rome, arizona, and the spectre of decline
I have never been a declinist, i.e., one who thinks the U.S. is going to pot and we will soon be involuntarily speaking Chinese, Hindi, or whatever the flavor of the decade happens to be. I have seen the country's doom prophesied too many times to take it entirely seriously. Still, a couple of recent events have me thinking, and not necessarily in an optimistic way.
The first is the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, which somehow didn't kill her (this is why people believe in miracles) but did kill several others and left her within an inch of her life. When the event happened, I honestly thought people would take stock for a moment and think about where the country was headed. Instead, after perhaps 72 hours of silence, everyone seems to be using it to reinforce whatever they believed before. I'm not sure which is worse here: the left's rather crude attempt to use it for political purposes (there's not very much evidence the gunman knew or cared about politics) or the right's effort to deny that the tone of, ahem, discourse in the country might not be setting the best example for people who are violent or deranged in the first place. The point is that everyone, or almost everyone, seems to be responding with preconceived notions rather than pausing to reflect: not an encouraging sign.
The second, albeit rather more trivial event--also taking place in Arizona--was last night's BCS Football "Championship" game between Auburn and Oregon (Auburn won 22-19). While the game was exciting at times, it was also sloppily played (reflecting the month or so layoff between the regular season and the overhyped contest); characterized by repeated examples of poor sportsmanship (one Auburn defender made a habit of late hits, which even the announcers couldn't avoid noticing, and a key play involved an Auburn runner continuing to run when the Oregon defenders and everyone else in the stadium assumed the play was over); and interrupted by so many commercials that only with the greatest of difficulty was I able to avoid falling asleep. The game itself was intentionally made available to ten million or more fewer households than in the past, because the shameless plugging and other tie-ins available on ESPN meant more money for the BCS (and ESPN itself) than a traditional network. All this, of course, is subsidized by the taxpayers through the tax exemption for the participating universities and the bowls themselves, although a public interest group is currently challenging the exemption.
I recently got back from Italy, a place where a well-known empire declined, in part, because its sports deteriorated into spectacles [ital. spettacoli] and its politics into violent extremism (there's another Italian word, polemica, which captures the entertaining but largely insubstantial discourse that Italian politics has long been and American politics is becoming). There are a lot of things the United States could learn from Italy: good food, good wine, a slower and more enjoyable pace of life. Unfortunately, it seems to be learning all the wrong lessons.