At the Twilight’s Last Gleaming (Saying Farewell to a Dynasty)

Maybe it’s the fresh take on the space-time bending and head-blowing implications of Goodnight Moon, which has retroactively haunted my many thousands of readings of that book. Or maybe it’s just my usual interest in comparisons of Rome and America. In either case, I was struck by this passage:

The stagnation of the Roman Empire may carry important lessons for a more modern superpower: The United States. We too are a huge, rich, powerful nation that for much of our history has dominated the field of competitors. We too have a whole century of dominance – the 20th – under our belt. And if there’s one thing we don’t want to do, it’s turn into the Roman Empire.

What’s that, you say? You’ve heard enough of these theories about the demise of Rome and what it means for America today? Well…reader, I cheated! This isn’t about Rome at all, but about quite a different historical example. The undoctored quote is this:

The stagnation of the Ming may carry important lessons for a more modern superpower: The United States. We too are a huge, rich, powerful nation that for much of our history has dominated the field of competitors. We too have a whole century of dominance – the 20th – under our belt. And if there’s one thing we don’t want to do, it’s turn into the Ming.

The Ming! Yes, friends, in the great race of nations, the Ming once had the pole position:

Ming China was by far the greatest nation on the planet for most of the 15th and 16th centuries. It was certainly the biggest and the richest. Ming technology was in advance of anything in Europe or the Middle East, with movable type, compartmentalized ship hulls, steering rudders, advanced farming techniques, and the ability to solve systems of linear equations. Ming military power conquered Mongolia, subdued Korea and Vietnam, fended off a major invasion from Japan, and quickly disposed of meddlesome raiders from Portugal and the Netherlands. Taxes were low, industry was strong, and the society was peaceful and stable. For almost 300 years, Ming China could – and did – rightfully consider itself the center of the world.

So what happened?

While China was basking in seemingly timeless stability, Europe was seething with new ideas and technological progress. Even as the Chinese government banned oceanic shipping and heavily restricted foreign trade, European countries were discovering the New World and building trading empires. By the time the Ming fell in the 17th century, Europe was well on the way to dominating the world.

Noah Smith has some causes (and warnings) over at The Week. Isolationism, distrust of science and innovation, and…oh, Jiminy Christmas, it pretty much boils down to this:

Simply put, when a country thinks it’s in a golden age, it stops focusing on progress.

Sound familiar? (Don’t answer that.)

(Sigh. Pause to regather energy.)

Not here! Not at this blog! Here we’re staying optimistic!

On with Onward! Up with Upward!

Nice try, Jacke! We know you wrestle with these issues more than you’re willing to admit. And anyone who can write a screed about American politicians and another about American law firms (comic though they may be) has a hard time convincing us of your fundamental optimism. Your little onward and upward videos aren’t fooling anyone, Jacke!

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