As I’ve been watching the leaves turn colors and then fall onto the ground and die this fall, I’ve been seeing them as a metaphor for empires from history that come and go. And I’ve been wondering whether the people who lived in those fallen empires ever had the sense that their empire was fading away.
My suspicion is that if there had been newspapers or bloggers in the dying days of the Roman Empire or the Mongol Empire or the Holy Roman Empire, one of them might have written something a bit like this: “Amid all the talk of gloom and doom in the Roman Empire today, it’s worth pausing to remember that our great empire remains the greatest and most powerful country on Earth. It is a nation with a promising future.”
Don’t you think they would have seen it that way? I say that because this country is clearly in decline as an empire. (Well, we’re usually too polite today to use the word “empire,” but it’s not really any different, is it?) Every great empire from the past has been seen as unique and long-lasting when it was powerful, but each has fallen over time. Even though the United States remains the strongest military force in the world and even though its economy is still very powerful, what is it that makes us believe we will be any different from those empires that have died and been replaced by something else?
The truth is that Americans really do believe — as the people of those empires believed — that we’re somehow different. We’re “the greatest country on Earth.” (Here’s a recent opinion column in the Los Angeles Times that sings yet another verse of that popular song.)
This country isn’t going to last as a country. No country does forever. The big question is when it’s broken up or changed in some fundamental way. Another big question is why so many people think that’s going to be a disaster. Everything in nature dies and is replaced by something else. The leaves in the picture above (from my back yard a few minutes ago) were young and healthy leaves on trees not long ago. They had their season — and then they move on, leaving the tree to prepare for something new coming in the spring.
It’s autumn for the empire that America — as a nation-state — has become. Winter will come soon. Beyond that, something new and more promising can take its place. The ideas that we associate with America can live on if we will embrace them again. But it’s the people and the ideas that matter — not the coercive state that has come to be the representatives of those things.
The American empire hasn’t fallen, but we’re already changing colors. It’s late in the fall. We need to be paying attention to making it through the winter and preparing for the rebirth of spring.