It is 15 years now since I revived a story written in the 1970s by the then-great San Francisco columnist Art Hoppe. I’m repeating it today because I think it even more pertinent, its conclusion more imminent than when Hoppe first wrote in the ‘70s and I rode on his pen in 2003.
I am aware the ancient Greek poet Homer once warned — “And what so tedious as a twice-told tale”, but I also believe exceptions sometimes prove the rule.
Hoppe’s story was about a new country of a few thousand people united in a desire for freedom, justice, and equality. The people, he wrote, were “proud, independent, self-reliant and generally very prosperous.” And, above all else, “… they had faith. They had faith in their religion, their leaders, their country, themselves.”
The people of Hoppe’s new nation were also ambitious and determined to expand. To do that they had to subjugate what they regarded as heathen tribal peoples occupying the land the new nation needed to safeguard its extending borders. “First, they conquered the savage tribes that hemmed them in,” Hoppe wrote. “Then they fought wars on land and sea with foreign powers to the east and west and south. They won almost all the battles they fought, and triumphed in almost all of their wars.”
Eventually, the young nation took its place on the world stage, and not just any place. It became the “richest, mightiest nation in the whole world – admired, respected, envied and feared by one and all.”
The leaders of the nation and the people themselves were sometimes generous to a fault. And, together they seemed to have the earnest desire to share their wealth and their way of life with the rest of the world. They wanted, wrote Hoppe, to guarantee universal peace “and make everyone as prosperous and decent and civilized” as they themselves were.
The example set by this still growing nation was inspiring. It showed the world how to build good roads and super-highways; it taught the necessity of basic hygiene, of the need for cleanliness and sanitation. It led the world in transportation and “free speech.”
“And for a while”, wrote Hoppe “it even kept the peace.”
But power brought its own problems. “Being the mightiest nation meant that its leader was the mightiest man in the world. And, naturally, he acted like it. He surrounded himself with a palace guard of men chosen solely for their personal loyalty. He usurped the power of the Senate, signing treaties, waging wars and spending public funds as he saw fit.”
These problems were, suggested Hoppe 50 years ago, the first signs of decay. There were others.
“When little countries far away rebelled, (the leader) sent troops without so much as a by-your-leave. And the mightiest nation became engaged in a series of long, costly, inconclusive campaigns in faraway lands. Many young men refused to fight for their country, and in some places the mightiest nation employed mercenaries to do battle for its causes.”
On the home front, wrote Hoppe, “because it was the mightiest nation it worshipped wealth and the things wealth bought … the rich got richer, the poor grew poorer … many were idle and on welfare and lacked appropriate medical care.” To keep grumbles at a minimum the masses were offered entertainment by highly paid athletes, and at certain times of the year were urged to forget their day-to-day problems with festivals and circuses.
But the “entertainments” and the eat-drink-and-be-merry philosophy of a totally materialistic society brought its own problems. “Many citizens lost faith in their old religion and turned to mysticism,” wrote Hoppe. Dress and good grooming standards changed. Young people rejected clean clothes for the ragged look, long hair and sandals; and the most intimate of sexual relations became acceptable in public display. “Bare-breasted dancers, lewd shows and sex orgies (became) increasingly common. And the (national) currency was debased again and again to meet mounting debts.”
With its armies spread around the world, there were the beginnings of troubles at home as lack of respect for their leaders and their neighbours infiltrated daily life. “Citizens came to learn their leaders were corrupt – that the respected palace guard was selling favours to the rich … among the people … (there was) fear and distrust … So it was that the people lost faith. They lost faith in their leaders, their currency, … their postal system, their armies, their religion, their country and, eventually, themselves.
“And thus, in 476 A.D., Rome fell to the barbarians, and the Dark Ages settled over western civilization.”
It was George Santayana who warned those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. We can only hope today’s great powers – all of them – remember that truth before they blunder today’s world back into the darkness of an age best confined to history books.