The American Apocalypse

More by Johnathan Stimpson - 5/22


ow will it all end?  When, and why, will the United States finally careen off its once seemingly invincible march of prosperity?  It is a thought experiment that can often reveal much about ourselves.   

As Hollywood tells it -- an industry for whom foretelling apocalypse has become a multi-billion dollar pursuit, the answer lies in some combination of sentient computers, intergalactic invaders, and a loose-triggered North Korea.  A swarm of extraterrestrials à la Independence Day will seize the White House, director Roland Emmerich seems to predict.  

For those less concerned with the summer box office, the death of American civilization is sometimes portrayed as a cultural murder, systematically carried out by “illegals” and “Muslims.”  That view, epitomized by the infamous, “we have some bad hombres here,” depicts foreigners as malicious interlopers, who, if given the chance, will raze our way of life.  However wrong the belief, it is one widely-held.   

Though varying from the sensationalist to the populist, these conceptions of America’s demise stem from the same fundamental notion: it is some exogenous force dispatched from afar that will ultimately bring about our destruction.  Whether it is the Middle Easterners of a Steve Bannon polemic or Martians in a Spielberg blockbuster, staving off the end-times is invariably seen as a matter of staving off intruders.  

The perception is a deeply ingrained one -- reflected abstractly, in our political leanings or taste in films, and tangibly, by a defense budget that exceeds each of its peers.  

But Karl Kraus, an Austrian social critic who spent much of his career dealing with such hypotheticals, presents a complicated, more existentially-disturbing take.  In one of his writings, he asserts that “civilization ends, since barbarians erupt from it.”  Put differently, the “barbarians” he speaks of are not Visigoth marauders sacking the streets of Rome, but failings that emerge from the society itself.           
And so his aphorism’s central insight is not that civilizations end -- indeed, that fate, from the Moors to the Egyptians, is inevitable as death -- but that when they do, it is inexorably from within.  What ended the Soviet Union after all, a quick-witted historian will note, was not a missile from the West, but unrest from their own population, frustrated by decades of deprivation and a country that ceased to work.  

Kraus’ understanding of that fact bears prescience today: viewed in his words, recent calls for a “beautiful” wall, a “magnificent” travel ban, and a “bigly” army, all in the name of ensuring American civilization’s continued survival, serve as distractions -- a way of projecting our own proverbial “barbarians” outwards, overseas.

It’s easy -- almost reassuring, to color America’s existence in terms of Christianity against Islam, legals against illegals, or even humans against robots gone rogue.  There exists a certain comfort in believing you are a resident of Winthrop’s “city on a shining hill,” simply doing what it takes to defend your utopian way of life, whether that be a barrier erected along the Rio Grande or tomahawks aimed towards the Levant.  

But more often than not it is a psychological tactic, employed by politicians, and ourselves, to avoid addressing the mud that lines our streets; to strip from any issue our responsibility, and thus the ability to effectively solve it.  

Intractable income inequality?  Low-wage immigrants.  Fraying social fabric?  Growing tide of Islam.  Internal political instability?  Outside election interference.  Declining manufacturing?  China.  Challenges of modern terrorism?  Declare war on two countries.  Seen from a distance, it is not unlike the evasive maneuvers employed by a drug addict: blame others and until people forget you’re the one with the problem.  

And the Roman Empire, as is often the case, provides ample warning as to that strategy’s unavoidable failure.

For much of its history, the Empire existed as veritable paradigm, standing as an exemplar for what could be achieved when rule of law prevailed.  Fueled by growth anomalous for most of humanity, ornate forums, functional aqueducts, and great cities were constructed across the European continent.  Like the United States today, power and success were the norm, and consequently, its invincibility assumed.  

Yet such an assumption proved untenable.  Though theories attempting to explain why that was the case abound, one is particularly forceful: in waging perpetual war, Rome steadily bankrupted itself, expending vast fortunes on arms at the expense of confronting its own corruption and declining prosperity.        

What ensued was a slow withering of a civilization that once claimed Egypt and England as its own.  Remarkably,  there was no “one” point, as historians are apt to point out, when Rome formally fell; it was, instead, a protracted decline of a once strong economic and social system.

Naturally, this is a strange concept to consider: we tend to envision the destruction of civilizations as a short, brutal affair.  The prevailing image is typically one of conquerors patrolling the streets or weapons levelling the capital city.       

But Rome’s slide into obscurity reveals that it is typically the opposite: with their sights trained on enemies, real or perceived, they never bothered to realize -- and therefore correct, their own internal collapse.  And when they did, vultures were already picking at the scraps.    

In an age of war-mongering and creeping xenophobia, America should pay heed to this lesson.  If a zealous preoccupation of supposed threats abroad is to continue, not only will problems at home -- stagnating wages, drug addiction, contracting middle class -- fester, we chance not even observing them, until, like the Romans, our civilization has already faded beyond recovery. In this way, asking what comes next when “civilization ends,” as Kraus put it, is besides the point: the risk is not that “barbarians” will descend upon our fortress -- it’s that we will be so obsessed by them, we will not have noticed it has already crumbled.   

What's post-apocalyptic DHS like during senior internships?