Are we the Barbarians we've been waiting for?

The decline and fall of Seattle, the state, the empire.

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Expensive new projects, tearing down old infrastructure, and entertaining ourselves with new stadiums: Is there something Roman about our public choices?

The decline and fall of Seattle, the state, the empire.

There are many warnings about the fall of Western Civilization, and/or the American Empire. Eyes often turn to Rome for the hows and whys of failure. Theories of that decline and fall abound with causes cited ranging from Barbarian hordes to decadence to Christianity to overreach to malaria, lead poisoning, even "socialism."

Still, the Great Recession has us looking over our historical shoulders and wondering at our fate. Conservative Pat Buchanan puts it this way in his new book, Suicide of a Superpower: "America is disintegrating. The centrifugal forces pulling us apart are growing inexorably. What unites us is dissolving. And this is true of Western Civilization...."

One can't help but think that inward finger-pointing is justified. Yes, there are foreign threats and challenges, but Al Qaeda, illegal immigrants, Axis of Evil nukes, Chinese capitalism, and creeping Euro-socialism are the least of it. While the Buchanans tend to retreat to a kind of all-white, Christian Alamo to fight off the hordes, the real problem is from within.

Let's first look at some of the evidence for "decline" on a local level. 

In recent weeks, we've seen the Washington State Supreme Court declare that the state is not fulfilling its primary constitutional responsibility, providing basic education for all. It declared the political process so dysfunctional that the court is taking an oversight role to make sure the problem is solved.

Education Week recently gave the state an "F" in education spending.

At the same time, a new report from the Institute for Research on Higher Education indicted the state's management of its higher eduction system, noting that only 40 percent of the state's 9th graders make it to college on time and concluding we suffer from a "leadership vacuum."

The state budget crisis continues to wreak unholy havoc on the social safety net and healthcare. The Great Recession and the wobbly stool of a state tax system without enough legs is undermining institutions. We're achieving balanced budgets by slashing education, historical societies, libraries, and archives. The state is, in effect, trying to lighten its load by giving itself an ice-pick lobotomy.

In Seattle,the U.S. Justice Department has given a terrible review of the Seattle Police Department — the most common characterization seemed to be "scathing" — saying there is an institutional problem with its use of force against the public. Basic and equal justice are lacking.

In the meantime, like the Romans, we're funding massive road projects that we cannot pay for, even while basic day-to-day infrastructure crumbles (potholes, bridges) or remains unbuilt (sidewalks).

Who needs Barbarians when we have ourselves?

We're failing to meet the basic responsibilities in terms of education, public safety, heritage, and social responsibility. And let's not even start about sustainability.

One could argue that we've set the bar too high, that even here in a city that prides itself on its "knowledge economy" and "world class" status we don't know everything, but we mean well. But it also seems like we need to take stock by looking in a not-so-distant mirror: instead of fearing the depredations of the "other," evidence abounds that we need to get our own shit together. 

The lessons from Rome are legion, and they involve overreach, defense spending, income inequality, and political dysfunction. But many Romans knew their empire was headed for trouble years before it "fell." The rise-and-fall paradigm, by the way, has been challenged too. Instead of falling, some say Rome simply morphed, divided, and evolved, or devolved. As Tony Soprano once concluded, "We're the Romans now."

The real question is not how to fend off invasion or competition, but how do we stop sabotaging ourselves?


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.