The cookie crum­bles

The Covington News - - Opinion -

Any­one old enough to re­mem­ber Her­man Talmadge and Lester Mad­dox and who at­tended any col­lege in Ge­or­gia prob­a­bly rec­ol­lects tak­ing a course calledWestern Civ­i­liza­tion. Most likely a goodly part of the as­signed read­ing had some­thing to do with Ed­ward Gibbon’s “De­cline and Fall of the Ro­man Em­pire.” If you came from a small town, as did I, you may re­mem­ber be­ing a lit­tle in­tim­i­dated by a text­book that looked as thick and weighed as much as that sta­ple of ev­ery col­lege kid’s dorm room in those pre-com­puter dark ages: Web­ster’s Unabridged Dic­tionary.

As a fresh­man at what was then tiny, back­woods, gnat-in­fested, bu­colic Ge­or­gia South­ern Col­lege, I was in­tro­duced to the his­tory of west­ern civ­i­liza­tion by my aca­demic ad­vi­sor, his­tory pro­fes­sor J. Frank Saun­ders.

What I found amaz­ing back then, and still have trou­ble rec­on­cil­ing to­day, is how the ut­terly pow­er­ful Ro­man Em­pire could crum­ble into dust af­ter rul­ing the bulk of the civ­i­lized world for roughly 2,000 years. How could a civ­i­liza­tion that built aque­ducts still in use to­day, pub­lic baths, a huge sport­ing arena, paved roads which still to­day serve as the model for in­ter­state high­way con­struc­tion, sim­ply melt away? How could those who gave the world the ar­chi­tec­tural arch, in­door plumb­ing, a dis­tri­bu­tion and ship­ping sys­tem con­nect­ing the far reaches of the em­pire, and pos­sess­ing the most for­mi­da­ble of armed forces just slide away into that good night, and in so do­ing plunge the civ­i­lized world into the real Dark Ages?

Fur­ther, were there not warn­ing signs por­tend­ing de­cline for those with watch­ful eyes? Surely there were in­di­ca­tions that all was not pro­ceed­ing apace.

Schol­arly re­search enu­mer­ates sev­eral fac­tors for the demise of the Ro­mans. But this is not a term pa­per, nor one of Pro­fes­sor Saun­ders’ fi­nal ex­ams, thank­fully. So, to cut to the chase, Gibbon’s opin­ion is that the Ro­man Em­pire de­clined, and even­tu­ally col­lapsed, due to de­cay from within.

Other his­to­ri­ans, no­tably Arnold Toyn­bee, in­ter­preted the ex­haus­tive re­search from Gibbon a lit­tle dif­fer­ently. And as re­vi­sion­ist his­to­ri­ans seek to make a name for them­selves in con­tem­po­rary academia, more re­cently oth­ers have of­fered still more opin­ions as to why the Ro­man Em­pire col­lapsed.

All agree on sev­eral things, though. As the Em­pire grew, the mil­i­tary needed more and more per­son­nel. Ger­manic mer­ce­nar­ies were uti­lized, and their loy­alty was to their spe­cific com­man­ders in lieu of the Repub­lic. And as the moral fab­ric of the so­ci­ety be­gan to de­cay, as more and more of the cit­i­zenry turned to that era’s ver­sion of in­stant grat­i­fi­ca­tion, in the end the en­tire em­bod­i­ment trans­formed, mor­phed, or col­lapsed into some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent.

Nodoubt those who were around at the end won­dered what in the world had hap­pened. No doubt they won­dered, as they con­tem­plated those in­cred­i­ble build­ings, high­ways, aque­ducts and baths, as to who those peo­ple were who con­cep­tu­al­ized, planned, and brought them into re­al­ity. Farm­ers, for­merly the back­bone of the Ro­man econ­omy at home, had been forced from their land from an in­abil­ity to pay their ever-in­creas­ing taxes, and were now on the equiv­a­lent of the gov­ern­ment dole. Sim­ply put, there was no grass roots way left to sus­tain, let alone re­build, any­thing.

Gibbon, Toyn­bee and still oth­ers point to the rise of Chris­tian­ity within the Repub­lic as a con­tribut­ing fac­tor in the de­cline, but that point of view fails to ac­count for the East­ern Em­pire con­tin­u­ing as a vi­able en­tity for nearly 1,000 years af­ter Rome was sacked. In fact, it was the Ro­mans who in­tro­duced Chris­tian­ity to Rus­sia, giv­ing the world onion-dome churches such as St. Basil’s Cathe­dral near Red Square in Moscow, as well as com­posers like Ch­es­nokov, whose “Sal­va­tion Is Cre­ated” speaks to the faith which the peo­ple of Rus­sia em­braced be­fore the Bol­she­vik Revo­lu­tion brought about the rise of Com­mu­nism.

Dur­ing the years I spent teach­ing so­cial stud­ies in the pub­lic schools of Ge­or­gia, I used to field oc­ca­sional ques­tions from in­quis­i­tive stu­dents along the lines of which was greater, the Ro­man Em­pire or our United States of Amer­ica. Gen­er­ally, I’d tell the kids that Amer­ica had only been around a cou­ple of hun­dred years, as com­pared to the Ro­mans en­dur­ing for 2,000. My line was that the jury would be out on the fi­nal an­swer to that ques­tion for an­other 1,800 years or so. Al­most ev­ery time, at least one kid would ask if I meant that I didn’t think our coun­try would last that long. That would open the door for dis­cus­sions of sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences be­tween the way the Ro­mans and the Amer­i­cans did things, from build­ing in­fra­struc­ture to the growth of deca­dent be­hav­ior within the so­ci­eties, and I’d end up by ask­ing the kids to think about it and write a pa­per to sup­port their con­clu­sions.

Even back in the 1980s, many mid­dle school stu­dents ex­pressed con­cern about the fu­ture and, given the way things were go­ing in so­ci­ety, how long this na­tion had left to sur­vive.

It seems to me, and if you think about it you may agree, that the very same is­sue is what’s both­er­ing most thought­ful cit­i­zens to­day. Oh, we may mask it by talk­ing about the econ­omy, or ar­gu­ing about which po­lit­i­cal party and can­di­dates we sup­port, or by shak­ing our heads in dis­may at what seems to be an ever-in­creas­ing crime rate. But truth be told, ev­ery one of the sig­nif­i­cant talk­ing points on the news, as well as in ca­sual con­ver­sa­tion, rep­re­sent in­di­vid­ual el­e­ments of con­cern we all share, which, when com­bined with the oth­ers, sig­nals cause for alarm that what we know as the United States is slip­ping away from us.

Just look at some­thing as ubiq­ui­tous as re­li­gion. Once upon a time Sun­day was a day pro­tected by what were called “blue laws.” Most ev­ery busi­ness es­tab­lish­ment was closed on Sun­day, for folks went to church and kept the Sab­bath day holy. And folks from all walks of life, all reli­gions, all faiths, or no faith, all pretty much hon­ored the cus­tom of not work­ing on Sun­day.

But to­day Sun­day is just an­other busi­ness day. One no­table ex­cep­tion to that is Chris­tian busi­ness­man Truett Cathy, who re­fuses to al­low Chick­Fil-A to op­er­ate on Sun­day and thus sur­ren­ders 14 per­cent of pos­si­ble weekly rev­enue, but he’s one of a very few who put their money where their mouth is.

Now, the non-re­li­gious or the nonChris­tian may scoff at this, but I’m here to tell you that the tran­si­tion of Sun­day from a day of rest, from a day which our na­tion once re­served for the wor­ship of God, into a reg­u­lar busi­ness day rep­re­sents one chink in the mor­tar hold­ing to­gether the ed­i­fice which is Amer­ica.

An­other chink in that mor­tar oc­curred in the early 1970s when the rights of crim­i­nals were many times given more im­por­tance than the rights of those they had vic­tim­ized. Ge­orge Mi­randa (for whom the rights were named) was him­self later mur­dered, and the irony of it was that his killer was freed on a tech­ni­cal­ity pro­vided by those same Mi­randa Rights.

Pornog­ra­phy is vis­ited upon our na­tion in the name of free­dom of speech, whether in print me­dia, on the in­ter­net or cable television. So-called “soft porn” is an­other one of those seem­ingly in­con­se­quen­tial chinks in the mor­tar hold­ing our so­ci­ety to­gether.

All you have to do to see how all of this has af­fected our na­tion is to visit most any pub­lic school. Note how the young ladies dress. Lis­ten to the lyrics of the mu­sic the young peo­ple in our so­ci­ety think is cool. Read the news of how many teach­ers— that’s right, teach­ers— have been ar­rested for il­licit sex­ual ac­tiv­ity with their un­der­age stu­dents.

Now, th­ese are just a few is­sues which chink away at the solid mor­tar hold­ing to­gether the ed­i­fice that is Amer­ica.

And, yes, to an­swer your ques­tion, I do know.

I do know that if you take each one of th­ese is­sues by them­selves and look at them, they don’t rep­re­sent any smok­ing gun that is the root of all the evils that ail us. But when you add th­ese and other, even big­ger is­sues, it’s the sum of all evils which serves to chisel away the mor­tar.

Ge­orges San­tayana once said “those who ig­nore his­tory are doomed to re­live it.” And, in­deed, his­tory is re­plete with episode af­ter vi­gnette for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

What we do from this point is up to us, in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively. The ge­nie is out of the bot­tle, so to speak. Once a kid has been ex­posed to pornog­ra­phy, or a town gets used to hav­ing fast food em­po­ri­ums and al­co­hol sales avail­able on Sun­day, it’s tough to con­vince any­one to get back to ba­sics.

But me­thinks the time to think se­ri­ously about call­ing the na­tion back to a righ­teous con­tem­pla­tion of re­li­gious ex­pres­sion and wor­ship is now. Oth­er­wise, we may all one day be found in lamen­ta­tion, quot­ing the fa­mous poem of Lutheran Pas­tor Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984) a sur­vivor of con­cen­tra­tion camps at Sach­sen­hausen and Dachau in­WorldWar II Nazi Ger­many, who in 1971 stated that this ver­sion of his oft-changed text was his fa­vorite: In Ger­many, they came first for the Com­mu­nists, And I didn’t speak up be­cause I wasn’t a Com­mu­nist; And then they came for the trade union­ists, And I didn’t speak up be­cause I wasn’t a trade union­ist; And then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up be­cause I wasn’t a Jew; And then…they came for me… And by that time there was no one left to speak up. In mo­ments of rapt con­tem­pla­tion of such mat­ters, I find my­self won­der­ing what Ed­ward Gibbon might write of Amer­ica a few hun­dred years from now. And I’m hop­ing that it wouldn’t be ti­tled “De­cline and Fall of The United States of Amer­ica.”

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