A great many folks these days wonder if we here in the US are witnessing the beginnings of the decline of an “empire,” not unlike the beginnings of the fall of Rome. The US as a nation is just a little over 300 years old, and our greatest glory days may have been in the manufacturing days of the industrial age, in the late 1800s and early 1900s when inventive genius was king, where factories boomed and automobiles rolled off the line in assembly plants, where textile and carpet mills flourished and the American heartland was the great bread basket. We had great might and strength in the two World Wars.
Now we look around and see that manufacturing is largely outsourced to foreign lands where labor is cheap. Look at the labels in your clothing to see where the garments are made: Sri Lanka, Colombia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan.
More and more tech and customer service jobs are outsourced to India, much to the consternation of many domestic customers who feel they can’t get a straight answer to a simple question. Johnnie can’t read, or reads poorly. I know because they are in my workplace and I see the poor grammar and spelling on resumes and in inter-office emails. Job descriptions include: must be able to read and write correct grammatical English. That is not to discriminate against immigrants; it is simply a requirement for certain jobs like law clerks, technical writers, journalists, editors, and so on. It can no longer be assumed that a high school graduate will automatically have these skills.
Our graduates have an incredibly poor sense of geography. Not only do many not know where Austria is a on a map, but some don’t know where certain US states are in relation to their own home state. Our national debt is huge and we are the brunt of jokes all over the world. Late night comedians make fun of these same issues.
So, are we really in a state of decline? Well, I’m not a social historian or an anthropologist. So, I can’t speak with absolute authority on the subject. But, I do have an opinion. Look first at a few prior civilizations that once enjoyed a longer period of power, domination and splendor: the Ottoman Empire, the Austro Hungarian Empire (the Hapsburgs), the Mayans, the Incas, the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks, the mighty British Empire.
They all rose to great power and might. Their artifacts are in museums far and wide. The artifacts are part of moving exhibitions, loaned out to museums far and wide. Look at the tour of the King Tut exhibition for one example. They all rose, they all declined, they ultimately faded completely. Except the British Empire; some of its vestiges are still in evidence. But it is only a shadow of its former greatness. Many of the countries it once controlled in Africa gradually because independent. India became independent. Hong Kong was ceded back to China in 1996.
I say it isn’t because a specific ruler or a civilization did something wrong necessarily; I say it is the natural order of things. In some cases, groups of people denuded the land, chopped down all the tress and set in motion an ecological process such that the land could not sustain them any longer. In some cases, areas experienced horrendous natural disasters that spelled doom. Maybe we’ll suck out all the fossil fuel, and the earth will implode. I’m not a geologist, so I don’t even know if this is possible, but I’m pretty sure we could make a foolish blunder and set ourselves on a path of destruction. The many novels dealing with Armageddon and dystopian disasters are proof that I didn’t just think this up by myself.
I visit museums and look at the artifacts displayed such as amulets, religious icons, altars, sarcophagi, jewelry, tools and implements, temples and statues, sculptures, cave paintings and utilitarian items. And then my mind takes a giant leap and wonders what will be displayed in museums hundreds of years hence, to celebrate the late, great United States. When archeologists of the future cull through the detritus of our civilization and find treasure troves in the landfill decay of yore, will they find Barbie dolls, Slinkies, Beanie Babies, old radios, discarded electronic equipment, and kitchen appliances? Toasters, microwaves, ballpoint pens and cell phones? Will Barbie dolls mistakenly be grouped with statues of the Virgin Mary and misperceived as religious relics? Will electronic equipment be misperceived as man’s early attempts to contact beings in far-reaching galaxies?
What of the Wii, Nintendo, the X Box, Guitar Hero and Rolex watches? And Gucci shoes, designer handbags and graveyards of discarded automobiles? And all those big screen TVs, and slabs of granite countertops? Will those granite slabs be mistaken for altars? Will sociologists conclude that affluent Americans had individual private chapels in their homes, and use the granite as evidence of this theory? And will microwave ovens be seen as tabernacles housing food offerings for our gods? Will the sociologists of the future have devices that can play our CDs, DVDs and VHS tapes? If so, what will they make of Dancing with the Stars, Modern Family, Nightmare on Elm Street, Wipe Out or Rush Limbaugh? Will translators and linguists pore over our e-readers and books looking for clues? What will they make of The National Enquirer and People magazine? What will they make of Michael Jackson or Elvis memorabilia, or Madonna and Lady Gaga videos? I shudder to think.
I think of that scene from the Woody Allen film Sleeper, where a man returns after being cryogenically preserved for many years, and wanders into a silo-shaped metal chamber that has apparently replaced sex. I think it likely that some other equally hilarious and totally wrong conclusions might be reached by future researchers, trying to learn what we were all about, leading to some scenes straight out of Saturday Night Live skits. Will they excavate the decayed and crumbled remains of the Mall of America, restore it, and then run tours through it like the ruins of Pompeii, or the Roman baths in Bath, England? Will the excavation of the bones of million of dogs and cats cause them to conclude that our pets had religious significance? When they unearth Roy Rogers’ horse Trigger (long since taxidermied and preserved), buried beneath the pillars and beams covering his Plexiglass display case, will they surmise this was the mighty steed of a revered warrior?
So yes, I say we will definitely decline. History gives us evidence that this eventuality will indeed come to pass. It’s just a matter of when and how quickly. And it’s anyone’s guess what future civilizations will think of us. Any odds takers out there?