America, about to collapse like Imperial Rome? It’s too facile a comparison, this cause célèbre on both the political left and right. As I learned in my Birth of Europe class so many years ago at the University of Virginia, societies rarely drown in a blood-drenched tide while barbarians pour over the walls. Mr. Noble, our professor, walked around the room as he dismissed the idea. While he paced, he pulled cords dangling from imaginary light bulbs. “Click! Out go the lights! Click! Dark age!”
That lesson and my studies since have given me a nuanced perspective of how great civilizations falter, become decadent and then begin a prolonged and irreversible decline. I like the term long afternoon, something I borrow from the novel “The Long Afternoon of Earth” by Brian Aldiss, published in the midst of our Carter-era malaise.
Three decades later that sinking feeling is back. We’ve lost our AAA credit rating. For the nonmillionaires around me, friends recently unemployed and suddenly underemployed, I see a period of retreat and self-examination. In a society it’s a process bitter or even touching, as any visitor to former imperial cities finds. I’m fond of Istanbul, Turkey, where amid many centuries of dashed hopes, a building boom and economic resurgence vie with an upswing in public expressions of Islamic ideas. The city remains, in a term I once heard in a faculty seminar, “a beautiful old woman with rings on all her fingers, stretching her hands across two continents.” That’s an easy metaphor at sunset from the Golden Horn, when the minarets of the Sultanahmet and Fatih neighborhoods glow in the distance. Cities like that, including Richmond, are dowagers still clinging to faded dreams of empire. We suffer the hangover of having been in history’s spotlight, however briefly.
Will this too be the fate of our superpower? I turned to my study of the Ottoman Empire for an answer, and despite the vast differences between America and the Ottomans, or Imperial Rome for that matter, what I found disturbed me greatly. At some moment, there comes a point from which there is no returning. If a great power declines while technologically and intellectually superior competitors rise, then things can become interesting quite quickly.
My Turkish travels have shown the warmth of its people, the vibrancy of the modern economy and the splendors of its past. Much press goes, deservedly, to the agonized recent history of the Anatolian peninsula, especially the massacres of Armenians in the early 20th century. Yet not enough press goes to what our nation could learn from a once-mighty power whose military machine the world feared, yet whose cultural and economic influence gradually waned until the rotten center gave way and a new nation was born. Turkey’s future, caught between Europe and the Middle East, remains uncertain 90 years after its founding. Yet the country has embarked on a dynamic new period of its history even as America bled blood and money next door in Iraq.
Europeans used to call Turkey the Sick Man of Europe, yet the illness had a beginning. After some powerful and successful sultans in the late-16th and early-17th centuries, power devolved to the ruler’s advisers, as most sultans who followed Suleiman the Magnificent were corrupt, decadent and distracted by the pleasures, intrigues and isolation of royal life. The Ottoman Empire dragged on for more than 200 years of slow decline, military reverses and failure to innovate in the face of wily upstarts. While Europe had its Renaissance, the Ottomans hurled men and treasure into endless wars. As science fitfully advanced in Europe — consider Galileo — it stagnated in Ottoman lands. The sultan’s court was so preoccupied with palace politics at home and wars abroad that all sorts of innovations bypassed them. Istanbul’s first printing press got dismantled over religious objections, even as Europe embraced Gutenberg’s invention. As Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk wrote in his novel “The White Castle,” an Ottoman pasha is unimpressed by astronomical devices and scientific ideas. What he instead wants from science is “a weapon to make the world a prison for our enemies!”
I hope that our nation hasn’t reached this point. After the 9/11 attacks the world was with us while we suffered together. Yet only a few years on, we’ve lost most of this sympathy and we remain divided domestically. We can thank the arrogance of our sultans, viziers and pashas in the seraglios of Washington. They consider their court above the concerns of those who don’t finance their lives of power. As they feud, our debt and military obligations, like the Turks’ decline after defeats at Lepanto and Vienna, may well break us.
Unlike the Ottomans, however, we can be rid of our failed leaders through a cherished, if imperfect, democratic process. Will it suffice? Our problems are deeper and older than our current sultan’s bumbling compromises, or his predecessor’s hubris and crimes. As a student of history, I fear that we will simply fail to acknowledge changing economic and environmental climates, fail to see that any system based on ever-increasing consumption will end up consuming itself, fail to repair the machinery and infrastructure of Empire, fail to invest soundly in education and pure science.
There are a few hopeful signs that our Lepanto moment hasn’t arrived. By arguing about money before and after our debt downgrade, we at last have moved beyond futile debates about evolution and other scientific facts. Moreover, in the discontent of our working classes, behind smoke screens of anti-immigrant populism, there lies potential. As in other dark eras of U.S. history, we may come to hold accountable the small percentage of Americans who do very well, the sun on their faces, while the rest of us stumble in fading daylight.
A populist awakening, if it led to progressive reform such as in Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting era, would shore up our future. Conversely, like other failing great powers, we might continue trying to convince ourselves we know the direction to take in the long afternoon, assured that we’re always right and night never will fall.
Joe Essid teaches writing at the University of Richmond.
Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.