Arnold Toynbee wrote in “A Study of History” that Rome collapsed because of “stasis” between the barbarians at her borders; with Roman armies no longer making forward progress, it allowed the hostiles opportunities for counterattack. “When a frontier between a more highly and a less highly civilized society ceases to advance,” he said, “the balance does not settle down to a stable equilibrium but inclines, with the passage of time, in the more backward society’s favor” (Oxford 1947 rpt., p.10).
Every society has to endure “backward” elements, both externally and internally. We in America, for example, tolerate people who consider education superfluous (Rick Santorum, 2012), others who say that a victim of “legitimate rape” cannot conceive because her reproductive system “shuts the whole thing down” (Todd Akin, 2012), some who call access to abortion in order to save a woman’s life a “loophole” (Paul Ryan, 2012), or who believe that English should be America’s official language because “if it was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me” (Kay Bailey Hutchinson, 2011). Since Ronald Reagan, we have been hearing that redistributing wealth upward will create jobs, even though in 1980 his own eventual vice-president, G.H.W. Bush, called that theory “voodoo economics.”
If jobs could be created by making wealthy people and corporations wealthier, which we have been doing with a will for over 30 years, America would have more jobs than it has people. And do Americans really think Jesus spoke English? Some are obviously taking advantage of the failures of our ebbing public education system, America’s equivalent to Rome’s once-advancing civic culture. Each led the world for a time, we recall.
It looks like the opportunist riptide at civilization’s frontier is already quickening and flowing downhill, seeking a low point.