America finds a new all-purpose metaphor for discontent.

By Kathryn Joyce

Pat Buchanan sees the dusty ghost of the Roman Empire reincarnating itself in America today, and fears that it’s led us — by way of Iraq — to “the cusp of a perhaps inevitable decline.” Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (SC) sees waning glory too, if on a smaller scale, in his party’s current, but ephemeral, popularity: at the height of its empire now, but destined for a fall. Border vigilantes see illegal aliens as the “marauding Vandals” who brought down Rome. Republican cleric, Rev. Bob Battle, detects an old empire descent into decadence in America’s “rampant drug abuse and sexual immorality.” Joe Scarborough, in a spirit of rare bipartisan blame, warns that the old empire “wasn’t burnt in a day.”

Liberals, of course, cry empire too. Pravda’s Michael Berglin recognizes “the world’s last Rome” by the force of its unprecedented “war machine.” Axis of Logic’s Sasan Fayazmanesh sees the U.S. following in ancient footsteps to out-barbarize those it has colonized. Progressive biblical scholars remind that the Bible was written “in the shadow of empire,” and the book of Revelation in particular, as a message of hope and reassurance that the empire wouldn’t last long. Recently, protesters at the RNC staged a theatrical “Vomitorium” (“Make Room for More”), as their “response to the New and Improved American Empire,” and Fernando Suarez D’Solar, the bereaved father of a soldier killed in Iraq, described an unholy specter after sneaking inside Madison Square Garden. “‘It’s like the Roman Empire in there,'” he said, “‘with delegates crying out “Hail Caesar!”‘”

Not to be outdone by traditional believers and partisans, secular culture has also claimed that fin-de-siécle sense of doom: techies call out Microsoft; bloggers announce “the fall of the Mainstream Media Empire“; the gaming world advertises “Rome: Total War” and the multi-player “Fall of Rome.” And The Boston Globe’s Wesley Morris is struck by the timely re-release of Federico Fellini’s “carnival of lost souls and culture in atrophy,” La Dolce Vita. The film, Morris writes, “seems to fit uncannily well in the moment we find ourselves in now. There are mentions of nuclear annihilation and worries that wanton partying could bring Rome a second fall. You get a feeling similar to the one left after reading from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: America might be a celebrity trial away from the end, too.”

What does a list of dropped clichés like this mean, besides that “The Fall (Decay, Decline) of the Roman Empire” has joined “Orwellian” and “apocalyptic” in the ranks of grossly overused political and cultural metaphors? Maybe just that we have a proclivity for drastic analogies. Or a general cultural discomfort — uneasy about the news, undecided about the government, suffering from a post-binge, guilty conscience. Or maybe it’s an indication that, several years after the question was raised — Are we an empire? — and answered — Yes. — we’re coming to a consensus about what kind of empire we are. And, to our increasingly unhappy suspicion, we don’t seem to be what apologists like Niall Ferguson, British author of Colossus: the Rise and Fall of the American Empire, promised us we were — that is, the good kind.

In 2003, writing in The New York TimesMichael Ignatieff diagnosed America as being “in a state of deep denial” regarding its status as an empire, refuting President Bush’s speeches to military crowds that the country had no imperial ambitions — territorial or ideological. But that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, Ignatieff argued. America was an empire unlike any other: exporting a range of national virtues to uplift the unenlightened (but somehow not a replay of “white man’s burden”). “An empire without consciousness of itself as such, constantly shocked that its good intentions arouse resentment abroad.” A country born in revolt against empire, but one “whose people have always believed they are immune from history’s harms,” that would now have to confront the grade-school lesson on what happens to bad empires: “hubris followed by defeat.” Ignatieff’s modest prescription was that if America tried to mind its limits, it could be a good one instead.

Subsequent commentators ran with the idea. America should indeed think of itself as a selfless, moral empire that could help eradicate “cruel practices by replacing them with more humane moral codes.” (I.e.: Is it “really so bad” that Spanish conquistadors helped put a stop to human sacrifices in Latin America?) Michael Parenti, the progressive author of Against Empire, noted that even conservatives acknowledged that we had an empire, and that they then declared that we’d better start acting like it: “‘We have world responsibilities.‘” Niall Ferguson resurrected the post-WWII Greece-to-their-Rome trope, to counsel America that it should look to the British Empire as a model, and for all our sakes, embrace its imperial role.

But the optimism of Ferguson’s argument seems to devolve: from claiming in his book that empire is a good thing; to telling a BBC interviewer that an American empire is better than, say, a Mogul empire (Americans being, like Brits, “essentially good people”); to warning inThe Wall Street Journal that the fall of the American empire and the hegemony it enforces would cause a new dark age, just like that which followed Rome: “Waning empires. Religious revivals. Incipient anarchy. A coming retreat into fortified cities. These are the Dark Age experiences that a world without a hyperpower might find itself reliving.”

The reverse logic that seems at play here — the threats of what will come terrifying precisely because they’re so familiar; because they’re already here — also seems evident in the current murmurs about bad empire. We’ve met, or at least tasted, “defeat,” so it must follow that our empire went sour. Left aside is the question of whether empires, based on the subjugation of other people, can ever actually be good. The elementary equation is recalled in reverse, but now we find the root of our defeat not just in hubris, in overstepping our bounds, but in all of our newly recognized similarities to Rome: hoarding and deficit, decay and decadence, the dole, military problems, Christianity and religious controversy, internal division. It’s more than bandwagon opportunism — the range of critics is too wide, varied, and largely incompatible with one another. The imperial decadence criticized by a protester reenacting the Vomitorium is of a different sort than the decadent personal lifestyles which Rev. Battle faults, and one senses that the two wouldn’t get along. But with such a widespread sense that the end of the empire — at least as we know it — is nigh, there seems to be room enough for everyone to ride this metaphor, and trace its conclusion back to their cause. Vandals, Barbarians, Lead.