falls, he or she must confess and take full responsibility for the offending actions. Confessional exposure for the sake of confession is one of the highest virtues one can exhibit in America today and the best chance for a fee pass on the misdeed. The public forgets as soon as it forgives.